Tips For a Successful Plein Air Outing

Painting in your studio is a very safe, comfortable and controlled environment.  If you are working from photographs, you already have a reference that is cropped down and two dimensional.  You don’t have to worry about the light changing, the wind or the temperature.  Your working conditions are very constant and predictable – life is good!  But if you want to step up your painting a notch, you need to get outside and paint plein air.

When you head out for the first time to paint plein air, you will probably be at least a little overwhelmed.  The clouds and sun are moving across the sky changing the scene before you, the wind is blowing and there are bugs flying around.  As if that isn’t enough, you also have 360o of subject matter to paint – there is so much to look at – how can you possibly decide where to start?  It might seem like a good idea at this point to run back inside to the safety of your studio.

Have no fear!  There are some tips that can help make your outdoor painting experiences successful.

  1. Go at the right time of day. Early in the morning or later in the afternoon will give you the best chance for shadows and contrast.  Those shadows and contrast give the scene you are looking at some depth and dimension.  In the middle of the day, everything is much more flat and not as interesting to look at.
    The mountain outside my house at midday.
    The mountain outside my house at midday.

    The same mountain early in the morning.  See how there is more depth?
    The same mountain early in the morning. See how there is more depth?
  2. Use a viewfinder. A viewfinder is a tool to help you isolate specific areas so you don’t get distracted by all there is to look at out there.  You can simply cut out a rectangle from an index card, or you can buy a viewfinder that is adjustable so you can make the viewing area proportionate to your painting surface.

    You can see how it frames your composition.
    You can see how it frames your composition.
  3. Keep it simple. Some scenes are easier to paint than others.  Painting outside necessitates painting quickly (because your lighting will change), so you don’t have time for lots of detail.  There will undoubtedly be some absolutely amazing scenes that you will come across, but that doesn’t mean they will make fantastic paintings.  Look for scenes that have strong contrast and large, interesting shapes.  Those types of scenes will yield the best results – and alleviate a lot of frustration.
  4. Think about and search out what you want to focus on. Before I go out for the day, I decide what I want to focus on.  One day it might be Joshua Trees, or boulders, or vistas – whatever it is, I try to find the best example of it that I can.  It helps me not get distracted by all the possibilities.  Sometimes I change my mind, but that is generally because I see something that really moves me.
  5. Give yourself a chance to look around. Especially if you have never been to a particular area before, be sure to walk around for a while taking it all in.  Don’t stress yourself out thinking that you have to decide right away.  Walk around, do some sketches, get to know the area.  It will make it easier to make your decision.
  6. Keep trying! Your first experience may be frustrating, but don’t be too hard on yourself.  Painting outside is challenging, but keep at it and your paintings will improve.  Even when you are painting in your studio, your plein air experiences will influence your studio paintings, and they will be that much better!

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