Plein Air Step by Step


Last week I was painting in La Crosse, WI for the Between the Bluffs Plein Air event, and I snapped some progress photos of a piece I was working on. Some of the most common questions I get from both painters and non-artists are about process, so I wanted to share some of that with you.

Overcast days can be very tricky to paint for a number of reasons. My personal preferences lean toward high contrast, more dynamic scenes, which really don’t exist with the lack of direct sunlight. That being said, cloudy days can offer a moody atmosphere and, for us plein air painters, consistent lighting for extended periods of time. It’s also a good chance to really focus on the subtleties of color and value.

What drew me to this scene in particular was the contrast in scale between the white tanks and the vehicles in the foreground. Adding some atmospheric perspective let me enhance that contrast.



I start with a loose drawing to establish my composition and major shapes. I don’t want to get bogged down in detail at this stage.


Next I start to add thinned down washes of paint to establish some value and color notes. This helps me keep track of the drawing as well as build up layers of paint.


One concern I had that the outset was the level of detail involved in portraying a parking lot full of cars. I wanted to get one vehicle on the canvas to the level of detail that I though necessary, knowing that every subsequent vehicle should be looser and more implied to avoid overworking the piece.


Again, here I’m adding and refining details while trying to keep the background elements loose. It’s a lot of pushing and pulling trying to get the right feel that believably portrays scale and depth.


After a few more rounds of adding paint, refining details, and hand wringing, a finished painting emerges. Every painting is a learning experience, and this piece was no exception. I had spent the two following days thinking I wasn’t satisfied with it. I’d gone through my checklist: drawing, value, color, edges, and composition, and everything seemed to work. So I was confused about why it felt unfinished. On the third day, I put it in a frame, and all of a sudden, all the colors started popping and the goals that I had at the beginning of the piece felt fulfilled. I was a happy painter. Who woulda thought?

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