Plein Air Painting: 10 Top Tips for Painting Outdoors

Whether the scene is a bustling harbour, a wooded estuary, or sweeping moorland, I try to capture the mood and ‘spirit’ of the place. However, painting on location can be extremely challenging. Here are my top 10 tips to help you on your way.

1. Location

Be sure to spend a short time walking around the location, absorbing the scene until you have found something that appeals to you enough to get started. The use of a viewfinder at this point can be vital in narrowing the field of vision to help find the right subject.

2. Equipment

You need to be organised when working on location, so keep materials simple and equipment as portable as possible. Be prepared for changeable weather; make sure your easel is stable and have an umbrella to hand.

3. Sketching

I cannot stress the importance of drawing enough, particularly in monochrome. It will not only help develop your powers of observation, but also sharpen your awareness.

4. Format and Scale

Decide which format is best suited for the subject, for example: square, landscape or portrait. Consider the scale of the painting. If you are a slow worker think about painting on a smaller scale and vice versa.

5. Composition

Composition is crucial to the ultimate success or failure of a landscape painting. Time producing thumbnails is never wasted and can sort out vital priorities, such as what to put in and also what to leave out.

6. Tone

Learn to train your eye to see the tones of colours and to judge them correctly. Examine the image carefully and reduce the scene to just three or four tones. Adding a five-tone scale down the side of your viewfinder can be useful if you have difficulty assessing tones.

7. Colour

Colour creates the mood of a painting. Firstly look for the most dominant colour in the scene – often referred to as the ‘mother colour’. Ask yourself: what is the overall temperature? Is it warm or cool? Using a limited palette is particularly helpful in creating the mood and atmosphere you require in a landscape painting.

8. Time

Time is a key factor when working in situ. Decisions have to be made quickly, therefore painting reactions are more intuitive. It’s a good idea to set a time limit for the painting – and stick to it! Ideally between two and three hours, after that the light changes dramatically. Working quickly also gives energy and a greater spontaneity to the work.

9. Enjoyment

Enjoy the process; painting outdoors is a powerful experience, so embrace it. Don’t feel there is a need to produce a masterpiece; if you’re in a relaxed frame of mind the likelihood is the results will be far more impressive than you might imagine.

10. Understanding

Great art is not merely made by description alone and it isn’t enough just to go to a place and set up an easel. Every landscape has its own uniqueness, so to understand it fully means getting ‘under the skin’ of a place. It means finding out about its inhabitants, its history and how it has evolved. Getting to the heart of nature’s mysteries takes time and means familiarising yourself with every aspect of it.