The number one problem I hear beginning plein air artists talk about is that they feel overwhelmed by what they see. How do they distill a scene to the essence? I have told painters to consider what they can’t get from a photo: light and color.
When you approach a location, the first thing you need to consider is what drew you to the scene. Is that what you like about the scene? Is that what you want to convey to the viewer? Is is a feeling? Is it the color of an object? Is it the light quality? What is it? Then you will need to figure out how you will orchestrate your painting to convey that idea. Will you move things around to lead a viewer to the focal point? What will you eliminate that is not needed? Do you need to change the color of an object to make the painting read better? These are all questions you need to ask before starting a painting whether in the studio or on location.
When first starting in plein air, these questions and answers can be overwhelming. I tell artists to take a photo. Then paint the values and the colors in the scene. Use a large brush to eliminate details and squint! Take that loose sketch back to the studio to compose a painting from the photo and your study. You can get your details from the photo. As you become more accustomed to painting outdoors, think about the questions above and start composing your plein air paintings.
Time is always a factor in painting outdoors. With the shifting light, you need to paint quickly before the shapes change. Again, use as large of a brush as you can. Block in the painting with shadows to get your pattern and composition. Then paint in the lights. You can adjust the values and temperature of the shadows later as you are painting. When I approach a scene, I will look to see if there are any areas that I think will change quicker than another area. I will often paint that area first.
You have to about 2 to 2 1/2 hours to paint a painting so you need to make quick decisions and get in there. If you are painting at sunset or dawn, your time can be less. I have taken canvas out at sunset, premixed some colors and just record a progression of color without composing a painting. I was after learning how the color changes and relates to each other. The more you paint, the more you will see color.
Other problems encountered can be weather, bugs, critters, sunburn, thirst, people, equipment malfunctions, forgotten supplies and I’m sure you all can think of more.
In light of these “problems”, I have found that painting outdoors is exciting, challenging, and the greatest learning tool. You can learn so much more painting from life whether it is in the studio with models, still life or plein air. The nuances in color and values that you can’t see in photos are the main thing that you are after. After becoming more comfortable with recording scenes, you can compose and go after a feeling in a scene.