A Beginner’s Approach To Plein Air Painting

Plein air painting intrigues and intimidates the heck out of me.  I thoroughly enjoy the time out in nature painting en plein air, but I end up moaning with frustration as to painting what is in front of me.

When it comes to painting outside I get so overloaded with “information” that I just freeze up and have no idea how to proceed.  But I’ve never been one to quit easily, so I’m inching my way into plein air painting very, very gently.  I hope that others who likewise struggle may find this beginner’s approach an encouragement.

I got the notion one afternoon this past week, to try “plein air” close to home.  We’re talking VERY close to home, just a few paces out my front door.  I chose a little succulent plant off my wrought iron plant-stand, placed it on the sidewalk and plopped myself down on the ground next to it.

With my pochade box in my lap, I proceeded to paint this simple composition.  By choosing just the plant, I could control how much/or little information I was dealing with.  Here are the illustrated and annotated baby-steps I took:


  1. As you can see, my little succulent plant was dramatically backlit by the sun.  If I’d known better I would have waited later in the day to paint, as the sun was sizzling hot and bright.  I realized that these are the types of things plein air painters learn by experience. succulent-still-life-1
  2. Here’s my pochade box with my two colors of paint, a warm and cool yellow, red and blue.  And white of course, since I paint with gouache. That’s a sealed and primed piece of cardboard with texture that you see taped to my pochade box.


3. Next I toned my board with red-orange which really worked out well for this piece.  Gouache dries so so quickly that I was able to paint over it immediately.


4. Below you can see how far I progressed with my painting out-of-doors, not bad, about 90% completed.  I had to get out of the heat at this point as I was practically blinded by the scalding sun, so the rest of the painting was finished up inside at my art desk.  But I did it!  Some may consider this a still life, but for this painter, it was my entrée into the world of plein air. And I can’t wait to try more.  Just one little baby-step at a time. : )


And here’s my finished piece below – “Succulent Sunbath” – just a wee bit more paint and some strokes of my customary india ink.


Artist/Guest Author: Joanie Springer, a late-blooming artist, loves to paint with opaque watercolor / gouache as if it were oil paint, and archivally prepped cardboard is one of her favorite supports.  See more of her art, art tips, and FREE art tutorial at her website: www.ARTfortheSOULofit.com.


Thank you Joanie for sharing another great guest post. I hope you all enjoyed Joanie’s beginning approach to plein air painting!

You can see more art on my website,  LoriMcNee.com, and let’s meet on Facebook  Fine Art Tips Facebook Fan Page, on Twitter, Google Plus and on PinterestBe sure and check out and my fine art prints and notecards on Fine Art America.! ~Lori



  1. Jeano April 22, 2013 at 1:41 pm

    Love this!~ one of my favorite techniques, letting the background of red peek through. Nice work! Jeano

    • Lori McNee April 22, 2013 at 2:01 pm

      Glad you enjoyed this post. I love red peeking through too.

      Happy painting!

    • Joanie May 3, 2013 at 11:57 am

      HI Jeano,
      Yes, it really worked on this painting, and you know, i did that rather spontaneously. Got to try that again…or better yet, prep a few boards and have a stack of them ready to go. Thanks for commenting.

  2. Ian McKendrick April 23, 2013 at 1:29 am

    Thanks for sharing your tips Joanie,
    You have given us some great ideas in your article, and now the weather is getting better in the UK (giving more opportunities for painting outdoors for us fair weather artists!) I will turn some of your tips into personal actions and goals which I’m sure will help me on my watercolour journey 🙂


    • Joanie May 3, 2013 at 11:48 am

      Hi Ian,

      Glad you enjoyed my plein air experience. I had an art pal come visit for a week and she dragged me out to a local winery, and you know what…i’m starting to really enjoy plein air. I’m not up for hiking miles but it there’s a nice view and a few seats…well, then I’m game. Works great with my gouache and a pochade box. Enjoy!

  3. Wendy April 28, 2013 at 3:42 pm

    I seldom paint or draw outside, but your tutorial is making me consider it. There is something about being closer to nature to inspire one. Thanks for the great post. 🙂

    • Lori McNee May 1, 2013 at 9:54 am

      Hi Wendy, this post has seemed to inspire quite a few studio painters to give plein air a try! I hope you do…Thanks for sharing.


    • Joanie May 3, 2013 at 11:50 am

      I think the trick is making oneself comfortable outside..i love nature, it is inspiring, i just had never really considered it for my painting subject matter before. But I saw a faucet – a rusty old thing – nearby where i live and i decided what the heck, try painting it. And you know what? It came out great and represented yet another breakthrough. A subject I never would have considered, it was close by my house so I could just walk a few paces with my supplies…and the shapes in the outside light were so intriguing. Enjoy exploring.

  4. Cynthia April 28, 2013 at 4:30 pm

    Makes me want to get out of my cave and paint in the sunlight. Plein air scares me too but you’ve shown me a simple way forward. Love the work, so loose and free, just what I aspire to one day.

    • Lori McNee May 1, 2013 at 9:53 am

      Give it a try Cynthia! Plein air really will bring a whole new scope of color and value back into your studio…

    • Joanie May 3, 2013 at 11:51 am

      Thanks so much, Cynthia. Go a few paces from home, take a cup of tea….all those creature comforts we love. I swear, 12 paces from my front or back door, and there is so much to paint. Baby steps! : )

  5. Patti Vincent April 28, 2013 at 4:50 pm

    What a fabulous idea! I could not agree more with how daunting plein air is and how smart it would be to start small. Thanks.

    • Lori McNee May 1, 2013 at 9:51 am

      Happy to know you enjoyed Joannie’s guest post. I love setting up intimate scenes outside too. It is a great exercise.
      Happy painting,

    • Joanie May 3, 2013 at 11:54 am

      HI Patti,
      I’m going over to my neighbors garden again today…and last week I actually sat out in my backyard (once again, less than 25 paces away) and with my supplies ever ready (that’s important) I painted “shapes and colors” in my backyard…..not “trees, 10000 leaves, etc” just COLORS and SHAPES. Wasn’t thinking about uploading and selling these paintings, just having fun. Squint, Squint and then Squint some more. I like closeups too….the far away huge view is daunting, home in on something that draws your attention, like a single branch with a few spectacular leaves. Enjoy!

  6. Jyoti April 30, 2013 at 8:14 am

    Wow. loved this.Thanks for sharing your tips..Very nice work 🙂

    • Lori McNee May 1, 2013 at 9:48 am

      Thank you Jyota! Glad you enjoyed this post.

    • Joanie May 3, 2013 at 11:56 am

      Thank you so much, Jyoti. It’s all about simplifying…i have a little mantra i say and that is “Simplify, then simplify again.” And having a little plein air set up ready to go at a moment’s notice. If i have to pack it up each time, groan! But if it’s ready to go….well then….inspiration comes much more spontaneously. Blessings, Joanie

  7. Ann August 1, 2013 at 3:50 pm

    Hi, I’m new to your site, having discovered it today. Thanks for all the helpful links & tips.
    I, too, struggle with landscapes, whether plein air or in studio air! Same reason…too much stimulus, too little structure. I’ll be checking back for more enlightenment from your tips. This is the only reason I have never taken an on site, in the field, class / demo. I find if I stick to smaller scenes & spaces, my brain can organize the information better, and produce more intuitive composition.
    Loved your Michael Workman insights. I have long admired his reductive, yet gentle, beautiful, work. It’s especially nice to hear new observations from a woman’s perspective. Thanks for providing this needed balance for art instruction!

    • Lori McNee October 24, 2013 at 10:25 pm

      Hello Ann, yes there is a lot to see while out in the field. It can be overwhelming. Have you tried using a viewfinder? They can help isolate a scene. Glad you found some help here.

  8. Bryant August 8, 2013 at 7:45 pm

    Very nice and informative post, I am thinking about trying this method of painting out, wasn’t really sure what the term meant as I am a graphite artist. I do like to work with paint too.

  9. James Snuffer September 1, 2013 at 1:48 am

    I really like the colors in your painting, and the fact that you textured your surface before painting. Great idea. I have been toying with the idea with trying plein air myself. I’m new to painting and I have this innate desire to try everything.

    • Lori McNee October 24, 2013 at 9:23 pm

      Plein air painting is a great exercise and discipline and I hope you give it a try!

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