How to Paint En Plein Air: Beginner Landscape Techniques

Paint En Plein Air | Two Demos You’ll Love

Want to paint en plein air like a pro? California landscape painter Frank Serrano is a popular instructor of painting en plein air who shares his knowledge and experience with students and helps them develop a foundation in the fundamentals of painting outdoors.

Photo by Getty Images | How to Paint En Plein Air: Beginner Landscape Techniques Excerpted from Plein Air Painting in Oil by Frank Serrano, Walter Foster Publishing, Laguna Hills, California
Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Now it’s your turn. Below he shares two step-by-step demonstrations on how to paint en plein air, excerpted from his book, Plein Air Painting in Oil (Walter Foster Publishing, Laguna Hills, California). Enjoy!

Demo 1 | Painting Step-by-Step

Many beginners are intimidated by a white painting surface and aren’t sure where to begin. But once you understand the process of painting step-by-step, getting started becomes much easier. There are different ways to approach a painting — for example, some artists start with an underpainting, whereas others apply a series of transparent glazes.

However, I usually take a more direct approach and work opaquely, from dark to light. First I lightly sketch out the general masses; then I block in the darkest shadow areas, develop the midtones and finish by adding the highlights. Below, I’ve demonstrated these steps in a simple mountain scene.

Step 1: I decided to do this small study because the subject has distinct values — with obvious shadows and highlights — that make it perfect for this lesson. I start by sketching in the general shapes of the main elements, using my largest brush and thinned burnt sienna. Here I’m laying the foundation for blocking in the darkest values in Step 2.How to Paint En Plein Air: Beginner Landscape Oil-Painting Techniques, Demo 1, Step 1 | Excerpted from Plein Air Painting in Oil by Frank Serrano, Walter Foster Publishing, Laguna Hills, California

 

Step 2: Now I lay in the darkest shadows on the cliffs and in the shaded foreground with a mixture of burnt sienna, alizarin crimson, cadmium yellow pale and just a touch of titanium white. Then I apply the base color of the sky with a mixture of ultramarine blue and white, leaving the clouds unpainted for now.

How to Paint En Plein Air: Beginner Landscape Oil-Painting Techniques, Demo 1, Step 2 | Excerpted from Plein Air Painting in Oil by Frank Serrano, Walter Foster Publishing, Laguna Hills, California

Step 3: Next I build up the midtones, brushing in the lighter areas of the cliffs with mixtures of ultramarine blue and cadmium yellow pale with touches of alizarin crimson and titanium white. The warm, sunlit areas near the top of the cliffs are a mixture of burnt sienna and alizarin crimson with a little titanium white.

I work in the shadows under the clouds with ultramarine blue, white and a touch of alizarin crimson; then I paint in the clouds with a mixture of yellow and white. I’m trying not to get caught up in the details as I paint; I’m just focusing on recording my impressions of the scene.

How to Paint En Plein Air: Beginner Landscape Oil-Painting Techniques, Demo 1, Step 3 | Excerpted from Plein Air Painting in Oil by Frank Serrano, Walter Foster Publishing, Laguna Hills, California

Step 4: To finish the forms of the cliffs, I paint the lightest areas, where the sun strikes most directly. Here I also add some swirling highlights of almost pure white to the clouds. Adding highlights (the lightest values in a painting) helps make a subject look realistic and three-dimensional.

I add the highlights sparingly, though, because I need only a few to make a visual impact. I finish the painting by adding thick highlights to the sunlit sides of the cliffs with a mixture of burnt sienna and white.

How to Paint En Plein Air: Beginner Landscape Oil-Painting Techniques, Demo 1, Step 4 | Excerpted from Plein Air Painting in Oil by Frank Serrano, Walter Foster Publishing, Laguna Hills, California

Demo 2 | Conveying Time of Day

An important aspect learn learning how to paint en plein air is choosing a time of day to paint. Generally, morning and evening colors are cool, whereas afternoon colors are warm. So pick a time of day that suits the mood you want to convey.

I chose to paint the scene, below, just as the sun was starting to set. Sunset is a great time of day to paint at the beach — not only are the colors brilliant and inspiring but the feeling of a beach at sunset is also an ideal subject for rendering outdoors. You have to work quickly to capture the colorful and fleeting light conditions at dusk, but the end result can be a captivating and inspiring scene.

Step 1: When I paint en plein pair, I don’t rely solely on the sky colors to show the time of day — instead, all the elements in a scene work together to impart a sense of time. For example, a sunset sky may establish the tone of the scene, but warm colors, long cool shadows and calm waters can all contribute to the feeling of a quiet beach at dusk.

With confident, quick strokes, I begin sketching in the rocks and trees. Next I block in the sky and the water with mixtures of ultramarine blue and white. I want the drama of the fading afternoon light to be evident, so I paint in the shadow areas a little darker at the beginning — I can always adjust them later if they turn out to be too dark.

How to Paint En Plein Air: Beginner Landscape Oil-Painting Techniques, Demo 2, Step 1 | Excerpted from Plein Air Painting in Oil by Frank Serrano, Walter Foster Publishing, Laguna Hills, California

Step 2: This was a calm, windless day, so the water was dark and still and the beach was quiet, now that most of the people had left. I paint in the deserted sand and the remaining elements of the shoreline, working some warm, dusky mixtures of burnt sienna, alizarin crimson and white into the sand.

I add highlights sparingly to the simple rocks in the foreground to contrast with the long, cool shadows beneath them. The highlights are mixtures of burnt sienna, alizarin crimson and white, and the shadows are mixtures of ultramarine blue and burnt sienna.

How to Paint En Plein Air: Beginner Landscape Oil-Painting Techniques, Demo 2, Step 2 | Excerpted from Plein Air Painting in Oil by Frank Serrano, Walter Foster Publishing, Laguna Hills, California

Step 3: Once I fill in the remaining color of the palm trees (cadmium yellow, ultramarine blue and a touch of phthalo green), you can see the effects of the waning sunlight and how the mood of the whole painting begins to take shape. I quickly paint in the distant clouds with the rich pinks and violets of late afternoon, using mixtures of alizarin crimson, cadmium orange, ultramarine blue and titanium white. These cool colors contribute to a sense of peaceful serenity.

How to Paint En Plein Air: Beginner Landscape Oil-Painting Techniques, Demo 2, Step 3 | Excerpted from Plein Air Painting in Oil by Frank Serrano, Walter Foster Publishing, Laguna Hills, California

Step 4: To finish the palm fronds convincingly, I use thick brushstrokes and paint them the direction in which the leaves grow. I add hints of green algae to the rocks and sharpen their edges with more thick highlights. Last, I use loose, horizontal brushstrokes to refine the waves and soften the edges of the distant sunset clouds.

How to Paint En Plein Air: Beginner Landscape Oil-Painting Techniques, Demo 2, Step 4 | Excerpted from Plein Air Painting in Oil by Frank Serrano, Walter Foster Publishing, Laguna Hills, California

*All images and instruction used in these demos on how to paint en plein air have been excerpted from Plein Air Painting in Oil, with permission from Walter Foster Publishing, © 2002. All rights reserved. For more information on Walter Foster Publishing, visit www.walterfoster.com. For more information on Frank Serrano, visit www.serranofineart.com.

More Outdoor Painting Techniques

If you are ready for even more tips and tricks on how to paint en plein air, then check out the free downloadable guide: Plein Air Painting Techniques: 18 Tips for Outdoor Painting. This ebook is filled with expert tips from experienced plein air artists in both oil and watercolor. In addition to quick and easy tutorials, you’ll also learn how to choose the right tools and easels for working outdoors. Onward, artists!

6 thoughts on “How to Paint En Plein Air: Beginner Landscape Techniques

  1. Allison Malafronte says:

    Thanks for the comments.

    Miller, to answer your question, the darks are the mixture of burnt sienna and alizarin–he uses the cad yellow and white to warm that mixture up.

  2. MargMillard says:

    I decided this summer is the time I go from inside painting to outside painting and this adds encouragement and method. I have a “backpack kit” I assembled and now just need to get started. This article looks to be a guide I can use.
    Thank you

  3. miller2 says:

    Great article. In step #2 are you saying that you are warming your darks with the burnt sienna, alizarin, cad yellow…or that this is your dark. On my palette this mix isn’t a dark. thanks.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I really like your painting style of rendering atmospheric perspective. Is there any chance that you will conduct a workshop in Estes Park, Colorado? I would love to attend!

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