Seize the Day: Painting en Plein Air

I love to paint en plein air. When you’re painting on site, you have the sensations—the fragrance, the music (once when we were painting in Vivaldi’s Venice, we could hear the strains of a violin). All those experiences are in the painting. When you look at it, you’re reminded of all that went into it. There’s nothing like it.


Doorway to the Sea (gouache on paper, 20 x 16)

If you start painting outdoors in the morning, by midday the sun is overhead with no shadows, so you can’t paint. You have a meal and a rest and then you come back. I think it’s better, at that point, to start something new rather than continue to work on the piece you started in the morning. Some artists would advise you to come back the next day at the same time and try to finish the first painting, but even then, the light will be different. I think it’s better if you can be quick and get it done in the moment.

Ross Merrill is chief of conservation at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

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