When going on location to paint en plein air, there are several things to keep in mind. First and foremost is your reason for being there, which will modify your approach and results to a certain degree. The thing you should settle on right away is your purpose that particular day. That purpose could be any of the following: 1) To do a study of nature ,or a small slice of nature, to learn how light affects various forms outdoors; 2) Capture a certain light effect in a rapidly changing weather pattern; 3) Create a small study of a particular scene for future reference back in the studio or 4) Do a painting that will most likely wind up on the wall of a gallery for sale.
Once you have decided what your purpose is you can begin the process of painting, which will likely change your initial approach to a certain degree. Let’s take a look at these different goals and see how this theory works in practice.
Goal # 1: Let’s say you just want to understand how to paint a log, rock, bit of sky, tree or body of water to increase your knowledge of nature. In that case you may want to choose a small panel that can be executed rapidly in an hour or less. This is not the kind of thing you need to spend a lot of time on and as a matter of fact you could even do a vignette approach here. Remember that your stated goal is to capture the effect of light on an object, so worrying about including a foreground, middle ground and background is not an issue. Go ahead and do a monochromatic block-in as a preliminary way of gaining understanding of the subject before committing brush to color. This is an excellent way of working and will pay big dividends in your storehouse of painting knowledge.
Goal # 2: You are standing on the side of a hill getting ready to paint a grouping of trees and rocks, when you notice a fast approaching storm across the valley. You only have two choices, pack up and leave, or paint fast. You can actually get a lot of information down in 15 minutes if you don’t get hung up on detail and finish. This approach makes an excellent drill that can help you be a more effective plein air painter. In this case just go for it, no preliminary work needed. Paint direct and thick, what have you got to lose?
Goal # 3: Small studies can be anything from a 5×7 to an 11×14. These can be executed very quickly employing some of the other techniques mentioned and taken a little further if desired in order to have painting reference for later use in the studio. Remember that a photo only has a limited latitude in value and also distorts color. These reference studies are excellent for jogging your memory of how things really look in nature.
Goal # 4: These can be in any size you want, working all the way up to a huge studio size canvas 30″ x 40″ or even larger. Remember, you can do the initial block one day and return the next day to finish. You can also work rapidly in one go, taking it back to the studio for finish. These are extremely fun and rewarding to do, and sure to get the adrenalin flowing.
An award-winning artist and teacher who has been painting the landscape both in and out of the studio since 1983, John Hughes maintains a studio in Taylorsville and teaches students in private workshops and in a course at Salt Lake Community College.