177 The challenge of plein air painting

Many people wonder why painting in plein air is so difficult. I consider it the greatest painting challenge. Contrasting plein air painting to studio painting reveals the challenges of painting in the field. 

In the studio we have plenty of time. We can easily adjust the paint so it will dry slowly. We work from a sketch, a plein air painting, or a photograph. All of which we can prepare and study at our leisure without worry about the passage of time. In the studio we can transfer the drawing one day, do a full-value color underpainting the next day, and on another day we can oil up the canvas and begin applying the final coat of color—in several painting sessions if need be.

A process that takes two or three days in the studio is compressed into two or three hours in the field It is the compression of time that causes difficulty for plein air painters.

The best solution is to break the plein air process into steps. There is no reason not to do a sketch one day, an underpainting the next, adding the final coat of paint on the third day (provided the light is consistent). Once this more lengthy process is mastered the painter can begin compressing a few steps into one. For example a painter might do a preliminary sketch, a thumbnail, and transfer the drawing onto the canvas in one session. The following day the painter might paint an underpainting and on the third day add the final coat of paint.

Some might object that this unduly lengthens the process. But if all else fails this is the most reliable method to begin painting quality outdoor paintings.

It’s important to practise getting quality results. Floundering in the field painting one bad painting after another is not the best way to learn how to paint well. I’ve heard it said that one needs to get mileage on the brush. But it is best to practice painting well—no matter how long it takes—rather than practice painting badly. 

Brad Teare — June 2014 

View from the Capital, 11″ x 14″, plein air sketch 

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Updated: 17th January 2022
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