Plein Air Painting – Take One

As I am getting ready for lots of travelling and painting outdoors this spring, I’m reminiscing about my last summer’s experience of painting en plein air for the first time. Before last summer, I held a brush outdoors just a couple of times really. This is not to say that I was an experienced studio painter by that point. On the contrary, by summer 2015, I’ve been paining altogether for only about a year, and very sporadically. Still, painting outdoors was a whole new game for me and, last year, I decided to try playing it for real.

Here, I’d like to share with you a few thoughts on the last year’s experience, along with some of its outcomes.

The main dilemma I faced when I started packing for last year’s plein air painting trip – and the one which would largely determine its outcome – was: What kind of painting equipment to take? The choice was between oil paints and watercolors – the only two painting media I’ve tried up till that point. After some contemplation, I settled on watercolors, and was later very happy I made that choice.

There are several reasons why. First, using watercolors meant I didn’t have to deal with any of that oily messiness and stainyness, or prolonged drying of my paintings after they were finished. Given the fact that we moved around from one place to the other every week or so, I really appreciated carrying around only completely dried paintings. The second and related reason to the first one was the lightweight character of my outdoor painting products. It’s basically just sheets of paper, rather than wood panels or canvases attached to stretcher bars. This meant I could easily truck my paintings around all summer long, by putting them in a little folder and sticking them into my backpack. Finally, the third and the most important reason for favoring my watercolor choice is that it made me improve my drawing skills and precision more than I believe oil painting would have.

To clarify, in watercoloring, once the paint is applied to the paper, there is very little one can do about possible mistakes one makes. That’s why one usually first carefully draws out the underlying structure of the painting and only subsequently applies the paint over it – knowing that every brush stroke will be traceable. With oil paining, on the other hand, one can always make changes as one goes on. That’s why one can easily start painting with oil paints from scratch, as most do, and correct potential drawing mistakes later by painting over them.

So, while oil painting basically allows you an infinite number of alterations of your work of art at any stage of the process, watercolor doesn’t. This is why I considered the choice of watercolors to be a better way for me to improve my drawing and painting skills. It meant consciously making things harder for myself in terms of education and easier in terms of transportation.

So, these were the pros. The main con of working with watercolors was that I had no one to show me how it’s done, so I was figuring it out on my own – for better or for worse. I hope one day in the future, I’ll get a chance to work alongside an experienced watercolorist maestro, to pick up some tips.

Still, I think watercolor was the way to go for my first plein air painting experience, as I learned a lot in the process, and came back home light and clean. In fact, I liked it so much that I’m planning to do the same this year – with some added gouache on the side, which I recently discovered and absolutely adore.

Before this year’s plein air paintings start rolling in, however, I’d like to share with you some of the results of my last year’s efforts – in order to put things in better perspective and allow you an insight into my learning process. So, here they are, in chronological order:


Noon in the Senese.

Midday in the Senese.


View of Montisi.

View of Montisi.


Corso del Popolo, Chioggia.

Corso del Popolo, Chioggia.


The Statue of Liberty, NYC.

The Statue of Liberty from Rockefeller Park.


Bay Point Docks, Long Island.

Bay Point Docks, Long Island.


Sailboat at East Hampton Boatyard.

Sailboat, East Hampton Boatyard.


Fountain in a Drought, Carmel Valley.

Fountain in a Drought, Carmel Valley.


Agavas, Carmel Valley.

Agavas, Carmel Valley.


Rockport Harbor, Maine.

Rockport Harbor, Maine.


Broad Cove Sunset, Maine.

Broad Cove Sunset, Maine.


Dodge Aspen, Lunenburg.

Dodge Aspen, Lunenburg.


Meisner's Island, Nova Scotia.

Meisner’s Island, Nova Scotia.


Cranberry Bog, Cape Cod.

Cranberry Bog, Cape Cod.


Marconi Beach Guards, Cape Cod.

Marconi Beach Life Guards, Cape Cod.


Sunset, Amrita Island.

Sunset, Amrita Island.


The Longfellow Bridge, Boston.

The Longfellow Bridge, Boston.


Cast Drawing – Some Tips and Tricks

In my last post, I talked about the main stages of drawing a cast – both from the methodological point of view, as well as the emotional. Now, I would like to share with you some of the most important things I learned in the process of drawing my first two casts. Here they are:

  • Keep your charcoal sharp at all times. – That is, if you draw with charcoal, like I did. Personally, I find it’s a pain having to sharpen my charcoal all the time, especially since the sound makes me cringe. But it’s essential if one wants their drawing to be accurate. As I already said, even millimetric differences count, so you really want to follow this advice.
  • Do not touch the paper with your fingers. – Otherwise you risk getting grease and dirt on it, which in turn can ruin your drawing because it will cause the charcoal to adhere unevenly.
  • Pay attention to the negative shapes. – That is to say, carefully observe spaces between the defining contours of the object you’re drawing. In other words, think of your object and its background as two puzzles fitting perfectly together. You need to draw both puzzles accurately if you want your drawing to correspond to the visual appearance of your subject-matter.
  • Do not rush! – I cannot overstate the importance of this one. Doing a cast drawing is not about producing a masterpiece. It’s about learning to see and learning to draw precisely what you see. And to do that, you need to take it slow – especially in the preliminary stages of your drawing.

I’ve been told some spend 6 months on their cast drawings (!). Just to give you an idea, I spent about three weeks on each these two (and they are far from the level of finish some art instructors would require):

Cast drawing 1


Cast drawing 2


Overall, the message is, take as long as you need, but don’t overwork it. This brings me to the next important lesson I learned, which is…

  • Do not look into the shadow. – When they start drawing, students tend to focus too much on details and forget to look at their subject-matter as a whole. Hand in hand with that mistake goes staring into the shadowed areas. Both of these errors lead to two problems. One is getting a part of your drawing perfect, but out of sync with the rest of it. The second is known as “overmodelling” – which basically means overemphasizing values in certain areas in relation to the natural look of the subject/object as a whole. These problems are bad not only from the point of view of accuracy, but also from the esthetic point of view.

Having said that, sometimes reflected light areas in the shadow are quite noticeable, even if you squint. In this case, they should be reproduced in your drawing. When drawing those, however, it’s easy to get your values wrong in relation to the halftones in the rest of your drawing. To avoid that problem, I was taught to keep the edges around the reflected light in the shadow soft. Additionally, I was advised to emphasize the reflected light in the shadow by darkening the areas around it, instead of lightening the reflected light.

Speaking of the darks and the lights, here’s the next piece of advice, which is:

  • Be careful with the halftones – When surrounded by shadow, halftones are usually darker than you will perceive them. When surrounded by light areas, it’s the opposite. In order to get them right, squinting and throwing your eyes out of focus (which I mentioned in one of my previous blog posts) really helps.
  • Vary your edges. – Meaning sharpen some, soften some – as they naturally appear when you look at your subject-matter as a whole. This, however, should be done in the last stages of your drawing. And in connection with finishing a drawing, here’s another pearl of wisdom worth sharing, which is:
  • Do not worry about the finish until the big shapes are right! – That is to say, leave refining the details for the very end. If you spend a lot of time on them in the earlier stages of your work, you risk having to erase them when you notice bigger problems with the overall shapes in your drawing (and you probably will notice them).

Finally, when it comes to erasing, here is the last piece of advice I would like to share with you and that is:

  • Don’t be precious about your work. – I know that’s hard, but if your work it needs fixing – fix it. I’ve heard about students having major meltdowns when teachers made them erase stuff that they spent a ton of time on. Understandably, this can be extremely frustrating. But remember, this is not about creating a masterpiece. It’s about learning the basics in order to be able to create one later.

Drawing a cast

When looking at things, people tend to focus on their important features. For instance, when we look at a human face, we focus on the eyes, the nose and the mouth. And in forming our perception of a face, we are guided more by our sense of touch and the felt shape of these important features than their actual visual appearance.

This is well explained by Harold Speed in his book called ‘The Practice and Science of Drawing’. In fact, he claims that in developing mental images of things, people very early on start neglecting their sense of vision. Consequently, when they attempt to draw, sight is not the primary sense they consult.

So, if you ask children, as Speed exemplifies, to draw a face, they will probably draw something looking like this:

Faces 1

However, if people were to consult their vision in the attempt to express the actual visual appearance of a face, their drawings would look more like this:

Faces 2

It follows that in order to draw realistically one needs to break away from the inherent human instinct of focusing on distinctive features and forming a perception of them through a sense of touch and the felt shape of things. Instead, one has to start focusing on the visual appearance, defined by the actual proportions and relations of light and shadow in nature, amongst other things.

In classical ateliers, they teach you how to do precisely that. In other words, they train you to draw what you see, instead of what you think you see. In that regard, one of the first assignments students get is to do a cast drawing.

To get myself acquainted with the process before entering an art school, and improve my drawing skills, I decided to do a couple of cast drawings at home. Here, I would like to share with you my thoughts on the process – as they occurred chronologically. And the reason I would like to do that is because I wish someone shared this information with me before I started my project. So, this is how it went:

The first thought I had when I saw that three-dimensional white face staring at me was: No way I can reproduce this precisely, as a realistic looking two-dimensional object on a sheet of paper.

Then, as I was explained the principles of how to tackle a cast drawing, I though: Oh, this is actually quite straightforward and simple! The principles being: first you draw the outline, then the shadowline and then the shadow. After you nailed that down, you start refining your drawing.

Just to illustrate this more clearly, here is a compilation of photos of my progress on a cast drawing over the course of six days:

Progress cast drawing

The first photo is the one of the drawing stating the outline, shadowline and lightly filled in shadow. The following pictures show the modelling and refinements done after that preliminary process was completed.

In doing this, I applied the sight-size approach. Sight-sizing basically consists in drawing the object before you in the exact proportions as you see them from your viewing point. I will refrain from explaining here the specifics of this method, as many have already done it better than I ever could (If you want to learn more about it, I suggest reading a very useful book by Darren Richard Rousar called ‘Cast Drawing: Using the Sight-Size Approach’). But the point is, if you follow these three simple steps – outline, shadowline, shadow – you will soon start seeing your three-dimensional cast appearing before you on a piece of paper. It’s quite remarkable really – almost feels like your cast is drawing itself.

Then, after you’ve experienced this newborn enthusiasm and amazement with the efficacy of the method you’ve been taught, frustration kicks in. Why? Because, as you start refining your drawing, you start noticing some problems that you didn’t see coming. This is especially the case if you rushed through and, consequently, made mistakes in the initial stages of the process – that is, while outlining and shadowlining. And when I say “made mistakes”, I mean millimetric, but substantial mistakes. You may be surprised, but even tiny mistakes in scale can actually be huge in effect, as they will result in the whole drawing appearing as seriously off compared to the visual appearance of the object you’re drawing.

Since the goal is to reproduce the look of your three-dimensional cast as precisely as humanly possible in two dimensions, one really cannot ignore these tiny-huge mistakes, as much as one would like to. And that, as well as making these mistakes in the first place, is frustrating.

What follows next is basically mood swings and your own contradictory opinions of your cast drawing all the way till the end. After a whole day of work you look at your drawing and think: It sucks. Then you dream a bit (or have nightmares) about it during the night, wake up the next morning, look at it and say to yourself: What was I thinking, this is great! At the end of the day you again fall into desperation. And so the merry-goes-round…

Now, this part of the process, no one ever really told me about. But the more I talk to people who have been through it, the clearer it is that virtually everyone goes through the same emotional rollercoaster when drawing a cast (if they are trying to do it precisely).

So, if you’re one of the fellow art students working on a cast drawing and feeling frustrated, know you’re not alone my friend. Having said that, I should also acknowledge that, as challenging and tedious as it can be, the process of drawing a cast is incredibly rewarding. It really does teach you to see better and draw more precisely.

They say behind every great painting lies a great drawing. To get there, and become a great painter, one first needs to learn to see and draw what they see. Drawing a cast is considered one of the first important steps in this educational process.