About Plein Air - The Plein Air Process

The plein air painting process is a set of techniques that let you, the painter, quickly and confidently analyze and capture the essentials of a rapidly changing outdoor scene. These techniques make use of a variety of small studies and sketches combined with acute observation and memorization of key aspects of an outdoor scene. Simplification of the scene is also a key element. The PAPJC recommends you try out all of the techniques below in order to understand how to use them and learn what they can do for your paintings.

The first and most important step is to select an outdoor scene that moves you emotionally or provides you with a challenge that you’d like to investigate. Without this foundation, your painting won’t have emotional depth. Make a note of what drew you to the scene and remain true to that feeling or concept throughout your painting session.

Once you have selected the scene that is right for you, decide what shape will effectively present your feeling or concept. Square, portrait, landscape, unusually long and narrow – these are all valid choices and will communicate different messages to the viewer. A viewfinder is a useful tool for selecting the shape, as are quick thumbnail sketches, which are very small, very rough sketches compositional sketches. When choosing a size for your painting, remember that you may find it easier to capture a changing outdoor scene on a small canvas than on a large one.

Notans, which are a design technique utilizing 2-4 values to depict a scene, are very useful for capturing the range of lights, mid-tones, and darks, especially in scenes where the lighting is apt to change quickly. Notans done in the field are typically very small – the size of a thumbnail sketch – and help you create a compelling value composition for your painting. That pattern can later be transferred to your canvas as a grisaille (traditionally an underpainting in grey values; contemporary painters may use colors with carefully selected values for this type of underpainting), or you may simply refer to your notan as you develop your painting.

A color study (or field sketch) is extremely helpful for understanding how to simplify a scene compositionally. Basically, this is a very small painting in which you abstract the scene to a few simple shapes and then add color, being careful to select the right color value. Once that is done, you can add half-tones to build form until the painting reads accurately.

You’ll find that if you do the preparatory steps above, once you start your actual painting, you will have learned your scene and have the confidence to work loosely and quickly. Just remember this: if the scene has changed significantly from when you started – check your notan to determine this – then you should rely on your studies as much or even more than the ever-changing scene itself. Otherwise you’ll be “chasing the light,” the bane of the plein air painter!

Remember, the ultimate goal of plein air painting is for you to experience – not just view – a scene and then capture the essence of that scene on canvas or paper in a way that feels authentic to viewers. The techniques described about are building blocks for accomplishing that. Sequenced together, they give you what we are calling “the plein air painting process.”


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