Thoughts on Plein Air Painting

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Many professional artists make a reference to plein air painting. This gives us a boost to our professional credentials because it shows serious dedication to go to the extremes of discomfort of the outdoor elements. “Plein air” is a term borrowed from French for outdoor painting. I still have to see it being added to an American dictionary. Plein air painting was originally conceived by Impressionist artists such as Claude Monet. The intent was to capture the colors and atmosphere at face value. They were able to store their pigments in tubes to take with them to the field and after centuries where previous artists lacked these, they had access to the cadmiums which resulted in strong pigment chroma to imitate the intensity of sunlight. Dedicated artists still continue this practice to the day.Plein air painting advice |

I myself have travelled and painted in almost all national parks in the USA, the popular ones in Canada, as well in old rural towns in Mexico. I have done around 500 paintings in outdoor settings. This has given me enough experience to offer some insight. I have concluded that painting in nature will give you tremendous motivation. By being immersed in the scene you will want to depict it. You will not lose the 3D aspect like you do when photos are taken. There is quite a bit to be said about plein air painting. It is not as simple as setting up your easel and just painting what you see, as commonly referenced. I will address some of the major issues here.

Pitfalls of Plein Air Painting: How Objects Appear in Nature vs. How They Should Appear in Paintings

• Things in the macro world are gigantic versus miniature shapes in paintings
An example of this would be an evergreen tree. In nature it would be about four stories high but when we translate this into a painting and that object is scaled down to about six inches, we have an artificial, misrepresented object. Just copying and resizing it will show too may zig-zagged boughs. Solution: Create an alternate symbol for the evergreens by reducing boughs to avoid the “hacksaw” contour.

Plein air painting advice |

• Edges are always sharp for solid static objects, regardless of the plane
If we mirror the defined edges of background areas as we see them in nature and we also include sharp edges in the closer planes, we will lose the sense of depth. The ridge of the rock formation in the foreground is as equally as hard-edged as the one in the background. We would have to soften the edges of the further one or we would lose the 3D illusion.

Due to sunlight there are any more values and much more light intensity than the lights in a studio can produce
We only have a narrow range of values to work with for paintings. Pronounced value contrasts and the cadmiums help fake sunlight.

Plein air painting advice |

• Boring monochromatic colors
Rocks and tree trunks are normally very dull in gray colors. Solution: exaggerate the colors to make them more vivid.

Plein air painting advice |• Summer greens that are in direct sunlight are very monochromatic and neon looking
If we copy the sunlit greens at face value, the painting will be unpleasant. Solution: Add variations of greens, including yellow ochre pale. When possible avoid mixing greens with the primary color yellow. I prefer to paint summer greens in overcast days. If I must depict sunlit greens in their true garishness, I will reduce these areas in the composition.

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Plein air painting advice |

• Symmetrical shapes and straight lines
Can you see the blue triangle (above, left)? There is an implied straight line where the field meets the forest (above, right). Accomplished artists redesign landscape elements into appealing abstract shapes and avoid visually implied straight lines that run more than a few inches.

Plein air painting advice |

• Blue skies and lakes are present in nature but don’t work well in paintings.
I never paint blue skies. I shift the hue towards blue-green. That way the green hue can harmonize with the surrounding colors. When I do autumn scenes I use viridian green plus white for the sky and leave blue out altogether. The sky will tie in better with the yellow-orange present in autumn scenes because they both share the same hue, which is yellow.

Plein air painting advice |

• Mountains in the distance are too blue
I also shift the hue towards a blue red. Red is warmer so it is more acceptable to viewers who tend to reject cool colors.

• Waterfalls, water, snow, and clouds are white in nature
White is an absence of color so we must use it sparingly. Never use white right out of the tube. Add a bit of yellow-orange to the point you can barely see the warm tint.

Plein air painting advice |

Come back to soon: In the next blog I will submit some photos and the actual finished painting with some of my reasoning for the changes.

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