Working From Nature en Plein Air

plein air painting Sedona

As I was preparing for a recent plein air painting trip, this guest post submission caught my eye. Painter, Martin Banks reflects on his experiences of working from nature, and the challenges of painting en plein air.

Working From Nature en Plein Air

Working from nature is important for the artist in a number of ways. It beats working from photos hands down, although I have to say there is a role for the photograph too.

What’s the point of working from nature, dragging all your equipment out with you just to sit out in the heat or cold, and expose your art to criticism to any passer-by? There always seems to be someone walking a dog, or someone who stops to talk or interrupts your painting by making you feel self-conscious.


plein air painting Caribbean

Well, I didn’t say it was easy. Let’s start by accentuating the positives, and then we’ll look at the apparent negatives.

First of all, when you go out in the big wide world of Mother Nature, you have the full “experience” of this encounter with the environment. The sounds, smells and movement of the world around you do actually filter through into the work. When talking about his work, the Scottish landscape painter, Duncan Shanks talks of how he tries to capture the movement of clouds and rain and the changing light as it happens.

This gives his work a dynamism, which is convincing and true. He paints the same area of land over and over again and but the paintings are never repetitive. On the contrary, they are alive and there is always something new to discover in them. Duncan makes hundreds of quick sketches that he later fuses into one painting.

You also have to rely and improve on your own skills. Finding the right spot to paint from all the information overload isn’t easy, but is does get easier as you begin to find what subjects and motifs suit you.

This is valuable information. It’s a workout for the eyes. You develop a sense of composition. When working from photos, especially other peoples photos, you don’t have that practice; it’s already been done. You also see much more of the detail that is missing from even good photos.

So what about the negatives?

Sitting sketching in the cold is invigorating and forces you to prioritise what is important. Adverse weather conditions make you think more quickly and work faster, giving your work an urgency that it might not otherwise have. You remain fully concentrated because, now that you’re here, you want to make the most of things but not hang about.

What about those pesky passers-by?

People are always polite and try not to disturb you. If they’re very interested in art themselves they may strike up a conversation. This happened to me once when I was painting in the lovely town of Oban in Scotland. An old gentleman came along and started talking and, before I knew it, I was sitting in his kitchen (he lived next to where I was working) drinking tea and eating biscuits with he and his wife, discussing art and education.

Then, once you’ve finished working outside it can be useful to take a couple of photographs for reference later…just in case.


Thank you Martin Banks for sharing such an insightful post!

If you are interested in learning more about the Plein Air Convention, please view the video below.

I hope we also meet on Twitterand on Google Plus, Pinterestand join in the fun at Fine Art Tips Facebook Fan Page! Please checkout my art too, or find me on Instagram lorimcneeartist. ~Lori


  1. craighorman April 9, 2012 at 10:17 pm

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    • Lori McNee April 23, 2012 at 11:38 am

      Hi Craig,

      Well…my apologies for any typos and errors that have interrupted your reading enjoyment. Yes, some of my articles have been posted in haste due to my busy life. I always hit spellcheck, but it doesn’t catch everything. I will take the time for a second proofreading.

      Thanks for your candor (ouch) and for bookmarking the site!

      • Beverly November 4, 2012 at 3:18 am

        Its like people who just pop into your studio. They aren’t there to see if the place is clean they are there to enjoy your art and see what you are working on. Ditto for your site! Ignore the ones that just want to hear themselves speak and enjoy the ones who are truly interested in a creative mind. 🙂

        • Lori McNee November 19, 2012 at 11:24 am

          Yes Beverly…it is fun to visit with passersby. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  2. Jack Cavanaugh April 10, 2012 at 8:34 am

    Wow. Sounds exciting and challenging, Lori. For me, as a novelist, it would be like sitting in the picture window of a bookstore with my story in progress displayed on a big overhead screen. Interesting challenge for us creative-types. Hope you have a great, positive, memorable experience.

    • Lori McNee April 23, 2012 at 11:31 am

      Hello Jack, I am back from the Plein Air Convention and really had a wonderful time there. Yes, painting outdoors is a challenge, but the artist really grows from the experience.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting,

  3. Janet Vanderhoof April 10, 2012 at 5:50 pm

    Sounds very cool Lori! Oh just noticed a couple of your photos aren’t showing up, but that may be my computer.

    • Lori McNee April 23, 2012 at 11:27 am

      Thank Janet. The photos are loading on my end. I appreciate you taking time to let me know. Glad you enjoyed the post.

      Lori 🙂

  4. Janice Tanton April 11, 2012 at 7:55 am

    There is no better drug to the artist than being completely immersed in the subject. I love plein air painting for this reason alone, never mind all the other amazing benefits of sharpening your eye, the fresh air and the full sensory experience. Have fun at the conference! I’m off to Gwaii Haanas National Park for a residency in late May, which will be a most amazing outdoor art experience for me. Some of the favourite pieces I keep in my own collection are filled with little bits of sand and such. Nature’s canvas, I say!

    • Lori McNee April 23, 2012 at 11:29 am

      I totally agree with you Janice. Plein air painting is inspired by the ‘now’…I love its rawness. Have fun at your residency. I can’t wait to hear more about it. The Plein Air Convention was amazing. Now I am needing to get out and paint!


  5. Pam Dunmire October 10, 2012 at 5:11 pm

    As for me, plein air works as an inspirational guide for colors shapes and inspiration. Since I work mostly in abstracts, you can’t always tell that it originated from a plein air experience.

    • Lori McNee November 19, 2012 at 11:44 am

      Great thoughts, Pam. It helps me in the same way…

      Thanks for the comment,

  6. Beverly November 4, 2012 at 3:14 am

    Hi Lori,
    Somehow we found each other on twitter and to be honest I am not great at keeping up with it. Today due to daylight savings I was up an hour earlier than planned and actually read what some of my followers were saying. It prompted me to take a trip here to your website. So glad I did 🙂 Wonderful site full of excellent information and education. I’ll make your website a regular stop as I am new to Plenair but loving every moment of it. I’ve only done one so far because I forget to make time for it. I am a quick sketcher and go home and do my painting in comfort inside. Now that the cooler weather is here really thinking about pulling out the faux fur and making a spectacle of myself in my neighbourhood lol. Have a wonderful weekend.

    • Lori McNee November 19, 2012 at 11:26 am

      Hi again, Beverly. It is great to have you stop by from Twitter. There is so much great information ‘out there’ so I am grateful you find this site interesting too! Thanks for sharing and happy painting too.

  7. jared November 21, 2012 at 11:54 pm

    I like the landscape painting in the post, what is the name of it?

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