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"Building" Your Plein Air Painting

Author: L. Diane Johnson, Contributing Editor

When approaching any painting it is a good idea to work from large to small, the least amount of detail to the most amount of detail (depending on the degree to which you want to render your subject.) If you anxiously work on the minute details before establishing the overall composition, the painting will likely not hold together visually. With plein air painting, try to indicate the large shapes and masses first, then work toward as much detail as you want to include. One of the challenges of plein air painting is to decipher only what is necessary to capture the essence and character of a subject. Unless you are able to work in the same location over several days, it will be difficult to paint too many details. The light is fleeting, so you must work quickly and simply.
An underpainting of complimentary colors was applied in this example using a large brush.

Your Surface

Before you begin your actual painting, here are two suggestions for preparing the painting surface. You might consider toning your background before painting, using an analogous, complimentary, or neutral color. (The exception is for those using watercolor as working light to dark is optimum.) Another method, is to use a broad brush to quickly cover the canvas with a wash of the scene's actual color. Either of these possibilities will serve to break the stark white of the canvas and tie your painting together, enliven, and allow each color to be "read" instantly as you apply subsequent layers of paint. Underpaint using a brush, paper towel, rag, or sponge.

Largest areas of foreground, middle ground and background were placed, and basic values established. Begin including the local colors while blocking-in the main shapes.

The Basic Elements

Begin with a larger brush and work your way to the smaller brushes. Using a larger brush, indicate the broadest areas of background, middle ground and foreground in either a color similar to the scene, a neutral color, or the compliment of the local color, adjusting until you have the framework of a composition. Keeping things loose and flexible at this stage allows for changes/adjustments more easily along the way. Or, if you prefer, begin with a loose sketch of the scene on your canvas.

Adjusting of forms and negative shapes, local colors, color intensities, and values further defined. Still staying relatively loose for ease making changes.

Body of the Painting

Work your way around the canvas or paper, keeping everything going simultaneously, rather than concentrating one small area at a time*. Try to capture what the subject is doing rather than what it is, and emulate the light rather than actual things. In grasping the action of the subject, you will be more likely capture how the subject looks. Finally, build the painting to completion by putting in your highest highlights and very lowest values last**.

* Or, you can work from one area moving out from there, however, this usually requires a great deal of technical skill...but you might like to give it a try.

** This is just one approach to painting. Use the one most comfortable, effective, and creative for you!

Highest highlights and richest darks applied and values balanced. At this point you can choose to stop painting, or develop detail further.