You can often tell a landscape painting that was painted en plein air from one that wasn’t. There is an immediacy to the light and atmosphere depicted in plein air paintings that isn’t always achieved when the work is brought into the studio. But what really sets an outdoor painting apart? I went to some of the best plein air artists, instructors, and seasoned painters in the country to see what they think distinguishes a plein air landscape painting, and discovered several pearls of wisdom that I want to share.
It is all about the light, according to world-renowned artist James Gurney. Direct sunlight, overcast light, and interior light from a window or light bulb vary significantly. With direct sunlight, Gurney reminds artists that as more clouds appear in the sky, shadows become grayer, and if there is a hint of haze or smog in the atmosphere, shadows seem relatively closer to the tonal value of the sunlight.
Mark Delassio strives to have his landscape paintings mimic the way the human eye actually sees. To that end, he prefers 3-to-4 proportions of canvases as opposed to 5-to-8, which he finds too narrow for landscapes. He also wears only blue shirts when he is painting outdoors because it reflects light that is neither too dark, as when he’d wear a black shirt, or too highly reflected, as with a white shirt.
Top landscape painter Clyde Aspevig believes that details should be last on an artist’s checklist: “By subordinating details, creating abstractions, and employing unusual compositions or techniques, we can create more knowledge gaps. These little questions or mysteries pull the viewer into further analysis.”
Clark Hulings was a master of using diagonals in his paintings, creating a dynamic grid for the viewer’s eye to travel along without ever straying far from the painting’s focal point. Diagonals can be teased out of a composition in the winding roads, slumped architectural forms, or rocky hills featured. Hulings would always place diagonals in contrast to one another so that the viewer is caught in a visual net, the eye darting in, out, up, and down according to these subliminal but persuasive lines.
For me, getting plein air painting guidance from the best landscape painting practitioners out there includes seeking the instruction of famed Johannes Vloothuis. His Painting Stunning Landscapes from Photos Collection is a twist on taking the liveliness of plein air to the convenience of the studio with the use of photographic references. You’ll find 24 lessons on how to capture the viewer’s interest, how to create a dynamic composition, how to reduce values, understanding color harmony, and how to represent landscapes both real and enhanced. This collection is watershed resources—everything you’ll want to start your landscape painting journey is here. Enjoy!