Plein Air Keepers

Seven Steps to Creating more “keepers” and fewer “studies” en plein air.

I’ve heard several experienced painters say that their best landscapes, the ones juried into the big national shows, are invariably painted in the studio, never outdoors. Nevertheless, these same experienced artists are all enthusiastic plein air painters. What explains this apparent paradox?

The fact is, if you can train yourself to paint decent pictures outdoors—actual “keepers”—your studio painting improves too. And painting outdoors is one of the great pleasures in life. Here are seven steps that have helped me paint more plein air keepers:

  1. Use the same gear indoors and out.

When you’re outdoors, use the same high quality paints, brushes, paper or canvass that you use in your studio. Don’t use flimsy, miniaturized equipment or cheap, student grade materials when you go out to paint. If you use tube colors in a deep well palette in your studio, take it with you outdoors. If you insist on Arches 300 pound paper for your studio paintings, your plein air work deserves no less.

Set up your palette and water and brushes in the same layout, indoors and out. Use the same easel, a TV tray, stool, or shade umbrella so that you can duplicate your studio setup as nearly as possible. You will paint better outside if your favorite materials are in their usual places. If you paint standing in your studio, paint standing outside. If you paint with music at home, bring a portable disk player.

Improvise the amenities you can’t bring with you. For example, you can’t plug in a hair dryer outdoors, but you can start up your car, turn on the defroster full blast, and dry a watercolor on the dashboard.

  1. Practice.

Go out at least one day a week. Don’t wait to be motivated. Don’t wait for nice weather. Don’t wait for your vacation. Don’t wait for your friends to join you. Don’t be too fussy about where and what you paint. Get outside and put brush to paper. Consider plein air painting a spiritual practice, like meditation or yoga. The most transcendent experiences arise from those times when you don’t feel like it, but engage in your practice anyway. Approach painting outdoors as a continuing process, and the product will take care of itself.

The more you paint outdoors, the more “keepers” you paint. Experience outdoors makes you more comfortable, relaxed, and focused. With time you become quicker, more perceptive about what’s special on a given day, and less dominated by the subject matter.

  1. Stick to one big idea.

This is always good advice, but especially on location, where time is often short and conditions changeable. You can’t count on the time or concentration to do five things at once. Decide on the main thing that attracts you to the scene, figure out how you want to render it, and ruthlessly eliminate, simplify, or subordinate everything else. Stay on the scene until you’ve put the big idea down on paper. Then you can go home and finish in the studio if necessary.

  1. Plan as if for a studio painting.

Don’t take shortcuts outside that you wouldn’t take inside. Do all the good things you know you should do: Use some L shaped finder frames to crop the scene in different ways. Move mountains and trees and buildings around to improve the composition. Make several thumbnail sketches until you get one that really excites you. Then make another, larger value study that truly nails down the darks, medium values, and lights. Make color notes as if you were going to take them back and do the painting entirely in the studio. Take photos for later reference. Don’t start painting until you have fully analyzed the scene and planned your painting.

  1. Find a looser style.

You need to evolve a style loose enough to allow you to get a sizable amount of paint onto the paper in a reasonable amount of time, with some margin for error. If you have trouble painting loosely, go out a few times with small sheets of paper, one big brush, and only two or three colors. When you want to achieve photo realism or subtle effects requiring exact moisture control and split second timing, stay in the studio.

  1. Finish everything you start.

Disaster is a great teacher. When you stray from the big idea and everything turns to mud, keep going. Take every plein air piece as far as you can before you give up on it. If the soft edged, high key scene you planned isn’t working out, go to brighter colors, harder edges, and darker shadows. If it’s too fragmented and splotchy, glaze over large areas to consolidate details into larger shapes. If you’ve lost the whites, you can lift, scrape, use opaque white paint, or intensify the darks to near-black to get some contrast. Take the whole mess home, scrub it off in the tub, let it dry, and start over. Use gesso to white out the areas that don’t work, or switch over to acrylics or pastels entirely. Taking each piece to the end teaches persistence, adds to your repertoire of techniques, and forces you to take your plein air pieces seriously.

  1. Intend to paint a keeper.

Take a hint from new age athletes, millionaires, therapists, and spiritual advisors who will tell you that intention affects performance. If you go out intending to paint keepers, you mostly will. On the other hand, you’ll never be satisfied with your plein air work if you constantly tell yourself, “This is just a color study…I can always start over in the studio…It’s only a plein air piece…It’s too cold, windy, hot, humid, etc. to do decent work today…I’m just out here to sketch and get ideas.”