Plein Air Painting for Beginners

Painting from nature can be fun and rewarding. It's nice to go outside on a beautiful day and find something that captivates your attention, even better when it inspires you to paint. 

But, it can also be overwhelming. Our eyes can see many details: complex arrangements of rocks and leaves, tree branches and grasses. It would be impossible to paint them all. 

And you wouldn't want to do that anyway! Part of the beauty of a painting is that you get to see how an artist interprets a scene. Sometimes the thing that makes a painting most compelling is what an artist chooses NOT to paint.

Painting from life is like transcribing a language. You are putting a three-dimensional scene, one that goes on infinitely in every direction, onto the flat rectangle of your paper or canvas. 

Somehow, you have to decide which things are important enough to capture and what should be left out. And often, you have to make these decisions quickly to capture the lighting before it changes.

So, how do you decide what to paint?

Learning to distil a scene down to what's important is a skill that takes practice. The idea is to convey the feeling of what you saw rather than copy it exactly. 

That might mean that you change the colours to convey a certain feeling. You might even add things to the composition or remove something that detracts from it. 

Learning to "See" Like A Painter

Squint

Our ability to see too many details and nuances with our eyes can sometimes be an obstacle when painting from life. One of the easiest ways to reduce the number of information you see is to squint to blur your vision. 

Group Your Values

The word value refers to how light or dark a colour is. Values, and their relationships to each other, give depth to our paintings and make it easy for us to understand easily or "read" what's going on in a scene. 

When you squint, it's easier to see how you can group areas of similar values to make larger shapes of lights, mediums and darks. It's these value groupings that will make your paintings look cohesive rather than like a jumble of unrelated details. 

Get Your Phone Out

If you are having trouble seeing the scene through blurred eyes or identifying values, try taking a picture of it with your phone. Then use a photo editing app, like Photoshop Express, to blur the image and convert it to black and white.

Value Study

Before you start your painting, I recommend doing a quick pencil study of your scene to serve as a sort of roadmap for your artwork. Limit yourself to three value groupings: light, medium and dark. This study should only take a few minutes.

Practice Indoors

Plein air painting can require a lot of planning and effort. You have to pack all of your things, travel to your chosen location, find a spot and then set everything up. 

If you're looking for a great art bag for Plein air, the Etchr Art Satchel is an amazing choice. It can carry many art tools, and you can even use it while standing, walking and sitting. You can attach it to your tripod as well. 

Sometimes, once I've gone to the trouble setting up for the painting, I feel a little bit of performance anxiety. If I went to all of this trouble, I have to make a good painting. 

To overcome this, I started practising my landscape painting indoors so that I'll feel more confident in my ability when I go outside.

Master Copies

Find landscape paintings you like, and start making quick master copies of them. Limit your palette to one colour (I like to use Payne's grey, indigo, sepia or neutral tint watercolour, along with white gouache). Try not to spend more than an hour.

Making black and white master copies is a great way to improve your water control, brushwork, composition, and value sensibilities. 

I keep a Pinterest board where I bookmark my favourite landscape paintings to use as a reference. You are more than welcome to use them as well.

Reference Photos

Once you get comfortable painting with one colour, it's time to try painting from reference photos. You can use your photos, or you can find photo references online. 

If you are using someone else's pictures and plan to display the finished product outside your studio, it's best to ask permission.

I find that painting from reference photos in a controlled environment is less stressful and helps me to feel more confident about the process when I move outside.

Painting Outside

Start Simple

Once you move outside, remember that you don't have to paint an entire scene. Choose a tree or a bush to focus on, and do a simple study. 

Use Your Imagination

Try using the scenery around you as inspiration to create something from your imagination. Sometimes, when I want to keep things low-key and don't have a specific scene that I want to paint, I will sit outside and use my surroundings as a reference and a starting point to create something entirely made up. 

For example, I used the shapes of the trees in my yard (all are green) as a reference for these fantasy trees in various colours.

Keep it Small

Ready to take on an entire landscape scene? Consider keeping the size of your paintings small. 

You often need to work quickly outside as the light and weather conditions will be changing rapidly. Water also tends to dry faster when you're outdoors, so painting large areas is more difficult. Painting small means you'll have better control over your painting, and you'll be able to finish in a shorter amount of time.

Take a Photo

Before you start, take a photo of the scene you are painting. You might also want to take some videos. Personally, this reduces the pressure because I know that if I'm not able to finish, I can always complete the painting at home.

I hope I have inspired and encouraged you to get outside and paint! If you do, please tag me and @etchr_lab on social media. I would love to see what you're painting!

Kristin Wauson is a children's book author/illustrator and certified yoga teacher based in Austin, Texas. Her debut picture book, MR. THATCHER'S HOUSE releases Fall 2022 (Sleeping Bear Press). She's a wife, mother of two boys, a chocolate lab and a dragon (a bearded dragon, that is). When she's not making picture books, drawing or painting, she can usually be found creating something in the kitchen instead. She is represented by Adria Goetz at Martin Literary Management.
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