Jul 31, 2011

Painting Basics: A Plein Air Demo

About once a week I paint plein air. This time I brought along my camera to show how I approach painting on location. I want to show you one way I handle painting a landscape outdoors. Though I am calling this a plein air demonstration it is not truly a step-by-step demonstration. It is just a chronicling of my process at different stages as I paint to give you some reference.

Today, I will recount the process I took to get the painting of the scene you see to the left to show you how to approach painting plein air painting.   

Let's take a look.

Select a Location

I look for a scene I find interesting to paint and set up in a spot from where I have a good view and room to paint. On really hot days you will find me in the shade.

One of the considerations when picking a scene is to look for an interesting composition found in the landscape in front of you. A viewfinder is helpful here. 

The location that day was a small creek bordering some farmland.

Sketching the Scene

Once I have decided on my location and have set it up, I am ready to paint. The first thing I did was draw a quick sketch of the scene on the canvas. To do this, I use an earth tone paint color. 

I didn't draw anything detailed at this stage. I draw enough to see where everything belongs in the scene and if I made a good choice in composition.

(I am using a small canvas board that I have painted an orange tone using burnt sienna. The orange will help with the color harmony later.)

Painting the Sky

I painted the sky next. I like to paint the sky at this point to set up my value and color keys for the painting. That is to say, I use the sky to determine how light or dark the overall painting will be, high key or low key, and to begin to develop the color composition. 

The color of the sky impacts the color of everything else. This is one of the effects of atmospheric perspective. (See more on this here)

I like to paint the shadows found in the scene next. I usually paint from dark to light, so it is natural for me to want to place all the shadows found in the trees and cast them onto the ground first.

I have not sketched out the forms in detail so I now needed to pay closer attention to the shapes I see in the shadows. 

I painted the shadows slightly larger than they will be in the final painting. This will help me blend the light side to the shadow side.

In the Background

Next, I painted the light side of the object in the background. I like to paint from background to foreground, overlapping forms as I move forward in the scene. 

I paint in flat fields of color to represent that side of the form. Now I have one color representing the shadows in the trees and one color or two colors representing the surfaces seen in the light.

Up to the Front

I continue painting in the colors of the light side of the scene through the middle ground up to the foreground.

I work out the general shapes at this stage but I keep the forms soft, like a picture out of focus.

Look for the Smaller Stuff

Once I get everything roughly blocked in, I then start to look for the shapes, color, and transitions within each form.

For example, I painted the water hyacinth on the creek as one large field of yellow-green. However, there are several colors within the large mass of yellow-green. I painted those variations on top of, or into, the larger field of color. 

Continuing On

I continued to look for the smaller details of each form, refining the shapes as I did. This is when my painting starts to look more like a landscape and less like and mess of paint.
Touch Ups and Details

Once I am satisfied with what I have or at least feel that the painting is close to finished, I touch up the painting.  I might go back and adjust part of the sky or change the value level of an area of the grass.

I, lastly, placed the finishing touches or final details on the painting. This may be a small amount of light coming through the trees, or the flowers of a plant off in the distance.  


Once felt that I was done I leave it alone. There are many areas that I might be tempted to fix it but once I am at this stage I don't like to do too much more.  

A side note finishing: Deciding when I am finished is one of the harder things to do. There are always areas I can improve on and mistakes showing in the painting. If I tried to fix everything I saw I would get frustrated. Once I become frustrated I tend to make a mess of the painting. So I have learned to stop at a certain point. Plein air painting should be enjoyable.
Paints used: 
Flake White
Cadmium Yellow
Cerulean blue
French Ultramarine
Alizarin Crimson
Venetian Red