New Watercolor and Oil Painting Plein Air Setup

Since the end of the academic year at the FAA, I’ve been travelling around the US and, for the most part, landscape painting. Thus far, I’ve been very lucky to be able to work outdoors pretty much every day, surrounded by beautiful sceneries, good weather and amazing people.

Partly what makes my landscape painting experiences on this trip so nice is my new setup – custom built by my dear husband, Marc Dalessio. He has been experimenting with carbon fiber, trying to design an ultralight oil painting setup for himself. So he kindly offered to build something similar for me too. In my case though, the challenge was to design a setup that works both for watercolors and oil paints, since I work with both media.

Together, we’ve come up with a solution that, thus far made my painting while travelling really satisfactory. Since I’ve received many questions from fellow painters as to the setup I am using, I wanted to share the current one with you here.

So, let’s start with a visual. This is what the setup looks like when used with watercolors:

And this is what it looks like when used for oil painting:

All the crucial parts, when unpacked are reduced to this:

They consists of: 1) a custom made carbon fiber board that attaches on to the easel and to which I tape my paper or panel; 2) the carbon fiber tripod easel (Sirui t-025x, bought on Amazon), with a custom made bar holding my palettes in place; and 3) and 4) depending on the paints I’m using, a custom made carbon fiber pochade box, or a metal watercolor palette.

Now, the part of this setup that I find most practical is the bar, which you can see attached by a hinge to a small tube warping around the easel. This bar folds out and contains heavy-duty magnets holding in place either of my palettes (which both have metal parts). It also has a small hook at the end that can hold a water container, for when I’m using watercolors.

This little but very practical addition to my equipment makes my setting up process super fast and efficient, allowing me to start working fast on sight. I literally unfold it, place either of my palettes on top of it, and I’m ready to go.

Here are a couple of close up images of this mechanism:

And for scale, here is a photo of me using the whole setup on sight:

I’m very happy with it. It weighs little, packs down to almost nothing and makes for a very sturdy little setup for painting outdoors. For extra stability, especially when there is a bit of wind, I hang my backpack on the easel and that does the job of holding it in place.

All in all, I’m very grateful for this new piece of equipment. And I hope this helps those of you looking for a new setup to come up with some new ideas.

Our journey continues, as we make our way from Carmel Valley to Lake Tahoe. I’ll make sure to update you soon on the output of our recent adventures 😉

Meanwhile, be well and have a great rest of the summer!

Extracurricular Work

Time has come for a long overdue update on the work I’ve been producing outside of school. In the past months, alongside my academic paintings and drawings, I’ve been trying to continuously work on my personal projects. Those are the ones that truly fill my heart, as well as show me how I am evolving as an artist.

They are comprised of watercolours, as well as some oil paintings and pastels. For the most part, these works done in my free time are inspired by our beautiful Tuscan home. In a sense, they represent a visual journal that has been spontaneously evolving through a painterly documentation of my new surroundings.

They thus provide the best insight into my life outside of the Florence Academy of Art and my growth as a painter. So, here they are – I hope you’ll enjoy them.


Florence From Our Window. Watercolor.


Last Persimmon. Watercolor.


Winter Daisies. Oil on canvas.


In Front of the Frescoes. Oil on Canvas.


Grace. Oil on Canvas.


Nutcracker. Oil on Panel.


Coat rack. Watercolor.


Playing with Pastels. Pastels on Toned Paper.


Rain over Florence. Watercolor.


Emma Sleeping in the Sun. Watercolor.


San Barnaba Canal, Venice. Watercolor.


Santa Maria della Salute, Venice. Watercolor.


Early Morning over the Grand Canal. Watercolor.


Almond Blossom. Watercolor.


Olive Trees and Wild Daffodils. Watercolor.


Peach Blossom. Watercolor.


Sunset over Florence. Watercolor.


Aloe Vera. Watercolor.


Abandoned Farmhouse. Watercolor and Gouache on Toned Paper.


Icelandic Poppies. Watercolor.


The Old Wheelbarrow. Watercolor.


Apple Blossom. Oil on Canvas.


Hellebores. Watercolor.


Lady Banks’ Rose. Watercolor.


After the Rain. Watercolor.


Irises and Terracotta Pots. Watercolor.


Garden Detail. Watercolor.


Stefano’s Irises. Watercolor.


Garden Detail. Watercolor.

Garden Detail. Watercolor.


Irises and Wisteria. Watercolor.


Floral Collage. Watercolor.


Gratitude. Oil on Paper.


Rosy Garlic, Sage and Roses. Oil on Canvas.


Before Sunset. Watercolor.


On the Banks of the Arno. Watercolor.


In the Footsteps of the Macchiaioli. Watercolor.


Poppies. Watercolor on Toned Paper.

Extracurricular Activities

Since the program at the Florence Academy of Art has started, things have been very busy at school. I promise to write a longer update on my work and education as soon as the holidays start, as there is a lot to report on and not much free time for extracurricular activities.

Yet, despite the very concentrated and intense schedule, I have promised my self to continue painting  as much as time allows. This is not only in order to test how my increased ability to draw informs my painting skills, but also in order to keep thinking in terms of color and to take the needed break from the black and white world (of graphite, charcoal and paper) that I live in when I’m at school. In addition, I find that the ability to paint is like a muscle that needs to be exercised. So, I didn’t want to risk undoing all the work that I have done thus far in the painting sphere by focusing purely on drawing.

For all these reasons, I have continued to paint as much as I could along side my school and here I wanted to share with you the products of my extracurricular work from the past two months.

I hope you enjoy!


After the Rain. Watercolor, 9 x 12 in.

After the Rain. 9 x 12 in, Watercolor.


Stilllife with Quinces, Plum and Grapes. Watercolor, 12 x 16 in.

Still Life with Quinces, Plum and Grapes. 12 x 16 in, Watercolor.


Orchids. Oil on Panel, 20 x 30 cm.

Orchids. 20 x 30 cm, Oil on Panel.


Flowers from the Garden. 22 x 25 cm, Watercolor.

Flowers from the Garden. 22 x 25 cm, Watercolor.


Sunday. 22 x 25 cm, Watercolor.

Sunday. 22 x 25 cm, Watercolor.


Chiesa di San Lorenzo. 22 x 25 cm, Watercolor.

Chiesa di San Lorenzo. 22 x 25 cm, Watercolor.


In the Garden. 23 x 33 cm, Watercolor.

In the Garden. 23 x 33 cm, Watercolor.


Dried Poppy Pods. 10 x 14 in, Watercolor.

Dried Poppy Pods. 10 x 14 in, Watercolor.


Palette Knives. 20 x 30 cm, Oil on Panel.

Palette Knives. 20 x 30 cm, Oil on Panel.


Garden Roses. 22 x 25 cm, Watercolor and Gouache.

Garden Roses. 22 x 25 cm, Watercolor and Gouache.


Painting En Plein Air – From a Sketch to a Finished Oil Painting

This September, I was lucky to be a part of a landscape painting workshop taught by my husband, Marc Dalessio, and Daniela Astone, a principal painting instructor at the Florence Academy of Art.

The workshop took place at Daniela and her partner Simone’s beautiful property in Tuscany, aka Studio Chianti, and provided me with a great chance to once again return to the basics of plein air painting.

Given the circumstances, I figured I should take it slow this time around in order to learn as much as possible and get all the valuable advice I can from these two great teachers. For that purpose, I decided to go back to oil painting – since both Marc and Daniela work primarily with oil paints, and since I could finally truck along all the equipment I needed (the painting venue was only 30 min away from our Florentine home).

Also, since we stayed at the same location during the whole workshop, I could allow myself to keep working on the same paintings day in day out. Occasionally, I did some watercolors (if my light did not correspond to the chosen effect for my oil paintings), but my primary focus was oil painting.

Now, one of the most important pieces of advice that Marc always gives his students is to draw more and rush less. That is to say, before starting an oil painting, it is advisable to do a pencil sketch of the envisaged subject for a painting in order to get a preliminary idea of the composition and potential problems attached to it. Why? Because what can often go terribly wrong in a painting is the design (I talked more about that in one of my pervious blog post on landscape painting, so I will refrain from discussing it again here). And when the design goes wrong, that’s when you have the so called “turps party” – that is, the not so joyful experience of erasing your entire painting with turpentine.

So, in order to avoid having too many turps parties, one should sketch more. Only once one is satisfied with a chosen subject and the composition thereof, should one move to painting it in oil. At that point though, one (and by one, I mean a student like myself) should still go slowly about tackling their subject in paint in order capture it accurately, in all its variety and complexion.

The problem that often occurs during plein air painting workshops of this type is that students see a teacher do a demo very fast (often even faster than the regular pace at which a teacher paints) and then the students try to paint at that same pace during the rest of the workshop. This frequently results in a mass of rushed student paintings and very little knowledge acquired about the middle and later stages of painting.

In that sense, it was explained to us that students who paint slowly and accurately will eventually get faster, but students who paint fast and inaccurately will never get more accurate. Makes sense. In other words, if you’re a student who likes realism and wants to work in that genre, do not rush through your student artwork.

So, in order to avoid any disastrous outcomes of sorts, I decided to go slowly about my oil paining and make sure I get the most out of it this time around.

Following the given advice, I first sketched my subject out very roughly in my sketchbook.




I was aware that this is not the kind of perfect landscape painting view where a foreground, middle ground and background compose well together. To begin with, there is no foreground in my view. Nonetheless, I decided to go for it because I found it interesting and beautiful (for its quintessential depiction of Chianti), yet simple enough to tackle. Also, it gave me a nice opportunity to practice atmospheric perspective in painting. And since we were told a major historic point of landscape painting is to get a sense of distance (depth) on a flat surface, I figured this view would do.

Once I was content with the choice of my view and the sketch thereof, I put my easel in the chosen spot and drew a slightly more precise sketch of my view onto the canvas before starting to paint. They say behind every great painting is a great drawing, so I made sure I literally have one behind mine 😉




In doing this, I applied the sight size approach, which I talked about in my previous blog posts. With the exception of a few ‘unfortunate tangents’ created by the distant mountains, I made sure to capture the rest of the view accurately and follow the rhythms in nature. Partially, this is the reason why I decided to do a rather detailed pencil sketch on the canvas first (despite the risk of the graphite showing through in time).

Another possibility was to sketch it out in oil paint, which a lot of painters do. But given the intricate nature of all the little bushes and trees in my view, and the fact that I didn’t use oil paint for some months now, I did not want to risk loosing track of the actual shapes of the vegetation and fall down the rabbit hole of dreadful repetition when I actually got around to painting it.

After my sketch was finished, I started applying the first layer of paint. In doing so, I tried to mass out the big shapes and leave any details for later. One of the useful pieces of advice I got from Daniela in that regard was to avoid using small brushes, especially in the initial stages of an oil painting. The reason for that is that students often get caught up in painting the details (like individual leaves) and get the big shapes all wrong (like the overall shape of a tree).

At the end of day one, this is how far I got:




On day two, I continued covering the canvas with paint and once the first layer was done, I proceeded to improve the accuracy and add variety to the things in my view. Shapes were corrected, some details and highlights were added and smaller brushes were introduced for that purpose.




Yet, despite adding to the painting in many ways, I kept my palette limited. In fact everybody at the workshop was advised to do so, as it results in more harmonious looking paintings. Our palettes were thus very basic, containing only titanium white, cadmium yellow light and cadmium yellow medium, yellow ochre, cadmium orange and cadmium red, cerulean blue, cobalt blue and ultramarine.

On day three my goal was to add some more detail, give texture to my painting and add some variety to my brushwork. I was also very lucky to get some beautiful clouds in my view that day – for the first time since that very first sketch I did – so I made sure to put those in. This is a great advantage to working from life – as the elements improve, you can improve your painting with them.




While painting the clouds, I was advised to make the closer ones bigger and the further ones smaller, even if this did not correspond to reality. Another thing I had in mind while painting them was the advice given to me previously – about making sure that things get not only smaller, but also lighter and bluer in the distance. Both of these tips are very useful for achieving the sense of depth and atmospheric perspective in a painting, so I made sure to follow them.

And finally, the last important advice given to me was not to overwork it. So, once I was more or less content with the similitude of the painting and the scene in front of me, I made sure to stop and call this painting done.

Et voilà! That was the process and here is the photo of the finished product:


Morning in Chianti. Oil on Canvas, 20 x 30 cm.

Morning in Chianti. 20 x 30 cm, Oil on linen.

Although working outdoors can be tricky because of the constantly changing effects, I’m happy I took this one slow and didn’t try to frantically chase those effects. This allowed me not only to achieve batter accuracy, but also resulted in a painting based on informed choices rather than happy coincidences. At the end of the day, this is what the learning process should be all about.

As for my other paintings done during this workshop, I do have to admit they were made on a faster pace. The second oil painting I did was finished over the course of two days and with no preliminary sketching in graphite involved. The watercolors, on the other hand, were completed over the course of a few hours with the obligatory sketch in graphite pencil. But that’s a totally different medium, which requires a vastly different and much faster approach, so I don’t feel guilty about that. Here are the results of these other efforts.

I hope you enjoy them!


Orcio. 20 x 30 cm, Oil on Panel.

Orcio. 20 x 30 cm, Oil on panel.


Villa Coli. 22 x 25 cm, Watercolor.

Villa Coli. 22 x 25 cm, Watercolor.


Young Apples. 22 x 25 cm, Watercolor.

Young Apples. 22 x 25 cm, Watercolor.


Daniela's Nest. 26 x 36 cm, Watercolor.

Daniela’s Nest. 26 x 36 cm, Watercolor.

Postcards from Croatia and Some Reflections on a Watercolor Setup


I am happy to share with you that, since my last blog post, Marc, Emma (the dog) and I have successfully moved and settled in our beautiful new home in Florence. We absolutely love it and feel so blessed that we have found such a perfect spot to embark on our future projects.

Yet, just as we finished unpacking and started to relax a bit, we were Croatia-bound once again. This time for a very exciting reason, my best friend’s wedding. The ceremony took place in the ancient town of Zadar and was absolutely wonderful.

After an intense month of packing and unpacking, being on the coast and sinking into the easygoing Dalmatian vibe was a real treat, so we decided to extend our stay in Zadar to a full week.

I frankly had no idea whether there would be any time available for painting on this trip, but decided to bring my equipment nonetheless. As it turns out, the pre and post-wedding activities were all very relaxed and spontaneously organised, so I managed to squeeze in a few painting sessions.

Interestingly, I had a bit of a stage fright, so to say, before I started my first painting. I am not sure if it was because I hadn’t painted regularly for the previous few weeks and was worried I wouldn’t be able to pick up where I left; or was it the fact that I was painting en plein air in my native country for the first time and was concerned about doing justice to its beauty; or both.

Either way, it all went smoothly once I got going and I was content with the overall experience – especially with the fact that I got back to painting after a few weeks long break.  

In fact, having done a couple of few hour long workshops this summer in Ireland at the Art in the Open plein air painting festival (which I highly recommend!), I noticed I felt more confident painting watercolours then before. As it turns out, watching my teachers, Claudia Araceli and Grahame Booth, paint taught me how to simplify more and apply washes better. 

I should mention in that regard that, thus far, I was totally self-taught in the watercolour medium. So, I found these teachers’ demos very helpful and felt like I experienced a sort of a breakthrough after taking their workshops.

This reminded me how beneficial it is just to watch someone else (who knows what they are doing) paint and how much one can learn through pure observation of a master at work.

Another thing I realised after these lessons is that my watercolour setup is less than ideal. Namely, so far, I had a sitting setup with a small foldable table next to me, where I would put my pallet and a water container, while my pad would sit on my knees. This is basically what it looks like:


While it is quite comfortable, this setup is problematic on multiple levels. It provides me with a painting surface which is, first, not very stable and, second, not positioned at a proper angle. As I have learned, one should have their watercolour block (or a panel to which the paper is attached) tilted at a minimum 45 degree angle. This is in order to allow those preliminary rich washes to flow properly, and to be able to get rid of access water if necessary, by allowing it to drip down. 

Another problem I noticed with my current setup is that I often get much better views from a standing, rather then a sitting position. Namely, being up higher in many instances provides a more interesting perspective, and helps me avoid having various obstacles (such as fences, bushes and tall grass) block my view. In addition, since I scout for my views while walking around, it’s easier for me to determine what the view will amount to while standing, instead of sitting.

So, in the near future, I am hoping to figure out a better, lighter and taller setup, which would ideally work both for watercolours, as well as oil painting. I will keep you posted on how it goes. 

In the meantime, I leave you with a few of my paintings from the recent Croatian trip. I hope you enjoy.


Petar Zoranić Square. 9 x 10 in, Watercolor.

Petar Zoranić Square. 9 x 10 in, Watercolor.


Church of St. Donatus. 9 x 11 in, Watercolor.

Church of St. Donatus. 9 x 11 in, Watercolor.


St. Mary's Church. 8 x 9,5 in, Watercolor.

St. Mary’s Church. 8 x 9,5 in, Watercolor.


Paintings from England, Wales and Ireland

Here’s a very short update on my last landscape painting trip before our move to Florence. The trip consisted of a brief visit to Salisbury in England, a week long stay in the beautiful Brecon Beacons National Park in Wales and a trip to Ireland for the Art in the Open plein air painting festival. It was very productive and much fun as we got to meet a lot of our fellow painters and friends, and paint in some truly beautiful areas.

Though I am still full of impressions and wonderful memories from all these places, I am finding it hard to organise words in my head while simultaneously organising the rest of my life in boxes. So, this time, I will let the images of some of my paintings from this trip speak in my stead.


Stonehenge, Watercolor.

Stonehenge. 10 x 14 in, Watercolor.


Welsh Sheep, Watercolor.

Welsh Sheep No. 1. 10 x 14 in, Watercolor.


Welsh Sheep, Watercolor.

Welsh Sheep No. 2. 10 x 14 in, Watercolor.


Tretower Castle, Watercolor.

Tretower Castle. 10 x 14 in, Watercolor.


Dyffryn Crawnon Valley, Watercolor.

Dyffryn Crawnon Valley. 10 x 14 in, Watercolor.


Ballymore Tractors, Watercolor.

Ballymore Tractors. 10 x 14 in, Watercolor.


Street in Inistioge, Watercolor.

Street in Inistioge. 10 x 14 in, Watercolor.


Woodstock Gardens, Watercolor.

Woodstock Gardens. 10 x 14 in, Watercolor.


Curracloe Dunes, Watercolor

Curracloe Dunes. 10 x 14, Watercolor.


Tintern Abbey, Watercolor.

Tintern Abbey. 12 x 16 in, Watercolor.


Tintern Stream, Watercolor.

Tintern Stream. 10 x 14 in, Watercolor.


Sorry for keeping it so brief and my apologies in advance if you’ll have to wait a bit longer than usual for the next update from Florence 😉 In the meantime, have a wonderful rest of the summer!


Recent Paintings and Drawings from Tuscany

As our move to Florence is getting closer, a visit to Tuscany was due in order to do some house hunting. We were very lucky to have found ourselves a beautiful new home, as well as profit from the beauty of the Tuscan summer. There was not a lot of time to paint, but I tried to get the most out of this visit to the Chianti region, as I find the colours and light to be just right this time of the year.

On this trip, in addition painting with watercolors and doing one drawing in graphite pencil, I decided to experiment a bit with pastels – a medium I like quite a bit, but have used only a couple of times before. I thought this would be a good occasion to do some more work with pastels, since we were travelling by car and I had no weight limitations.

Also, knowing that as of this October I will be working only in charcoal and pencil at the Florence Academy of Art, I feel the need to explore different media at this stage and see what they have to offer.

Overall, drawing with pastels was a lot of fun. It’s a rather straightforward material to work with, it’s not too messy and things tend to move at quite a fast pace when using it. Even more so if one does not sharpen their pastels, which I decided not to as I was more interested in the light and color effects then the precision in my drawing.

What I enjoyed the most when working with pastels is that you can apply them in layers and change things as you go. So, compared to watercolors, they are much easier to handle, in my opinion.

What I didn’t enjoy as much about pastels is that the end result seems to be quite fragile. Because of their chalky nature, one needs to use a fixative on top of a finished drawing. Asides from the fact that it smells like cancer in a bottle, fixative seems to darken a tiny bit the overall colors and never really seems to ‘fix’ a drawing completely – at least not the one I was using. Namely, even after applying it in several goes vertically and horizontally, I would still get some residue of pastels on my finger when I tapped it lightly on the drawing.

I am also not sure if I would recommend pastels for painting outdoors – one of my drawings got pretty damaged by just a few drops of rain and another when the paper on which it was drawn got bended by the wind. So, I repeat – pretty fragile stuff. Other than that, a lot of fun to work with.

To cut the long story short, here are the results of the past weeks’ efforts – starting with the watercolors, followed by a graphite pencil drawing and concluding with a small series of pastel drawings.

Damigiane. 25 x 28 cm, Watercolor and Gouache.

Damigiane. 25 x 28 cm, Watercolor and Gouache.


Wild flowers. 9 x 12 in, Watercolor.

Wild Flowers. 9 x 12 in, Watercolor.


Noce from la Torricella. 20 x 27 cm, Watercolor.

Noce from la Torricella. 20 x 27 cm, Watercolor.


Pomegranate flower. 7 x 10 in, Watercolor.

Study of a Pomegranate Flower. 7 x 10 in, Watercolor.


Sunflower. 25 x 28 cm, Watercolor.

Sunflower. 25 x 28 cm, Watercolor.


Peaches. 10 x 14 in, Watercolor.

Peaches. 10 x 14 in, Watercolor.


Portrait of Marc. 9 x 12 in, Graphite on Paper.

Portrait of Marc. 9 x 12 in, Graphite on Paper.


Tuscan garden. 21 x 30 cm, Pastels.

Tuscan Garden. 21 x 30 cm, Pastels.


Wild flowers. 21 x 30 cm, Pastels.

Wild Flowers. 21 x 30 cm, Pastels.


Bistecca Fiorentina. 21 x 30 cm, Pastels.

Bistecca Fiorentina. 21 x 30 cm, Pastels.


Cipolle. 21 x 30 cm, Pastels.

Cipolle. 21 x 30 cm, Pastels.


Recent Paintings and Drawings

In the past few weeks, the road has taken us to North Carolina, South Carolina and New York. We’ve been very lucky with the weather, surrounded by beautiful scenery and friendly folks all along. All this has been inductive to producing some more artwork, which I’d like to share with you here.

Asides from landscape painting en plain air and painting of still lives indoors, I also did some graphite drawings both outside and inside, depending on the subject matter. While I typically start my watercolors by drawing with graphite first and then painting over it, in case of my recent drawings, I started by prepping the paper with a wash of watercolor and then drew on top of that. I found this reversal of process to be quite refreshing and fun.

So, here are the results of some of my recent efforts, in mixed media – starting with plein air paintings, followed by still lives and concluding with the drawings.


Charleston Backyard. 9 x 12 in, Watercolor.

Terracotta Pots. 9 x 12 in, Watercolor.


By the Toogoodoo River. 7 x 10 in, Watercolor.

By the Toogoodoo River. 7 x 10 in, Watercolor.


Sunset on the Toogoodoo River, 7 x 10 in, Watercolor.

Sunset on the Toogoodoo River, 7 x 10 in, Watercolor.


Ashe Point Farm. 7 x 10 in, Watercolor.

Ashe Point Farm. 9 x 12 in, Watercolor.


Roosters. 7 x 12 in, Watercolor.

Roosters. 7 x 12 in, Watercolor.


Scarecrow. 7 x 10 in, Watercolor and Gouache.

Scarecrow. 7 x 10 in, Watercolor and Gouache.


Feathers. 7 x 10 in, Watercolor.

Feathers. 7 x 10 in, Watercolor.


Magnolia Blossom, 9 x 12 in, Watercolor.

Magnolia Blossom, 9 x 12 in, Watercolor.


A Bowl of Freesia. 7 x 10 in, Watercolor.

A Bowl of Freesia. 7 x 10 in, Watercolor.


 Woodcock. 9 x 12 in, Watercolor.

Woodcock. 9 x 12 in, Watercolor.


The Mallard. 9 x 12 in, Watercolor.

The Mallard. 9 x 12 in, Watercolor.


Bufflehead. 9 x 12 in, Watercolor.

Bufflehead. 9 x 12 in, Watercolor.


Self Portrait. 9 x 12 in, Graphite on Paper.

Self Portrait. 9 x 12 in, Graphite on Paper.


Old Oak. 9 x 12 in, Graphite on Paper.

Old Oak. 9 x 12 in, Graphite on Paper.


Young Oak. 9 x 12 in, Graphite on Paper.

Young Oak. 9 x 12 in, Graphite on Paper.


Catalpa Tree. 9 x 12 in, Graphite on Paper.

Catalpa Tree. 9 x 12 in, Graphite on Paper.


Copy of Leonardo da Vinci's Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John the Baptist. 9 x 12 in, Graphite on Paper.

Copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John the Baptist. 9 x 12 in, Graphite on Paper.

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.