Plein Air painting has become a popular pursuit – ‘the new golf’ as Eric Rhoads describes it. But, Plein Air painting is tough to master – especially trying to paint a flowing, changing river. I’ve been painting on location for almost 40 years and I still struggle to capture all the nuances and beauty I see.
If after 40 years it’s still so difficult, what’s the point? Why keep going outdoors to paint when it’s much more convenient to paint in the studio?
That’s a great question, and one I will cover as you read the 9 steps involved in painting a river scene.
This oil painting tutorial was filmed over two afternoons painting on-site. The third day was spent in my studio because the heavens opened up and we had a week of constant pouring rain. I’ll talk about that as well.
Let’s jump into the 9 steps I used to paint a river and a railroad bridge. At the end of this step-by-step art instruction, I’ll share my plein air painting journey with you as well.
Plein-Air Painting a River in 9 Steps
Step 1 – Should You Tone the Canvas with One Color or Multiple Colors?
My primary goal in the early stages was to observe and accurately capture the large color and value shapes that I saw and position them compositionally, so they would guide the viewer effortlessly around the painting. Detail at that stage was not important. The main idea was to paint a river that felt alive to the viewer.
Notice that I painted different colors for the major shapes in the composition rather than one overall color to tone the painting panel. There’s nothing wrong with toning the panel with one color first – like with a middle-value grey, or with a warm tone like Transparent Oxide Yellow or Red. With all the blues and greens everywhere in the painting, a wash of Transparent Oxide Red or orange might have been a nice harmonizing color. You may want to experiment with different options. I believe I need to revisit this spot and experiment myself.
Many professional artists tone their canvas or panel with a color ahead of time. That way the initial color wash is dry and ready to paint on. Now that I think about it, it’s probably a great idea for plein air painting since our time is more limited. That way we eliminate the high contrast of the white panel right away.
A time when you might want to leave the panel white is when you are painting something that is translucent and brightly colored, like flowers. That way, after you paint in the background colors, you can wipe off the flower shapes back to the bright white of the panel. That allows the light to bounce through thin paint layers and help the colors glow.
Step 2 – How Plein Air Painting Teaches Us to Observe Color and Value Shapes
I decided I better place some of the form-shaping shadows in the trees, water, and grasses before the light changed and they blended too seamlessly into a twilight-flattened scene. I was interested in the saturated middle-value colors of the late afternoon while also maintaining some strong contrast of light and shadow.
Since I was painting alla prima (all the paint was still wet) the largest shadow under the right bank of trees needed to be wiped off so I could paint a much darker and warmer shadow than I began with. I could have painted over it but that would have required thicker paint than I wanted in the shadows. I try to reserve the thicker paint texture for the highlights. The thinner paint helps the shadows to recede more.
Since the light source was warm sunlight, my direct cast shadows were on the cooler side, but the deeper shadows under the trees were a result of the filtered ambient cooler light from the sky which created much warmer cave-like shadows. That was as far as I got the first day (about 1 ½ hours of painting).
Late afternoon light shifts so quickly that the exact values are difficult to pin down. That means we have to think and react quickly. Like any muscle, the more we work our observation muscles the more confident and capable we become. Many things that are challenging when we are just beginning to paint outdoors will become second nature to us within a few months or years.
Also, like exercising muscles, plein air painting never gets easy, but we do grow stronger even if it’s difficult to see from day to day.
Step 3 – A Fresh Perspective and Scraping off Paint Texture
With a fresh eye and the basic structure of the painting in place at the start of the second afternoon, I could observe some nuances and value structures I didn’t see in the faded light the day before. So, I scraped off some paint and texture that I thought might interfere with my new vision. Surprisingly, most of the paint had dried, leaving only a few spots of cad yellow still wet.
I like to paint alla prima because wet-into-wet offers me a wealth of blending options – which is why I paint with oils. The dried paint wasn’t too much of a hindrance however since I generally reserve the thicker paint application for the final stages. The new paint layers would give me plenty of blending choices.
Step 4 – Increasing Saturated Color & Contrast while Plein Air Painting
You can see here that I quickly punched up the color and contrast.
I love, love, love sunlight slanting through water – the colors are mesmerizing. The warm yellowish glow in the middle right water was mixed using some Michael Harding quinacridone red, transparent oxide orange and cad yellow medium and lemon. I also played with bright lavender rapids to give movement to the water.
With all the fun I was having painting the water movements, I failed to notice a large circular shape swirling near the left bank that needed to be broken up.
It’s important to emphasize that anyone can become a skilled plein air painter. It simply takes persistence and honing your observation skills.
The constantly changing conditions of painting from life prevent us from relying too heavily on previous knowledge or habits. We have to react so quickly that our inner creative intelligence takes over and opens us up to developing and discovering new and stronger techniques and ideas.
Studying the nuances of nature on-location reveals much more about light and atmosphere than a photograph can. Painting from life fills our minds and hearts with accurate knowledge in a way that will stay with us longer and more usefully than simply painting in the studio from photos.
Step 5 – Breaking Up Repetitive Shapes
Step 5 – breaking up repetitive shapes and patterns that might distract the viewers. End of the second day of plein air painting.The brown egg shape was now gone, but a new formidable force emerged. For some reason, I struggled with repetitive patterns in this painting – finding them everywhere from start to finish.
You can see in the trees the identical size and treatment of the 3 color shapes positioned like dominoes ready to topple the success of my painting. In the water, two ripples and a rock form an awkward line cutting the river in half.
Small and large shape patterns besieged me constantly. I would eliminate a small bright dot from a square of 4 dots and realize I had created some other obvious shape that demanded too much attention from the viewer. We can get so caught up in the thrill of color changes and dazzling details that we miss the geometric shapes or repetitive patterns we create. That’s when it’s nice to have a mirror behind us or a friend who can point them out to us.
By this point, the light was so far gone I was struggling to see anything clearly and knew I would start making major mistakes if I didn’t head home. Fortunately, the painting was beginning to take shape and the over-all feeling, proportions, values, and color temperature relationships looked accurate and strong.
Since the rain was falling in buckets the next day (and for a week afterward), the rest of the painting was completed indoors.
* If you’re passionate about Plein Air painting, and want to continue learning past these 9 steps, I recommend continuing your training in the East Coast Plein Air Experience. The training includes this painting as well as 2 others, 12 hours of professional instruction, application challenges to increase learning, and other helpful resources. You can learn more about the training HERE.
Step 6 – Reworking Tree Shapes and the Riverbank
Yep, my outdoor palette is sitting on my studio palette. I could easily mix the same colors from scratch, but my paint was still wet, and I saw no reason to let a perfectly good set of color mixtures go to waste (at least until I ran out of room for new mixtures).
Here I began to alter the trees. Happily, I quickly saw the shape that looked like an arrow quiver that was forming in the upper right corner from the lighter green colors (see photo in Step 5). Once I saw it, it was easy to break up that shape and then tackle the other repetitive color shapes in the trees.
The increased knowledge and understanding we gain from oil painting from life allows us to paint more freely, efficiently, and with greater imagination and personality once we are back in our studios. The principles of light and shadow, atmospheric color, and accurate value relationships we learn while painting outdoors give us greater freedom for personal expression rather than being slaves to photos.
Step 7 – Starting and then Scraping Off the Bridge Struts
The rest of the trees and shapes in the painting felt good to me. They seemed to recede well into the distance and were fun to look at.
It was time to finish the bridge. Using the end of my paintbrush I measured the general sizes and positions of the bridge struts. I made great headway in getting the structure of the bridge painted – and then thunder boomed ominously overhead – the bridge wasn’t going to work.
The top of the bridge was too close to the top of the painting. If I left it as it was the frame I put on the painting would have touched the top of the bridge. That would become a very annoying tangent. I either needed to enlarge the bridge so it would go right off the top of the painting or shrink it so there would be plenty of room below the lip of the frame so the bridge wouldn’t feel crowded.
After thinking about it, the smaller version appealed to me more. In my mind it felt like it would be more intimate and would help the river and the trees feel relatively larger.
The top of the bridge had some thicker oil paint that was already drying. I scraped it with a palette knife to eliminate any lines that might show through later in the sky and cloud colors. Shrinking the bridge meant I also had to invent some modifications that would work with the new dimensions. That took quite a bit of drawing with paint and scraping off periodically when something didn’t look natural.
Step 8 – Painting the Weathered, Rusty Patina
In step 8 the bridge was close to the finish line.
The rusting, weathered patina of the metal seemed magical to me. Painting it was definitely a magical moment. Oil paint is perfect for layering one color over another. I used a dry-brush technique to work back and forth between greyed-down blues, and dirty oranges and yellows to produce the patina.
The thin shadows on the edge of the metal beams were essential to give the structure it’s 3-dimensional quality. Although, I didn’t want those shadowed edges to feel hard and solid from top to bottom since the bridge was quite a distance from where I was painting.
At that distance, I could easily see the structure and some of the details, but the atmosphere here in humid Indiana affects the clarity of edges. So, I took my palette knife and roughed up the edges here and there which added nicely to the weathered look and helped the bridge fit back into the distance more naturally.
Step 9 – The Final Details and Removing a Rock Wall
Here, at the final stage of the painting, I noticed a few areas that bothered me (and Kristie). I still needed to break up that line in the river I mentioned earlier. The group of rocks on the left was too heavy and didn’t allow a gentle flow through the water.
And that beautiful architectural wall at the top of the grasses on the left side that seemed to complement the distant bridge while on location was neither beautiful nor complimentary in my painting. Kristie pointed out that it was so strong and bright that it pulled her attention to it. So, I scraped down the paint and left ambiguous remnants that added a complement to the colors in the distant bridge but were unobtrusive enough to not distract the viewer.
I also scraped away some of the rocks in the water with a palette knife to break up the dam and allow the water to flow unencumbered and the viewer’s eye to travel happily up the river. The light greenish-blue brush stroke on the right, as well as one of the white reflective sparkles, were modified as well to break up the distractive patterns.
I was left with one more area that I was dissatisfied with – the lower-left corner. While I enjoyed the brush textures and colors, it felt incomplete and unstructured for an area so close to the viewer.
Instead of starting from scratch though, I used one of my mongoose rounds and with a swift diagonal movement gently blended areas of color together to form a saturated middle-value backdrop. That middle-value color allowed me to place some brighter strokes on top of it to form grasses and other plants (using fewer directional strokes and less texture than before).
With some vertical grasses and plants added, the lower-left corner felt congruent with the flow of the painting, and the upward movement of the plants added an energetic entrance to the rest of the scene while still offering something interesting to look at.
My Plein Air Painting Journey
The Early Days
Plein air painting, or outdoor painting, has been a consistent part of my art career since the mid-’80s, and I struggle as much or more today as I did when I first ventured outside with my paints. That isn’t to suggest that I haven’t learned anything in 35 years – my skills have certainly expanded and I can capture aspects of the landscape today that I didn’t think to look for then. Experience doesn’t make it easier for me though because my goals and expectations have also expanded.
That, I believe, is the reason painting is a lifelong pursuit. It remains challenging and engaging even as our mastery multiplies because our vision experiences a compounding effect – the more we paint the more we see, and our newly enhanced view intensifies our desires to share what we see with others – which in turn requires increasingly heightened abilities to convey our broadened vision elegantly.
Reading and studying are part of my daily routine – at least an hour a day. One of the culminating realizations produced by consuming thousands of instructional books, DVDs, podcasts and videos is that the products we love and that make our lives comfortable and convenient, that beautify our homes and enrich our experiences, are not generally never-before-seen, groundbreaking or revolutionary. They are simply incremental improvements and modifications of existing thoughts, movements, practices and products.
We don’t need to reinvent the painting wheel.
Studying the old and new masters and immersing ourselves in paint and canvas, whether in the studio or out on location, is the quickest way to master the craft of landscape and floral painting and produce what just might become one of the incremental expansions of the already breathtaking array of masterworks found throughout the world.
My hope is that sharing experiences I have as an artist will inspire and inform your ideas so that you can then improve and build upon what I have accomplished. Of course, I will then hope you share what you have discovered so I can learn from you!
Preparing for, Filming, and Painting a River Plein Air
Filming my painting process adds a lot of complication to the whole experience.
I haven’t used an umbrella for a couple of decades, preferring to paint with the light source (the sun) right on my painting and palette. Why? Mainly because umbrellas are inconvenient – they take time away from what I really want to do which is paint. They also catch gusts of wind when I don’t expect it. Seeing my easel take flight is never a welcome surprise.
Going without an umbrella normally works out great. You can see in my photo below how beautiful it is to have the light consistent across my painting, my palette and the landscape I’m trying to capture.
Unfortunately, as you can see in the photo below, I learned the hard way that having the sun on my panel when I’m filming isn’t always the best option.
During our cross-country painting excursion last March I discovered that just because I can see my canvas perfectly doesn’t mean the camera can. Once we got home and I started editing the videos to share with our art community, I found more glare than painting staring back at me. All of the footage I took in Carmel, California for an instructional video was ruined by the glare of the light on my panel.
So, for the filming of this river scene, I bought a large 7-foot photography umbrella that would cover both my painting and palette at the same time. It worked great for about 15 seconds until a tiny gust of wind toppled it over the river bank and snapped the hollow shaft near the top. I, in turn, snapped one of my smaller Rosemary brushes in half to splice the shaft together and used some twine to jerry-rig the umbrella so it would remain open and shield my painting from glare.
You can probably imagine my disappointment when I discovered I had set my supplies on a strategically placed patch of poison ivy. Such are the travails of outdoor painting. Fortunately, like many of you know already, the hardships of Plein Air painting pale in comparison with the joys of painting while surrounded by the sounds of rustling leaves and the rush of water across shallow river beds as geese announce their arrival with nasal trumpeted greetings.
Each of those inconveniences ended up costing me painting time. Between the malfunctions and the normal setup of cameras and equipment – my 4:30 ‘catch-the-late-afternoon-sun’ painting slot shrank from a solid 3-4 hours to less than 2 hours (each day), before the fading light forced me to pack up.
In retrospect, that might have become an advantage because it compelled me to concentrate on the essentials and paint quickly, not overworking or adding unnecessary details.
This painting was completed with two nights on location (about 1 ½ hours each evening) and a day in the studio to finish the bridge. I would have gone out the third evening, but it rained steadily the next day and continued for several days. The rain wouldn’t be a show stopper for normal Plein Air painting, but it wreaks havoc on camera equipment. And when we paint the same scene for more than a day we want the conditions to be comparable or else the light, the values, and the colors are altered dramatically).
Conclusion – Completed Painting (mostly)
While preparing the fast motion video of this painting I noticed that the two right diagonal posts on the bridge were too low – I didn’t keep them consistent with the angle of the other beams. It looks like an artist’s work is never done – thankfully!
Watch the full 6-hour training video for this painting, as well as 2 additional Plein Air painting training videos, in our Plein Air Course.
Tell me about your plein air adventures and harrowing moments capturing nature with paint. Why do you love to paint outdoors?