How to begin a painting outdoors

Do you tiptoe into the water, or do you jump? Does it depend on your mood or the circumstance? Painting can be a lot like swimming. Adapting to the unknown, transitioning your body between elements, and maybe splashing around awkwardly until you get the hang of the right strokes.

The unrippled pool or in this case, the blank panel, can be the most intimidating part of the plein air process, at least it has been for me. I thought I’d share how I deal with this “void” and create smoother transitions between making the first marks, whether that means construction lines, blocking in, or a combination of techniques.

I was always more of a studio painter when it came to oil painting, and I took that practice outdoors with me. This means I learned to separate elements like composition, value, color, and atmosphere in layers of mediums with different ratios. “Putting it all together” and the alla prima technique has been a real challenge for me, and I think that’s what keeps bringing me back to en plein air painting. Ironically, this has also presented some blocks in my studio practice as well. So if you’re facing the same challenge in your outdoor painting practice, check out these simple solutions that seem to work for me.

  • Covering up the void

When I was in rehab I turned an old children’s book into a sketchbook. The words made the page not precious or scary to me, and it led to some cool discoveries. Basically, getting rid of the white gesso not only eliminates the fear of the first mark, but also serves a very important function in the plein air process. If you want to fully complete an oil painting in a couple of hours, you need to start with a dried, oily toned ground. This is also important if you know you won’t be returning to the scene. The toning color doesn’t matter so much to me because I never know what light or scene I’m going to encounter, so I’ll often mix the colors before I scrape my palette at the end of a painting to tone the surface for my next paintings. This usually produces a light grey, a middle value shade that is usually pretty ideal for blocking in. Sometimes I’ll use a sky color if I’m doing a lot of water and sky, or yellow/red if I’m dealing with a lot of light. The grey end of palette color happens to be great for cloudy days or muted palettes, which I paint a lot of! I stay pretty true to a 50/50 oil gamsol ratio for the ground, perhaps using the gamsol a bit more liberally, but you want the paint to really stick and dry quicker when you get out to paint. Most of the paint application for me is thick and direct from the palette after I have a dry toned ground to work with.

  • Orientation and finding landmarks

I used to map out the painting with an oil sketch, which often frustrates me and turns the process into something more contrived than free flowing. More recently I’ve started to just make a couple of construction lines, to divide up the space based on the composition I’m looking for in the chaos of the scene. What has worked for me the most, has been blocking in with my darkest darks with the mentality of marking the landmarks. This could be big shapes, big shadows. I dance across the panel with my brush, somewhere between painting and drawing. This particularity has come from painting outside almost everyday, and just getting super comfortable with experimenting and navigating between 2 and 3 dimensional worlds. I have been feeling the composition, more than directly translating it. Plein air is more about pushing things around, rather than painting by numbers. And it has to be, because things can change so quickly outdoors!

  • Painting in front of other people

There is nothing like having a crowd of people watching you and walking past you when your beginning the most vulnerable and “ugly” part of the painting. Sometimes the process is beautiful, and sometimes it’s not! Painting in public has been a huge confidence booster, it made me realize how insecure about painting I am and how much that holds me back. Plein air is a lot about loosening up and letting go, two ingredients that you need in order to make a stellar painting in my opinion. I’ve learned how to embrace the fragility of feeling exposed, which in turn has pushed my ego and my insecurity out of focus, allowing me to loosen up and feel the scene more intuitively.

  • Pre mixing all your colors

Every mark in a plein air painting counts. I match all the colors from the scene to the colors in my palette, producing shades for each color, cool and warm, muted and vibrant. You need to have a keyed palette, but you can always mix directly on the panel and palette after you’ve found your bearings in the landscape. Like I said before, my darkest darks are usually my first marks now, so I want them to be the same color I’m going to use throughout the painting session.

So between toning your surface, block in sketching landmarks, painting in public, and pre mixing your palette, you should be able to head into battle armed and ready, as Winston Churchill would put it. Of course everyone is going to approach an outdoor painting differently, and part of how I discovered this process is by trying a bunch of different things and putting them together in a way that works for me. So if you haven’t tried one of these things before, I would encourage you to give it a go, and just see how it feels! Maybe it has a place in your mental toolbox.