Plein air, direct, from life, outdoor painting – we use a lot of terms to describe the same painting experience. When I began painting outdoors in the early 1980’s the term plein air wasn’t even around yet – I just knew that the Impressionists painted outside, so I probably should as well.

Monet Painting at Giverney –


Sargent Painting Outdoors –


At the time, it seemed like a natural combination – if I wanted to paint a landscape, then I better head out to find a landscape to paint, no matter how cold and wet it was that day.

Bill Inman painting in Glacier National Park in the cold and rain 1989 with a 24×30 canvas

It appeared straightforward at the time.

Now, it seems, a lot of artists would like to apply restrictive definitions to the experience – gotta prove that a painting is actually ‘plein air’.

I understand the intent – painting from life rather than from photos is essential for grasping the subtleties of light and shadow, color temperature and organic edges that are often lost in photos. Plus, there’s a relationship that develops between the artist and subject that cannot be simulated in the studio with photos.  

For me, though, complicating a simple idea is counterproductive. I’m not concerned with whether my paintings fall under the ‘plein air’ umbrella or not – my focus is on producing masterful paintings that capture those qualities of nature that refresh our souls and make us smile – especially when we’ve had a tough day.

Lily Pond, 30×40 painted on location Bigfork Montana 1989 – by Bill Inman


That’s why I included a segment in the 6 Week Master Course about painting outdoors. It’s my favorite way to begin a painting. I paint from photos on occasion, but my first 20 years especially were primarily plein air, or from life.

Today, I use my imagination a lot.

When I do work from photos, I either use photos I took and composed intentionally, or I let a photo be a gentle starting point and allow my imagination to complete the journey.

Now that I share so much of what I do, I try to use a reference photo more often so our community will have a solid starting point to follow what I’m teaching, which makes it more complicated for me as an artist, since I’m accustomed to making things up as I go. While using photos for the courses, I also don’t want our community to think that painting from photos will generate the level of mastery that comes from painting from life – that is highly unlikely.

At the same time, I hope that none of us feels restricted by arbitrary or well meaning ‘rules’ attached to plein air painting today. Everything we do as artists should be calculated to accomplish the greatest good in the shortest amount of time. Too many restrictions curtail our intuition or imagination – which are the most powerful tools we have in our quest to craft masterful art.

So, if you hear that there’s a certain look or definition expected for plein air painting, ignore them. Just get out and get to know your subject as you would a dear friend. Then you’ll paint something magical, and your journey will be joyous and sustaining. You will welcome the challenge and will want to do it every day for the rest of your life.


11 Steps to Finishing a Plein Air Tree Painting (in the studio)

Instead of showing the painting process from start to finish, I thought you might enjoy seeing the 3 different endings (each time I thought I was done) and why I returned to the painting each time to make changes.

The beautiful park scene I started with

1. This is the result of an hour and a half painting on location at McCullough Park in Muncie Indiana. I wanted to ensure I captured the color temperature relationships and the overall feeling of the scene before the light shifted dramatically.


2. Here’s my first ending. The sparkles of leaves and grasses are enchanting to me so I added quite a bit of detail. I also pushed the receding hills and trees into the distance by lightening the values and cooling down the color temperature.


3. After pondering over the piece (and getting Kristie’s feedback) I decided the tree closest to the viewer was blocking too much – it seemed to prevent the viewer from moving into the painting because it commanded so much attention. It also created a line of 3 trees running back and to the right, which I’m not a fan of.

Rather than painting straight over it I scraped as much as I could so the thick paint wouldn’t ghost its way through the future layers of paint.


4. Then I set to the task of matching the surrounding colors to finish the disappearing act.


5. Some extra sky holes helped open up the masses of foliage.


6. After attaching some of the vacant tree’s branches to the remaining trees I splashed some brighter hued leaves around the painting to balance all those greens and blues.


7. To increase the feeling of distance and give greater variety to the composition I pushed one of the smaller trees back by lightening the values and adding lavender – I made sure the foliage was cooler in hue as well.

For the second time, I thought I was finished and sent it to a gallery. Fortunately, a few months later I asked to borrow it back for a show I was thinking of entering. That’s when, with fresh eyes, the painting told me there was still work to be done.


8. The first thing that had to go was the long line the branches of the 3 main trees made right across the base of the foliage – one bright branch connected to another and so forth. The branches didn’t need to be eliminated entirely, I liked the color and brightness of them, I just needed to shift one around a bit.


9. Then I decided the twins were a little plain and needed some bedazzling – so I began by creating bark texture for interest and then an entirely new branch that would help push the smaller tree back using the overlap principle.


10. The 3 large trees were obviously close friends and they were doing a wonderful job keeping each other company, but I thought they needed some neighborhood kids running around to keep things lively. So, I added a lot of thin trunks with a few colorful leaves to help increase the contrasts and create a stronger 3-D effect. I also replaced a large orange leaf with sky to open up the area between the middle and the left side trees.


11. Some minor shadow additions and a bright branch on the right tree, some blue dry brushed over the foliage on the small tree to the right, and I felt it was finally finished – again.


Wait, what about…

Nope, that’s enough – definitely time to move on to the next grand adventure!

Question for you:

Now that you’ve seen my plein air to studio-finish process, tell us about some of your experiences painting in the great outdoors.  Do you prefer to finish right then and there on location; are your plein air pieces only meant as studies for larger studio works; or do you enjoy capturing the initial essence and then bringing the painting to the studio for refinement?