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.


En Plein Air Painting Festival

Last fall, before my long winter hibernation, I participated in En Plein Air Painting Festival at The Vermont Institute of Natural Science and Raptor Rehabilitation Center in Quechee, Vermont.

I painted on the trails, by the river, marshes, and in the open meadow for seven days, capturing the peak of New England fall foliage, my palette a swathe of earth tones and warm pigments. Before all my painting sessions I visited the incredible raptors; owls, ravens, bald eagles, hawks, and falcons. On one of the last days I painted a male snowy owl and two Ravens. They felt so mystical and wild, it was an awesome opportunity.

I ended up getting second place in the quick paint competition. This means you finish your outdoor painting in less than four hours. It was raining so I stood under my umbrella, rain drops dripping from my hood, and my hands getting pretty wet and cold. I also made the front page of the local paper! The photographer captured the exact light I was attempting to capture in the scene by the river.

Plein Air Workshop

In 2018 I taught my first Plein Air Painting Workshop, focused on foundational oil painting techniques and the process of en plein air painting.

The most significant message during this course is that Nature is our greatest teacher. I wanted to encourage painters to ask the scene, not me, to answer certain questions pertaining to composition, shape, light, color, and depth. My hope was to encourage others to transcend modes of thinking, and communicate with their surrounding environment intuitively, deeply, and with an open heart.

This way of painting, and creating a flowing dialogue, has created a huge transformation for me, and continues to. It allows me to recognize the complex living organisms all around me, and for a moment to tap into that energy that words cannot describe. This connection nourishes my soul and increases my sense of compassion for something that I am apart of and inextricably linked to. To me en plein air painting is so much more than direct observation; it is an emotional and meditative experience that brings me to the very spirit of Nature. Its also about connecting with your own sense of adventure; swimming through tall grass, hungrily searching for a scene you feel kinship with, and breaking a sweat looking for the perfect spot!

World Of Interiors Magazine

I was recently featured in the summer 2018 campaign “Artistic Impressions” in the Conde Naste publication, World of Interiors, UK. One of my paintings was featured in each of the three issues. The last issue, October, has a ton of information on the annual London Design Festival. The paintings featured include, Long Pond 2015, Impermanence 2018, and Tine 2018. The theme I had in mind for this campaign reflects my interest in conveying strong value and color gradients, either monochromatic or complimentary colors. I tried to choose peices that reflect space in particular, whether that means expansiveness in composition or creating depth with light and perceived distance.


August 2018 PC WOI Instagram


Long Pond, 2015


September 2018 PC WOI instagram


Impermanence, 2018
October 2018 PC WOI Instagram


Tine, 2018

Time Lapse Painting

I awoke before sunrise with a stack of gessoed, orange stained masonite panels and planted myself in front of the window panes overlooking the Worcester mountain peaks in the barn home. 
My boyfriend and I were house and seedling sitting as the farmers were traveling for a few days. 
The full, supermoon light poured in and I sat, soaking in it's energy before setting up my easel. My eyes circled the glowing orb, a ghost beckoning a silent reverie. I followed the silvery arm-like 
beams outward, into the darkness of night, spreading across the sleeping fields, all the way to my 
feet on the concrete floor. 

As the sun began to emerge and illuminate the mountains, casting a pale pink and 
orange glow on the frosted ice caps, I began my painting, of my favorite peak "No Name." Time 
unraveled before me. I made the finishing touches, as the shadows drained into the tree line, while listening to the 
slow pumping of the watering hose next to me. The sound reminded me of the breathing tube I had to 
use in the hospital as my collapsed right lung fluttered, day and night, into a chest tube. 
Everything is 
coming alive, I thought. 

The day, the mountains, the birds, the seedlings are coming alive. I am coming alive. 
As the day continued on, I returned to my easel at 12pm, 3pm, and 4pm, and tried to 
capture the light over the course of an hour. I continued to use the same color palette that I mixed at dawn, but adding variations of grey, and mixing more blue into the oranges, reds, and whites. By dusk I was mostly just adding a lot of ultramarine blue! As the sun began to set behind the 
mountains, I watched the dip in the ridge line, like the contour of a profiled mouth, swallow the 
egg yolk sun whole. I expressed this with swift, hungry, shadowy brush marks. What must it be 
like, to be No Name for a day? I wondered. 

It was a beautiful experience to sit 
and observe such a small part of the vast landscape, and explore 
that pivotal area where the light and sky change over the mountain ridge. I felt the charge of 
energy, where air and water meet earth. I felt these elements interacting, inside of me, and all 
around me. 

Additionally, I had greeted the moon and journeyed with sun from the east to the west. 
It's such a trip to know this magical sequence of events is happening each and every day. 
I've included these four studies entitled "A Day with No Name" in show24 at The Front Gallery. I'm 
happy to announce they have sold as a set! Even though the physical records will be leaving me, the memory leaves a powerful imprint. And for that I am so grateful.


Screen Shot 2018-03-06 at 7.38.43 AM


“A Day with No Name” Oil on masonite, 2018, 4 x 4 “
Knowing is loving.


Show 23

Show23 at The Front Gallery!

This exhibition focuses a lot on color and light it seems, largely due to the work of this show’s guest artist Jeanne Thurston. The gallery is starting off 2018 with some beautiful art and new innovative ideas! My first painting of the year “Impermanence” seeks to merge experiences of the landscape on a farm with my own internal landscape exploring emotional and physical healing. 

We have to break open in order to let the light enter.

45488403-236F-466D-8941-920C5296EFB3Sculpture by Hasso Ewing, color paintings on Beehive Bars on panel by guest artist Jeanne Thurston, installation view by Janet Van Fleet, and wall mural by Michelle Lesnak. 
Collage by Deluxe Unlimited, and oil painting by me, Lydia Gatzow

hunger mountain

Just hung some paintings at the natural health food store in Montpelier, Vermont!!!
This work will be exhibited for the month of January, 2018 in the art cafe of the store. Hours are 8AM-8PM daily!
623 Stone Cutters Way in Montpelier, Vermont
All work is for sale. 30% of proceeds will go towards The Good Heart Farmstead where I am currently yurt living, farming, and painting. Check them out as well! They are offering spring, summer, and fall CSA shares. 
PS Hunger Mountain is one of the peaks in the Worcester Range, which has been a huge source of inspiration for me on the farm. 


“Field Studies” At Hunger Mountain Coop