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Plein air painting

From The Blog How to: Capture the magic of Woodstock with Plein Air painting

Feeling inspired to not only explore nature's beauty, but to harness it via canvas and paint? Welcome to the world of plein air painting, where you'll capture the moods of light and nature right in front of you out in the open air! Yes, challenges abound for new en plein air painters. However, there's no better studio than the peak of a mountain, a grassy pasture, or the pebble-laid bank of a river... read on to learn how to get started.

The basis of human happiness is the possibility to be together with nature, to see it and to talk to it

Leo Tolstoy

It's true, painting outdoors in the open air can be a discouraging experience for a beginner. Even the most advanced plein air painters have felt overwhelmed when they first began painting outdoors. However, with persistence, patience, and ample breaks to appreciate the majestic open landscapes, you'll discover that the struggles are more than worth it.

common struggles of new plein air painters include:

  • Simplifying the landscape and not being overwhelmed by the view
  • Seeing the actual color values under extreme lighting conditions
  • Trying to include too much scene on a single canvas
  • Using the appropriate amount of paint
Artistree plein air painting
Creating art in the open air

tips for overcoming the initial difficulties of painting outdoors:

  • Start small. Choose a simplified section of the landscape and practice a lot!
  • Start out with sketches of the composition you are thinking of painting.  
  • Ask questions of your fellow plein air painters. Don't be intimidated by other artists.
  • Think of the experience of a "study" of color and atmosphere. Don't pressure yourself with having a finished piece within one session outdoors.
  • Choose high contrasting compositions to paint. Look at the light and dark patterns as a puzzle. A viewfinder can be useful to find a appealing composition.
  • Go easy on yourself and have fun!

Pointers from six outstanding plein air painters: Kathleen Dunphy, Linda Glover Gooch, John Poon, Dave Santillanes, Kathryn Stats, and Colley Whisson

Shared from Outdoor Painter Magazine's Overcoming the Difficulties of Painting en Plein Air, by John Pototschnik

Kathleen: Don’t try to paint everything you see. Focus and concentrate on one clear intent per painting. Do several thumbnail sketches, cropping and enlarging, pulling back to focus or home in on smaller parts of the big scene. This exercise will help you determine what interests you most, and what not to paint.

Watercolor paintings outdoor
Creations from a session of plein air painting

Linda: Start with up-close and personal scenes. Don’t try to paint the whole Grand Canyon, just pick a small portion and learn from there.

John: Consign the entire scene to just three or four simplified masses. Group things together. The ground plane and hills, for example, can often combine to form a single large mass that separates from the lighter value of the sky. In this way, it helps organize the vast amount of detail, and keeps detail subordinate to the larger shapes of the design. Rather than painting every blade of grass, unify the area into a mass with broad brush strokes, then apply just a few details to define the subject.

Dave: Learn to see the “light family” and the “shadow family” independently in order to create an apples-to-apples comparison of color throughout a landscape. For example, if you can isolate your vision to only the shadows (or the darkest darks on each plane) and compare these dark shapes from background to foreground before painting them, you’ll have atmosphere figured out in very short order.

Kathryn: Paint all the darkest shapes first, then medium values, and finally, the lightest value patterns. Don’t get lost in minutia; for example, rather than draw every tree separately, find a way to group them as a mass into one large group. Limit detail. Hold off the most essential details until the last 1 percent of the painting.

Colley: Doing small thumbnail sketches is an ideal way to begin. Initially, it’s best to choose a subject that’s not too difficult and is within your skill level.

Plein Air Painting Suggested Supply List

Everyone should bring the following:

  • Fold-up chair or stool
  • Camera or mobile phone
  • Water bottle
  • Sun visor hat
  • Sun block/lotion
  • Lunch/snacks
  • It will be helpful to be able to carry all of your painting supplies in a small canvas bag to transport from spot to spot easily. Optional items are a view finder/catcher and a jacket for the cool morning air.
paint brushes outside


  • Watercolor paints and brushes
  • Water tub (collapsible is nice)
  • Easel and/or lap clip board
  • Paper towels
  • Tape
  • Mechanical pencil eraser
  • Sketch paper
  • Watercolor paper pad and/or note-cards
  • T-square ruler

Oils, Acrylics, or Gouache

  • Oil paints or tube acrylics/bouache and brushes
  • Canvas pad or panels
  • Turpentine or container for water
  • Retarder (acrylics)
  • Easel and/or lap clip board
  • Paper towels
  • Palette knife
  • T Square ruler
  • Mechanical pencil
  • Eraser
  • Palette paper or water palette
  • Dry box (for oils to keep separated while drying to transport home) -optional


Written by: Marie Cross of ArtisTree Community Arts Center. To see the original posting of this piece on the ArtisTree website, click here.

Opportunities for Plein Air Painting with ArtisTree:

ArtisTree Plein Air Painting Group, Fridays throughout the summer from 9am-12pm. Rain or shine. This is not a class but rather a painting group that meets at various places in the area to draw or paint. Please email Marie at to get on our mailing list! Click here for more.

Painting en Plein Air with Daniel Gottsegen. One-week intensive - Monday, July 29 - Friday, August 2 | 9am - 12pm - Cost: $175. Click here to sign up.