Plein Air Demo Step by Step

My Setup:

I use a homemade pochade box and camera tripod.  All my supplies except the tripod pack into an Osprey (from REI) 22” carryon that can be wheeled, carried or used as a back pack.   My tripod straps to the back of it.  The carryon fits under airline seats and is very durable.   There are plenty of straps on it to attach other equipment.  The wheels work well if the ground is not too rough and it’s relatively comfortable on your back for short hill climbs.


Here is a photo of all the stuff in my carryon:

My Palette:

I currently use Michael Harding, Gamblin, Sennelier, and Holbein oil colors.   My solvent is Gamsol from Gamblin and my medium is Galkyd-lite from Gamblin.  I am using a split-primary palette with all transparent warm and cool primary colors.   I also have a dark neutral tinting color, mid-value blue, neutral and warm grays, plus titanium buff and Gamblin’s Quick Dry White.

Here are the  6 colors:


Here are the 5 grays and the white:


Palette Layout:

Here is the layout of my palette with the colors and grays on a Palette Garage paint holder (from Best Brella) in my pochade box:

My palette from left to right has the following tube colors on the tray:  Bright Yellow Lake, Yellow Lake, Napthol Red, Crimson Lake, Ultramarine Blue (all from Michael Harding), Indigo Hue (Sennelier), Neutral Tint  (Sennelier), Blue-grey (Sennelier), Grey of Grey (Holbein), Warm Grey (Sennelier), Titanium Buff (Sennelier).  On the palette below the tray is Quick Dry White from Gamblin (titanium white).

You don’t need these exact colors, brands, or even all transparent colors.   You can work with just 3 primaries but the split-primary (warm/cool of each primary color) allows more vivid secondary and tertiary color mixing.   There are many different tube grays available as well.  They can all be mixed from your primary colors and white.   Having them on the palette speeds up the painting process by cutting down color mixing time.   It also helps when the palette surface is smaller (as with a pochade box) by reducing the number of times that you have to clean off an area on the palette to mix clean colors.

Materials Used for Composition and Sketch:

1) Digital Camera with removable memory card (SDHC), iPad Camera Connection Kit (Apple $29.00):

2)  iPad with camera card in camera connector and reference photo loaded:                        

3) Value Viewer App (App Store from iTunes $4.99):                    

This app is inexpensive, very intuitive and easy to find help on.   It converts your painting to a grayscale image and two or three value Notans.   It will use any photo on your iPad (it also works on the iPhone) or will actually take a photo with your iPad that you can use.   You can crop, widen or narrow your value contrast and brighten and darken the values as well as size it to your canvas, add a grid and save your work on the iPad.   The app developer, Mark Putnam, is married to a well know plein air artist (Lori Putnam).  You do need to understand Notans and Value massing to use it to your best advantage.

4) Pastel Pencils and canvas panel:  This panel came with acrylic priming; I added a coat of Gamblin oil ground because I prefer oil priming.  I use Stabilo pastel pencils—don’t use regular art (wax) pencils.  Colors don’t matter that much, but will mix with the paint.   Violet colors work best for me.


Step 1

Shoot photo reference and transfer memory card from your camera to the iPad connector and insert the connector in the connection port on your iPad.   It will ask you what photos you want to download.  This is the one I selected and downloaded.


Open up the downloaded photo in Value Viewer and turn it into a 3 value Notan with gridlines covering it and size it to your painting panel (in this case 11” by 14”).  Here’s the 3 value Notan in Value Viewer:


Step 2:

Sit in the shade (sitting in your car works well or sit under a tree, etc).  Put your painting panel on your lap and your iPad showing your reference photo beside you.  Sketch onto the panel your 3 value Notan.   I use two different pastel pencils here—one for the mid-dark value shapes (blue violet) and the other for the mid-light value shapes (light red violet).  I cross hatch the areas for the mid-darks and mid-lights and leave the mid values with no marks.  This takes about 5 to 10 minutes.  Now set your easel up right where you took the picture you selected so that you have the same view.


Step 3:

Block in the mid-darks with a little Galkyd-lite (Alkyd medium from Gamblin) and Gamsol (OMS from Gamblin mixing a dark color from your cool red, warm blue and warm yellow – this looks like a blue violet and it should be very transparent. Use a large bristle brush and don’t worry about brushstrokes, but don’t make the paint so thin that it runs down the panel.  Next block in the mid-values with the same pigments but mixed to a burnt orange or golden ochre hue; again keep it transparent.  Last, the mid-lights are blocked in with the same thin orangey color as the mid values and but after a few minutes they are wiped back with a cloth or paper towel to just leave a warm toned stain on the canvas.   Wipe out any lighter areas within your mid value masses, but leave the darks alone.   Now let the paint set up for a few minutes while you get out all your other gear and oil colors. Here’s how it will look.

Step 4:


Now that your “imprimateur” has tacked up and may even be dry to the touch, you will restate all your darks with color variegation and some Galkyd-lite in the mix (but no Gamsol).   Use the same colors as before with addition of other colors for the variegation and without any detail, but refine the shapes.  Again, don’t worry about brushstrokes or evenly covering everything.  Keep your shapes abstract and the edges a little blurry, but get the canvas covered.   Here’s how it should look now.  Notice that the darks are a purple color.  This will go well with your greens and is much warmer than a blue hue would be.

Step 5:

Next, lay in your mid values using the same colors you mixed before for your “burnt orange” but with added titanium white or buff titanium to lighten and opaque it.  Variegate your mid value masses and liberally add in your warm and cool grays as foils for your color with splashes of higher chroma colors where you see them.  Again no detail.   Your paint will be thicker than in the darks and much more opaque.   Also keep your edges blurry and bring them right up to your darks.  Now your painting should look like this:

Step 6:

Paint in the sky and water now.  For both, I use the gray blue from Sennelier as a starter.   Alternatively, you could mix this color from titanium white and ultramarine blue and add a little warm red and warm yellow to gray it, but this takes more time and the gray blue out of the tube is real easy to start with.  To variegate the tube color, I can add titanium white, titanium buff, warm and cool grays, ultramarine blue, indigo blue and reds and yellows to get any mid-light blue hues that I want.   Keep the sky lighter than the water unless there is a lot of glare on the water (early morning, late afternoon with a low angle of the sun).  Use a large brush and Galkyd-lite with a little Gamsol for this initial lay in of your lights.  This paint will be more opaque than your darks.  Again don’t worry about brush strokes; you will be restating both the sky and the water with thicker paint.  And no detail yet.  Now you are going to let things tack up a bit for about 15 minutes.  This is a good time to clean up your palette, wipe and rinse some brushes, take a few photos, hydrate yourself, have a snack and look at what your friends are painting.   You have now completely covered the panel with your underpainting.   This is what is called the “ugly phase” in plein air painting.   Step back and take a good look at your painting.  It should look pretty good and not “ugly” at all from 6 to 8 feet back from the easel.  Here’s how it will look now:

Step 7:

Finish your sky with Galkyd-lite added to your paint to make it flow or with no medium at all if the flow is OK without it.  Keep the sky lighter and warmer at the horizon and cooler and darker overhead.  Keep your brush work nice and loose with random brush strokes, and variegate the sky colors from warm to cool blues.  Paint into the mountain edges a little so that you add some sky color into the mountain edges. Then finish off your water with horizontal strokes and add any reflections with vertical strokes.  Your water should be lighter and less saturated (grayer) in the distance and warmer and darker in the foreground.  Next clean up your mid value and mid-dark shapes and make sure that your value structure stays intact (don’t put too many mid values in your mid-darks or too many mid-darks in your mid value masses).  Soften edges particularly in the distance and fill in areas where there is little or no paint.  Step back again 6 to 8 feet to see how the painting is looking and what you will have to fix in the final step.  Still you have not put in all that much detail; you have mostly cleaned up your shapes and edges.  Here’s how the painting will look now:

Step 8:

You are nearly done and you can finish everything now or back in the studio.   Detail out the painting by putting in hard edges and softening other edges, particularly away from the focal point.   Negative paint to define structures.   Work all over the canvas as you see things that need refining.  Use thick paint with no Gamsol and without any Galkyd-lite unless they are needed to thin the paint to lay a stroke over very wet paint.   Remember that the underlying paint can seep into the paint you are applying and change its hue and value.   Do not move the paint around too much or you will make mud.   Just try to very lightly lay paint off your brush or palette knife onto the surface of the still drying paint layer beneath.  Finally sign the painting and put it aside for awhile.   You might see some more areas to touch up as you look at it indoors.  When it is completely dry you can “oil it out” by applying Galkyd-lite to the whole painting and wiping it back with a cloth or paper towel about 10 minutes later.   Here is the final painting, signed in the studio and with only a few minor tweaks before taking this photo:

I have titled the painting “Richardson’s Bay Marsh”.   It was painted from under the US 101 bridge over Richardson’s Bay; the City of Mill Valley is in the background.  The water is brackish and there are a lot of shore birds in the area.   Mt. Tamalpais in the background and most of the lower hills are heavily wooded with oak, madrone, eucalyptus and redwood forests.  Mt. Tamalpais is the highest point in Marin County and third highest in the San Francisco Bay area. 

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Comment by Stuart J. Gourlay on February 5, 2015 at 22:48
Christine, I met Michael Harding here in N. California about 3 years ago; nice guy, great paints!
Comment by Christine Kirton on February 5, 2015 at 22:11
Lovely painting Stu. Great to read your painterly journey from start to finish too. My Plein air is my passion now, it is so addictive as you say. I am also a Harding oil painter, I just love his pigments.
Comment by Stuart J. Gourlay on February 2, 2015 at 2:04
Be careful of plein air painting, because it's very addicting; when you see your work improving, you want to paint outdoors more and more and indoors less and less. Have fun with it!!!
Comment by Aurelia Sieberhagen on February 2, 2015 at 1:40

Thanks!  That is a great tip!  I always tried to keep my paintings not more than 5 values, but giving this tip, it will work.  And then of course keep the subject simple.  I haven't done many plein air, so I would like to give it a go at least once a week, because I have notice that the artists that do plein air, their work improve much faster than those who work from a computer.  (Hope to get enough time to do that!)

Comment by Stuart J. Gourlay on February 2, 2015 at 1:08
Aurelia, I haven't used ArtRage, but will give it a try. 3 value paintings are much stronger than 5 value paintings, and you obviously have less value masses. Unless you have snow or whitewater you don't really need a real high value anyway. If most of your painting is in just 3 values, you can go up a value for highlights and down a value for accents. Most of your saturated color will be in the mid value range and if you have a lot of color in this range you won't need to have that broad a value range. So, three values is fine for many paintings, especially for plein air work.
Comment by Aurelia Sieberhagen on February 2, 2015 at 0:39

Thanks Stuart!  I played around with it a bit and it work very well.  I have the app "ArtRage" on my iPad too and after the notan on "value viewer" I send it to "ArtRage" to change, take stuff out, ect to make sure I have a strong notan.  Also a very nice app. But it is a pity that it doesn't go up to a 5 value as well. 

Comment by Stuart J. Gourlay on February 1, 2015 at 22:17
Aurelia, I use value viewer a lot, but for the past 6 to 8 months I have been using it with my iPhone and take my picture with the iPhone camera. This is much easier. I am also usually getting my sketch on the canvas with OMS thinned burnt sienna. This seems to work. The value viewer app really let's you skip a lot of the squinting to see values and helps analyze a scene to develop a strong composition with a solid value structure. It's a great set of training wheels!
Comment by Aurelia Sieberhagen on February 1, 2015 at 20:04

I just bough myself a new IPad as my previous one was to old (still have one of the very first one without a camera) and did not want to upload new apps.  I could not remember the "Value Viewer"'s name you have on yours and remember you had somewhere in the blog wrote about your process and went looking for it today to see what apps I should upload.  Thanks for not deleting your blog!!

Comment by Stuart J. Gourlay on August 9, 2014 at 2:08
Thanks Craig. This is my 4th homemade pochade box and the lightest and most durable. I modified plans that I bought on the Internet. I recently got a 40 liter daypack from REI that all my stuff except the panels in carriers and the tripod fit into. It is most useful for hiking and walking on uneven ground to the painting site. The 22" Osprey carry on is fine on pavement and has straps for carrying it on your back, but it is really uncomfortable and heavy compared to the daypack.
Comment by Craig Seaborn on August 8, 2014 at 14:07

Hi Stuart that was very interesting , lots of info , and a nice painting as well. I have built my own pochade box as well , but it is not as nice as yours!


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