Landscape Painting: A Southwest Plein Air Demonstration

Let’s take a truck ride with New Mexico artist Louisa McElwain on U.S. Route 84 to one of her favorite locations—the Rio Chama Wilderness, about 30 miles northwest of the artist’s farm in Española, New Mexico, where she gives this step-by-step on landscape painting en plein air. This region, known as Abiquiu, was established as painters’ territory by Georgia O’Keeffe. We stop at a good vantage point with the mesa Cerro Pedernal, in the Jemez Mountains, on the horizon.

Learn more about Lisa McElwain and her work in The Artist’s Magazine’s March 2010 issue, available at

Leaves Falling Fast (oil, 44x44) by Louisa McElwain

Leaves Falling Fast (oil, 44×44) by Louisa McElwain

Step by Step Through Abiquiu

plein air painting set-up
1  Within a few minutes after arriving at her selected painting spot in the Abiquiu region of New Mexico, Louisa McElwain transforms her pickup truck into a studio. Behind the palette are colors, mixtures and muds saved from a previous plein air painting excursion. To the right of the palette are turps, medium and paint applicators.

Louisa McElwain painting the Southwest
2  McElwain trowels titanium white onto a separate palette pad to the left of her palette, which helps her keep the white clean. She immediately adds medium to limber up the paint and help it maintain elasticity.

Louisa McElwain sketch
3  Using a runny violet wash and a ¾-inch brush, the artist scribbles a cursory sketch onto her canvas.

using a trowel to paint a landscape
4  Most of the actual painting is done with a trowel.

painting a landscape on a large canvas
5  Attaching a trowel or brush to a long stick allows McElwain to reach the upper portions of the canvas.

painting mountains en plein air
6  Working wet-into-wet, the artist makes her way down on the canvas to the mountain.

comparing colors while landscape painting
7  McElwain compares the color of her paint-covered trowel before painting the rocks. “My work is all about matching colors,” she says. “I’m in pursuit of capturing and understanding what the beauty of Nature is made of.”

painting rocks in a landscape
8  After careful observation and playing with color mixtures, she begins painting the rocks.

textured painting
9  Viewing the painting from an oblique angle reveals the dimensional texture of the trowel-applied paint.

Quiet Sentinel (oil, 44x44) by Louisa McElwain
10  McElwain completes the painting Quiet Sentinel (oil, 44×44) in one session.

When artist Louisa McElwain isn’t painting, chances are she’s tackling the chores endemic to her farm north of Santa Fe near Española, where she raises horses and cattle and keeps fruit and vegetable gardens. On the grounds is a studio, mainly for the contemplation and storage of finished works, all of which have been painted outdoors. She’s had numerous solo exhibitions and is represented by seven galleries in five different Western states. For a list of those galleries, visit her website at

Learn more about Lisa McElwain and her work in The Artist’s Magazine’s March 2010 issue. And, don’t miss an issue when you subscribe today!

Mastering Composition with Ian Roberts, painting composition, Ian Roberts artist
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