Painting En Plein Air, Part 2 | Field Sketch Painting

In last week’s blog post, I described the thumbnail/value sketches involved in the first part of a plein air painting process I refer to as “Field Sketch Painting.” Once these sketches are evaluated to see if the composition is worthwhile, it is time to start the pastel painting.

Field Sketch Painting

Finished 9×6-inch Pastel Field Sketch Painting

Keep the Format Small: To keep from getting bogged down in detail work, which can take time and derail a painter from the most important aspect of working on location—that is, capturing the quality of the light across the landscape—I paint in a small format. A favorite rectangle format of mine for the landscape is 6×9, which is easily made by cutting a standard 9×12 inch piece of pastel paper in half. While other size formats can be utilized depending on compositional requirements, I absolutely never do a Field Sketch Painting any larger than 9×12. I’ve found when working any larger, it’s too easy to over-develop individual objects in the painting and lose sight of the essence of the scene. There is nothing wrong with detail. It is just that it can be a distraction early in a painting when light is ever-changing. The old saying, “Detail never resolved an unsound painting,” is very pertinent here.

Use a Mid-value Surface: To expedite the massing-in of value shapes, I recommend using a middle value surface that is neutral in color tone. Belgium Grey Wallis paper is one example that I frequently use, but any mid-value pastel surface will suffice.

pastel field sketch

Here I apply the initial block-in of pastel.

Move From Sketch to Surface: Start by transferring the simple contour outline sketch from the sketchbook to the painting surface with vine charcoal or a darker hard pastel stick. Try not to look at the scene for guidance; instead, rely on the thumbnail sketch.

Choose Your Colors: Once this is done, select pastels that represent the major value/color masses that make up these shapes. Use the value map thumbnail sketch for guidance and choose colors that represent the general hue of the area. Visually squinting at the scene will help in determining the general color tone. To facilitate further pastel work, start with harder pastel sticks and then migrate to softer sticks. It is also helpful to select colors that are slightly grayed (neutral) in tone. This helps to create an all-over sense of color harmony before more saturated colors are indicated. The key point here is to stay as close to the value map thumbnail as possible and to not get lost in the subtlety of the scene. The fewer pastels selected, the better.

First Pastel Application: Apply the selections to the appropriate areas. You don’t have to completely cover the surface. Then set the pastel into the surface with a soft paper towel or piece of foam pipe insulation. Let edges become blurred. The painting should look like an out of focus representation of the scene and somewhat dreamy.

pastel field sketch

Here I add the details to the field sketch.

Paint the Light and Shadow: Now turn your attention back to the scene and paint in the shadow, highlight, and color nuances you perceive. Start with the ones that really stand out and let the painting evolve. It may be surprising how little definition it takes to produce a finished painting.

By taking the time to do a series of thumbnail sketches and then relying on them for guidance in the initial stages of the painting, a solid representation of the scene can be established, allowing for the addition of detailed accents. Field sketch paintings can stand alone as finished artwork or serve as reference for larger works. The ultimate benefit of doing them is nurturing the ability and pleasure of having something of merit to show for a hard day’s work painting under the sun.

Demonstration photos courtesy of Jacob Aguiar.


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