Painting En Plein Air, Part 1 | The Field Sketch


A series of thumbnail sketches utilized for a field sketch painting done in Ojai, California.

Every serious artist understands the importance of working from life. Whether it’s the still life, portrait or landscape, there’s no reference material that can replace the experience of interpreting subject matter one-on-one. While it’s never easy to progress from painting from photo reference to painting from life, it takes special concentration to do so in the landscape with the ever-changing lighting and conditions. This, along with the overwhelming vastness of the landscape, can stymie even the most technically advanced pastelist.

As I often tell workshop attendees, “There are three things we learn as students: the techniques of painting with pastel, the theories of painting a sound landscape in pastel, and the tribulations of attempting to do so on location.” All three work in unison to produce a good outcome but it is often easier to focus on one at a time when learning.

Not every creative technique for painting with pastel lends itself to working en plein air. Some take too much time and effort to implement on location and are better left to the controlled environment of the studio.

The Pastel Field Sketch: Over many years of working in both environments, I have come up with a pastel technique for working en plein air that I call “Field Sketch Painting.” It requires a degree of discipline and allows me to work concisely. I can stay focused on what it most important to a successful painting outcome—the big composition shapes, value masses and color temperatures. More elaborate pastel techniques are saved for repeat visits to familiar locations.

Thumbnail Sketches: The first stage of the field sketch painting starts with a series of thumbnail sketches done in a sketchbook to develop a strong compositional concept. Once you have decided on a compositional design that satisfies:

  • Outline three more thumbnail sketches that are proportionate to the final painting’s format.
  • Next, break the scene down into a few abstract shapes. This can be difficult to do at first and the key here is to focus more on value relationships rather than individual objects for the shapes. Attempt to have as few shapes as possible and ignore small accents. Five or six shape-masses are good. Closing one eye and squinting with the other can help greatly. Detail and color will be diminished, making it easier to see the contrasting value shapes.
  • Draw the abstract shape-masses into the three thumbnails. Leave the first for future reference (#1).
  • In the next thumbnail, associate the indicated shape-masses to no more than four values consisting of: light, middle-light, middle-dark, and dark. Three values can also be used. This will be referred to as the value map (#3).
  • In the final thumbnail, associate the shape masses to light or dark, creating an abstract black and white thumbnail sketch. This is often referred to as a notan sketch. Look at the value map for guidance when making this association. Any shape that was above middle value will be white and any shape below becomes black (#2). These value sketches can be done with a pencil or ink markers.

You’ll know if you have a strong value composition by doing these sketches and they will prove very valuable throughout the pastel painting. In next week’s blog, I will demonstrate how these sketches are utilized to make painting en plein air much less intimidating.


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