The Golden Rules of Plein Air Painting

As the warmer weather comes along, I find myself painting outdoors more and more. As much as I enjoy it though, plein air painting can sometimes be tricky. Not only are you fighting the atmospheric elements when you’re painting outside, but you are also exposed to an overwhelming amount of information that needs to be broken down and simplified in order to address it in a painting.

On top of that, beginners and even classically trained studio painters often tend to repeat the same types of mistakes – which are very obvious and easy to fix once you know the rules, but difficult to perceive and address if you haven’t been told what they are. So, this time, I would like to share with you some dos and don’ts of landscape painting that I learned so far and find very useful.

  • Try to find a view that has a foreground, a middle ground and a background that compose well together. – This is considered to be the Holy Grail of plein air painting, as it is difficult to find all three working together at the same time. Such views work particularly well as landscape paintings because they have the elements needed to give the viewer a sense of depth and space. I should mention that a decent amount of walking and scouting is often required to find such views. But if you make sure to search thoroughly before setting up, I promise you’ll find the results gratifying.
  • Avoid bad design. – Bad design can be either due to a bad choice of subject matter or a bad painterly execution thereof. Either way, they are several ways to avoid it. One of the rules I was taught is to make sure you’re not having objects of the same size in your painting (even when one is horizontally and the other one vertically positioned). Another one is to avoid diagonals leaving the corners of your painting. And the third rule of good design is avoiding tangent lines. If you happen to find the so-called ‘unfortunate tangent’ in your view, even as a realist painter, you are encouraged to tweak the reality and change the nature’s ‘bad design’.
  • Once you have found your view, make sure that things in your painting get smaller, lighter and bluer as they move into the distance. This is due to atmospheric perspective – the way the air in the atmosphere reduces contrasts in the distance and makes everything paler and cooler (with the exception of very light objects, which in the distance also move towards blue, thus becoming slightly darker). In that regard, beware of the fact the fact that the rule that things get lighter and bluer as they move into the distance applies both to the lit-up objects and the shadows that they cast. Following this simple rule will allow you to achieve a sense of atmosphere and depth in your painting.
  • Compress your values. – In other words, squint and compare values of the lightest elements to the darkest elements of your whole view, instead of the lightest lights and darkest darks of a particular thing you are painting. To clarify this on an example: if your view consists of a clump of trees on a field and the sky above them, you should compare the overall lightest light in your view (say the sky) to the darkest of darks (say the bottom shadowed parts of the trees, or their trunks), rather than the lit-up parts of the trees to the shadowed parts of the trees. This leads me to another useful advice, which is:
  • Key the rest of your painting of the sky. – This will help you get closer to the actual value and color range, and prevent you from going too light or too dark in the rest of your painting. The sky, if it features in your painting, is in that sense great for setting the values for the rest of your painting.
  • As far as lights and shadows go, mass things in and only then work the details. – As I already mentioned, things in nature tend to get overwhelming and fussy. So, in order to simplify things and cope more efficiently with the information in front of you, squint and determine the larger light and shadow areas and block the big masses in accordingly. Only then work the details. This basically draws on the outline, shadowline, shadow rule that they teach you when drawing a cast, which I discussed in one of my earlier posts.
  • Pay attention to the rhythms of nature. – That is to say, do not paint on autopilot, and avoid the repetition of shapes. This is a mistake many (even professional painters!) make because it is in human nature to look for patterns. Yet things around us are much more diverse then we instinctively perceive them. Each flower petal, each leaf, each cloud, each wave and a strand of grass is unique. So, to get closer to reality and avoid regularity, the key is to slow down, concentrate and avoid painting in an automated manner, so as to better follow the rhythms of nature. In order to avoid repetition and translate the natural beauty and diversity around you into a painting, it is advisable not only to keep variety in forms, but also in edges, hues, brushwork, etc.

And, finally, the last rule of landscape painting I was taught is:

  • Once you know (and are able to apply) all of the previously mentioned rules, you are allowed to break them. In other words, if you can control the process of painting outside and can see all the potential problems related to your choice of a view and its visual translation into a painting, you can break the stated rules of landscape painting for aesthetic or other reasons. In fact, some of the best works of art are said to break the conventional rules. But the artists who produced them did so intentionally, rather than accidentally. And this is what makes them the masters of their trade.

Being ways away from that stage, at the end of this post, I’d like to share with you the last few paintings from my recent trip to California, where I tried to follow the golden rules of landscape painting.


Marina Dunes Beach, Watercolor.

Marina Dunes Beach. 7 x 10 in, Watercolor and Gouache.


Carmel Dunes in Spring. Watercolor and Gouache.

Carmel Dunes in Spring. 7 x 10 in, Watercolor and Gouache.


Point Lobos. Watercolor.

Point Lobos. 9 x 12 in, Watercolor.


Recent Efforts – Painting Rocks and Flowers

Since my last blog post, I have been on the road and finally able to paint day in, day out. I find Central California, our current location, so mesmerising, especially in springtime. Right now, it is lush and green and bursting with wild flowers. The weather has been consistently and predictably beautiful, with just a couple of days of rain (much welcomed by the local vegetation). All of this has been very inductive to spending lots of time outdoors and plein air painting.

Here, I would like to share with you some of my most recent artistic efforts. Going through my paintings, I realised that my focus so far was mainly on sea rocks and wild flowers. That is to say, my attention was divided between grand vistas of the ocean and giant rock formations, and close up views of delicate floral spring motives. As diverse as they are, I find them both equally inspiring, beautiful and humbling. So here they are, divided by subject matter, starting with the coastal landscapes and followed by the flowers:


Garrapata Beach, Watercolor

Garrapata Beach. 7 x 10 in, Watercolor.


Big Sur Cliffs

Big Sur Cliffs, View Towards the South. 7 x 10 in, Watercolor.


Big Sur Cliffs

Big Sur Cliffs, View Towards the North. 7 x 10 in, Watercolor.


Crashing Wave, Watercolor and Gouache.

Crashing Wave. 7 x 10 in, Watercolor and Gouache.


Douglas Iris, Watercolor.

Douglas Iris. 5 x 7 in, Watercolor.


California Poppies, Watercolor.

California Poppies. 5 x 7 in, Watercolor.


Lupines, Watercolor.

Lupines. 5 x 7 in, Watercolor.


Wild Roses, Watercolor.

Wild Roses. 9 x 12 in, Watercolor.


Bearded Iris, Watercolor.

Bearded Iris. 9 x 12 in, Watercolor.