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?

When Paintings Sh*t the Bed

It should go without saying that it isn’t possible to knock it out of the park with every painting. I think I exceed my own skill or knowledge level in a notable way maybe 2 or 3 times a year. I’ll sit back and say to myself, “Way to go, fella. You really nailed that one.” The rest of the time, it isn’t that. Now, this isn’t false modesty or any of that “you are your own harshest critic” nonsense. There are plenty of paintings I’m perfectly satisfied with. Many, I would say, are pretty good. But to expect grandeur with every brushstroke isn’t statistically realistic. If a painter feels like each painting is a masterpiece and they can’t find any flaws, they simply aren’t looking closely enough. On the inverse, if they never feel as if they’ve made an artistic breakthrough, they either aren’t applying themselves enough in the process or they are the tortured artist type (read: misanthrope) who is sure to liven up a party with their brooding demeanor and fun facts about baby seal clubbing. While acknowledging that every personality is different, I think the perfect balance is somewhere in the middle. I can confidently expect that with a little elbow grease and a critical eye, my work will improve over time. They can be steady, incremental gains, or they can come in big waves. The latter is often when I’ll think I’ve really outdone myself. On this rare occasion, it is customary to offer up a sacrifice to the Painting Gods. It could be months before the next “ah ha,” moment, and the Gods must be satiated. They’re partial to baby seals.

What happens far more often is that paintings fall short of this personal masterpiece status. Some are good, some are bad, and some are ugly. I’d like to focus on the bad and the ugly for a bit. There are many, many reasons a painting can fail that run the gamut from poor preparation all the way to 20 mph winds splattering cow manure on your canvas (that might be a real thing that happened once). I’m going to document some of these examples in a series I’m calling When Paintings Sh*t the Bed. So here goes!


Part One: That Photo is a Damned Liar!

Using photo references for painting is a double edged sword. On the one hand, they don’t move. You can manipulate an image digitally for varied effects. You can refer back to the photo for as much time as you’re willing to allow. You can sing that Nickelback song while hitting yourself in the head with a DSLR. For all the wonderful benefits that photos can provide, there’s a major item in the con column. Photos lie. Depending on your skill level as a photographer—I’m securely at infant level—it can be difficult to capture what your eyes are seeing with any usable accuracy. Darks tend to be even darker, and they lose detail. Along with that, you lose the richness of those darker colors. Light values tend to be overexposed, again losing detail and rich colors. To make matters worse, digital cameras gather and interpret visual information which then gets put through a second filter, your monitor, which further skews everything. It’s like a game of telephone. Another problem with photos is that you see everything all at once, and that isn’t how our vision works. Your peepers can only focus on about 5 degrees out of 360. Your periphery can cover a 60 degree field of vision, but that’s all blurry. With a photo, everything is in focus. It’s detail overload, which can be problematic if you’re trying to zero in on a focal point.

Bad River Bend

Here’s a painting from a few years ago, about the time I was becoming aware of this concept. The water in the foreground was partially in shadow, but the reference photo didn’t capture much of a distinction between the shaded and sunlit areas. I went over that spot several times before realizing I had no idea what it should actually look like. What resulted was an saturated blue next to desaturated, chalky-white highlights.  Similarly, the greens in the trees were mostly my best guess for what was actually there. The trees in the photo had very little variety in hue, temperature, and saturation. Speaking of saturation, what’s going on with that shoreline? It’s so grey! It’s sandwiched between a super warm burnt sienna at the bottom and a weird, unnatural green above it. And the value contrasts way too much with the surrounding areas. Whether or not that was in the photo, it should have been spotted and corrected. The drawing is good, but the way the values lead your eye around the painting is just disjointed.

One thing I got right—and if I recall correctly, the thing I was most excited about—was the ridge with the rim lighting at the bend in the river. It’s subtle in the value and temperature shifts. It believably portrays the depth of field, but it’s a moment that kind of gets lost because of the discordance with everything else.

Now I won’t be too hard on myself for this one. Even at the time, it wasn’t one I was showing off. I did learn a lot with this painting, however, most notably not to trust an iffy reference photo.

Bad River Bend Edit

I took a few minutes to tweak some things in Photoshop. Just changing the values in the foreground make that background focal point pop so much more. It allows the eye to travel back into the painting rather than get stuck on that obnoxiously bright foreground.

It’s fun to look back at older work and give it a solid critique. I’m glad to say I’ve learned some stuff since then.

Painting Step by Step

Oftentimes I take progress photos of whatever I’m working on with no clear intention of what to do with them. That, my friends, is a problem of the past. I thought I’d walk  through a painting and discuss some considerations for the piece as well as some of the technical process.

Process Photo

First and foremost, we need a workspace.

FL Studio

I’m working in Florida for a few months and renting an unfurnished apartment. So welcome to the pop-up studio! This was the first time using the new space. I was a little concerned about lighting, but these shop lights with some 5200K light bulbs did just fine. There was some glare on my palette which was more annoying than anything else.  Bonus points: the coffee pot is only five feet away.


Getting started on a piece, I try to do a loose but accurate drawing using a small brush and burnt umber. With this scene in particular, it was crucial for me to get the drawing down accurately for a few reasons. First, the main focus is a group of figures. With figure drawing/painting, the anatomy, proportions, gestures, etc. have to be right. Otherwise it will look very wrong. Second, the plane that the figures are standing on is higher than the plane the buildings in the background are on. This makes for some unusual perspective trickery. A big concern here was that even if I painted it correctly, it might still look weird. I decided to bring the two planes closer to level in order to avoid that dissonance while still remaining somewhat true to the reference photo. I find that whenever I stray too far from the source material, that’s when I start making bad decisions.


Once I’m satisfied with the drawing, it’s time to start the under-painting with thin washes of local color. This is an important step for some of the effects that I like to implement. Without going into detail on why I love the transparent qualities of oil paints, let’s just say they’re pretty awesome. It’s my goal to have specific areas of the under-painting showing through after subsequent layers of paint have been applied. For this piece, I knew that I wanted the shadows cast by the figures to be only this thin wash. Similarly, I liked the rich, orange glow on the woman’s hijab (transparent paints, I tell ya!!) so some of that was going to stay as well. An opaque paint application just won’t be able to capture the same quality. FullSizeRender

After all the washes are in place and I start to establish some values. Having my darkest darks and my lightest lights on the canvas gives good reference for all the values in between. At this point I start adding and refining detail as well. Generally speaking, I’ll start with my focal point, get that to a level of detail that I want and work my way out from there. For me, the focal point should have the highest level of detail as it should command the most attention. If the background has more detail than the main focus, it runs the risk of being distracting. Now, none of this is to say that the focal point needs a lot of detail–just that it should have the most.


At this point, the painting is starting to come to life, but it’s also a point where problems with the composition become more evident. I wasn’t quite satisfied with it, so I checked in with fellow painter, Antwan Ramar. He rightly suggested that the left side of the painting was looking a little cramped. The two figures were pulling the eye too close to the edge of the canvas. So adjustment were made.

The Wishing Well

After a few rounds of second guessing, edits, and tweaks, a finished painting emerges. Overall I was very pleased with how this piece came out. Now, on to the next piece!

Painting With Gratitude

Elmwood DowntownFor me, meaningless platitudes occupy a weird space in which I have both used them to look cool and disregarded them, also to look cool. I have “C’est la Vie” tattooed on my ribs, and if you don’t think that looks cool, I’ll invite you to step outside and throw down some fisticuffs. But I also roll my eyes every time I hear someone mindlessly say, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” as if that is somehow devoid of meaning and is therefore less valid. That’s the thing about platitudes—they are simultaneously rooted in truth and are trite clichés that could drive a person mad (I mean, did you see me almost lose my cool back there!?)

Why am I even talking about platitudes? Well, there’s one in particular that I’ve been trying to keep infused in my life: “Have an attitude of gratitude.” The following is going to be a bit of navel-gazing with some thoughts that have been relevant to me lately, so bear with me. I hope you can at least relate in some respect.

I recently started watching a young, British chap named Alec Steele on his YouTube channel. He’s a blacksmith, and his videos cover the projects he’s working on or general points of interest around his shop. Now, I know very little about forging. I’ve never been all that interested in it, but his enthusiasm and curiosity for his craft are completely captivating. Forging is incredibly physical, hard work, but in Alec’s hands, it looks like play in the purest sense of the word. After watching half a dozen of his videos, I actually said to myself, “Man, I wish I could just play around like that,” as if my chosen career couldn’t afford such an opportunity. In a split second, I had a very pointed feeling of embarrassment. I had somehow forgotten the credo—you know, the one about attitude and gratitude… something like that.

So what does it mean to have an attitude of gratitude? Well, exactly that; to count your blessings, to be grateful for what you have—not just what you have, but what you have the opportunity to have. While I take pride in calling myself a painter, I acknowledge how incredibly fortunate I am to do so. None of us is born in a vacuum, and we, therefore, owe a great deal to anyone who has had a hand in our ascension to functioning, human people. Why stop there? We ought not to forget the litany of people who have influenced us artistically, cognitively, spiritually, and so on. You get the idea.

Okay. That’s all great, but what function does that serve? Is it a quid pro quo—I offer up my gratitude to the universe, and in return, I receive existential bliss? Not exactly. For me, it’s more about a state of being. It’s a way of looking at the world—brace yourself for another annoying idiom—through rose-colored glasses. That isn’t to say that you shouldn’t acknowledge that life can be pretty terrible. It obviously can. But we’re left with a choice of how we deal with that information. So far, my life has taken a circuitous route with some high highs and some low lows, and there are definitely times when I question how I even got here. Speaking in terms of my profession, I know that it was always a sense of curiosity and gratitude, i.e. “how cool is it that I get to do this?” It’s a notion that I forget from time to time, and I need an excitable, British fellow on YouTube to remind me.

Having this demeanor sets the stage. It’s fertile ground for learning and creative exploration. Mark Twain famously said, “To succeed in life, you need two things: ignorance and confidence,” and I agree. I’ve seen that play out in my own life. But I would say that isn’t the whole story. Having passionate gratitude and curiosity is what keeps you going artistically when you don’t really have any other reason to. The Japanese call this concept Ikigai, meaning “a reason for being.” I like to think of it as “the reason to get out of bed in the morning.” It’s so easy to get bogged down by the tedium of the day to day. I sometimes feel the pressure to paint because of an upcoming show. At times, my inventory is running low, and I feel like I need to be in the studio rather than wanting to be there. What an opportunity to practice gratitude! We should all be so lucky to have such a problem. “Oh, woe is me! People like my work,” is not a good look on anyone, and it is almost certainly indicative of a person on the path to burnout. Instead, I hope to ask, “What do I get to create today?” or “What cool things can I learn?” When I step up to my easel, I want to feel what it was like to be 12 years old and on fire for the world! Of course it isn’t realistic to expect this nerdy passion at all times, but if we aren’t at least trying, what’s the point? If I find myself struggling to get motivated, I start a gratitude list. Being cognizant of or meditating on the things in my life that I am thankful for takes my ego out of the equation and will keep me humble. Humility leads to curiosity and growth, which lead to better work. Better work keeps me interested and motivated and so on. That’s some fortune cookie wisdom, for sure! That doesn’t make it any less consequential.

When combining a passion like painting with a livelihood made by selling those paintings, the distinctions become blurred. I find it important to constantly reestablish the boundaries between the two but also incorporate this sense of ikigai into both. The experience will be much richer for having done so. While—fingers crossed—my career is far from over, I hope a sense of gratitude will keep me at my easel chomping at the bit to keep learning and to do the best work I can.

What to Tell Your Young, Aspiring Artist

Dad and BillA dirty little secret about people is that we’re generally curious about the same things. Ask anyone who works in a retail setting, and I bet they have a list of things people say or ask over and over. Think about your own profession. Are there phrases you hear time and again?  As a painter, I have my own list. It isn’t an annoyance for me. Far from it. It’s a predictable shortcut that lets me know what people are interested in—whether it’s me, my work, or the painting genre in which I spend most of my time pondering and asking my own questions. One topic that often gets touched on is how to groom a young, budding artist. There are many variations on this question, but the framework is usually the same: “My (son/daughter/grandson/niece/cave troll) is an artist. What (supplies/books/instruction/livestock feed) should I get them?” Now, because I love talking about all of this stuff, the elicited response has a tendency to be an exhaustive encyclopedia stretching the bounds of my own experience. About the time their ears start bleeding, I wonder if maybe they were just making polite conversation. More often than not, I get the sense that they’re simply looking for Christmas gift ideas. To appease that appetite, I might suggest a few of my favorite books. What really should be said is, “Buy them a ream of printer paper.” For less than $5 the aspiring wunderkind will have access to an expansive arts education that is only limited by their own drive.

“How so?” the skeptical, yet well-intentioned grandmother may ask. Drawing. Drawing is the foundation on which most visual art forms are based. Drawing is to the visual arts what grammar is to language. Having at least a basic understanding of the rules, we can begin to communicate effectively. And the earlier a young person develops those skills, the more adeptly they can apply them to an even wider range of potential fields. I grew up in a small, rural town in central Wisconsin where I had wonderful art instructors. The area as a whole, however, was lacking in a general knowledge about the arts. Mr. Wilbert, my middle school geography teacher would say to me, “Remember who was good to you when you become rich and famous,” as he would point his thumbs proudly back at his chest. While I appreciated his blind confidence, clearly my hometown was out of touch. The concept of the “starving artist” had yet to breach our city walls. As far as we knew, anyone who could hold the title of “artist” was bound for wealth and glory! Notwithstanding, this sort of encouragement kept a pencil in my hand.

By the time I reached high school, my drawing skills were proficient enough for a teenager. The mysterious career of “artist” had moved to the periphery in favor of professions with more austere titles like “illustrator” or “designer” or “His Majesty, Lord and Artisan of Wisconsin, Husband of Jennifer Aniston.” The common denominator among these was, of course, drawing. Ultimately, I pursued an education, first in industrial design and later, in illustration. While I thought I had done a fair amount of drawing in high school, that workload doubled or even tripled in my college courses. I loved it. But I was confronted by an uncomfortable truth: I wish I had done even more drawing in high school. Visual arts are all about communicating ideas, and in order to do that effectively, one has to have a handle on the visual vocabulary. Illustration and industrial design rely heavily on this skill set. In an abstract way, that is the entire job description. For example, industrial designer John Doe has to design product X for the Acme Product Co. When Acme comes to John and says they want product X to be a kitchen appliance that brews coffee, chops vegetables, sharpens knives, has a built in crème brulee torch, pets the dog… AND it has to look cool, John doesn’t want to be thinking about the basics of drawing perspective. He’s focused on taking this idea and putting it on two-dimensional paper. If and only if he’s done a good enough job communicating that idea in 2D, product X will be made into a 3D model and subsequently move on to production. John will also need to update his resume. Acme Product Co. will be bankrupt inside a month with that ridiculous product line.

To expand this idea further—spoiler alert—I did eventually become a professional “artist,” and I still rely on my drawing skills. Only now I wish I would have drawn more while I was in college, too. Some might think of painting as separate from drawing, but they are symbiotically joined. Like our designer friend, John, I don’t want my mental energy to be consumed by the very basics. I want that to be instilled muscle memory. When working on a two-dimensional rendering of the Acme Product Co.’s kitchen monstrosity or—in my case—painting a landscape, the less I’m actively thinking about accurate drawing, the more I can focus on brushwork, color choices, values, and all the other things that make a painting successful. “So you don’t think about drawing at all anymore?” asks the grandmother from earlier who is still standing around for some reason. Of course I do! Good drawings beget good paintings. This is a Sisyphean task, to be sure, but the more deeply rooted the drawing skills are, the more efficiently they can be accessed without disturbing the flow of the art-making process. An athlete who stays in good physical shape will perform much better in a game time situation. Similarly, an artist who maintains or expands those drawing abilities, will in turn, improve the quality of their finished work.

That is why your kid/niece/grandson/gremlin/cave troll should receive a ream of printer paper this Christmas. Tell them to draw and keep drawing. These sketches aren’t meant to be polished masterpieces. When a drawing goes poorly, don’t worry; that piece of paper cost less than $.01! These sketches are the sets and reps getting pounded out in the weight room. Encourage the young artist to burn through that ream of paper. Keep track of the progress from the first sketch through the last. Buy another ream of paper. Repeat. Keep a small pad in their backpack, purse or gunny sack. They can do quick doodles when they have 15 minutes of downtime. Just draw keep drawing.  I still keep a stack of printer paper in my studio, and gosh-darn-it, I think I’m making progress.  They say the best things in life are free… or under $5.

Upcoming Events

Cape Coral Festival of the Arts Cape Coral, FL- January 12, 13

Delray Beach Festival of the Arts Delray Beach, FL- January 19, 20

Boca Raton Fine Art Show Boca Raton, FL- January 26, 27

Mount Dora Arts Festival Mount Dora, FL- February 2, 3

Sarasota Festival of the Arts Sarasota, FL- February 9, 10

Coconut Grove Arts Festival Coconut Grove, FL- February 16, 17

Naples National Art Show Naples, FL- February 23, 24

Gasparilla Festival of the Arts Tampa, FL- March 2, 3

Lighthouse Art Center Plein Air Festival Tequesta, FL- March 10-17