How to Adapt to Changing Light in Plein Air Painting

Have you ever wondered what to paint first and how to get it all when the light is changing so quickly when you are plein air painting? I’ll tell you what I think about and my process.

As you know, it isn’t wise to start chasing the light. Once you do that your painting can be all over the place, inconsistent and not hold together in a strong composition.

The first thing that you need to do is assess your situation with the weather.

  • Which direction is the light moving?
  • What time of day is it?
  • How much time do you have?

You need to anticipate. If you know which direction the light is moving, you will be able to tell what may be in shadow. If it is early in the morning or late afternoon, you will have less time for the light to change.

After I have thought about those variables, I look at the scene and try to figure out what will change first. Is there a rock face in shadow that may be exposed by the sun in a half hour by the moving light? In that case, I will paint the rock shadows first. Is there a tree shading something that I want in shadow? I may start there first.

Anything that is important to my story and will change quickly, may be a good starting point. A large field on sunlight probably won’t change much in a short period of time. In the middle of the day, the sky won’t change much. But it will change with clouds, sunset or sunrise. So, that may be the first thing that I paint in the scene.

Leave the things that won’t change as rapidly to the end of your painting session. It varies with each scene and sometimes the light is fairly steady and doesn’t change appreciably while you are painting. In those cases, you can paint a little more leisurely.

So, assess your scene. Paint the things that change the quickest. Then move onto the parts that will be more constant.

Enjoy painting out there!


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