Art Demos

Strategies for Plein Air Art: From Site to Studio

Strategies for Plein Air Art: From Site to Studio

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Make the most of your plein air art sessions by planning ahead for a studio painting.

By Michael Chesley Johnson

For many of uspainting en plein air art is an addiction— but one with benefits. Also, as much as you may dislike racing with light that changes by the hour, those shifting light conditions push you to record only essentials—a real plus if you’re a painter tempted to add unnecessary detail.

But working en plein air has drawbacks, too. It may tempt you to be lazy about composition. One more exploratory thumbnail sketch might have yielded a better design, but you skipped it because it would have stolen from your brush time. Another danger is falling under the seduction of lighting effects. Capturing the feeling of a hazy summer day is a noble pursuit, but maybe you’d have had a more solid painting if you’d spent more time with your compositional drawing.

Finally, when painting en plein air, you may too readily dismiss the problems you encounter, like the need to work out spatial relationships. You tell yourself you’re just creating a sketch, but ignoring problems won’t make you a master artist. Many plein air painters are discovering that the studio is the perfect place to resolve issues that crop up when painting outdoors.

Set Studio Goals

I tell students they should have a goal when they go out to paint. For our current discussion, that goal would be gathering reference material for a studio painting. It’s equally important, however, to have a goal for your work in the studio. Just copying your plein air art won’t solve problems or improve your painting skills. Your studio goal may be one of the following:

Studio Goal: Make a Larger Version

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been so excited by the variety of subject matter before me that I’ve tried to fit everything on one 9 x 12 panel. This practice guarantees failure. There’s no way you can squeeze the magnificence of the Grand Canyon (or any panorama) onto a small format.


Make several small color studies and take photographs for details. Then, in the studio, create a larger, panoramic piece—perhaps 12 x 24 or 12 x 36—that allows you to include the elements you want and still give the main subject breathing room.

Studio Goal: Try a Different Medium

Sometimes one medium lends itself better to certain subjects than others. For example, oil is great for the subtle, blended effects that one sees in a slow-moving stream; however, with oils I have difficulty indicating the different layers I see there—stream bed, water, reflections and leaves floating on the surface—especially when I’m painting directly (alla prima or “all at once”), which is the way most plein air painters work. Pastel, on the other hand, is a natural for layering, and watercolor, because it dries more quickly, also makes layering in the field easier.


Make small plein air art studies in pastel or watercolor to capture the stream layers. Then return to the studio to paint the scene in oil indirectly, letting the paint dry between layers. You can use a looser handling of oil at the end to create blended effects.

Studio Goal: Solve a Design Problem

For me, one of the most difficult problems to solve outdoors is determining the design. I’m so enthralled by color effects that design takes a back seat. I don’t ignore the composition completely, but usually I fall back on some formula, such as an S-curve, to lead the viewer into the painting. How trite is that! I know I could do better if I gave the composition a little more thought—but the color has my attention.


Go ahead and make a color study, but also take a few photographs of different areas of the scene and from different vantage points. Once back in the studio, see if any of the photos suggest a better design. Get out a newsprint pad and charcoal and explore several design options before settling on one.

Studio Goal: Solve a Color Problem

Sometimes color harmony gets away from me. This could happen because I’m unaware of changing light conditions or because I’m trying new colors on my palette. Sometimes the color just doesn’t look “real” because I didn’t pay attention to things that could heighten the illusion of space, like bounced or reflected light.


In the studio, take a large sheet of paper, grid it into six rectangles, and paint six small versions of your field painting. Use different color palettes based on your knowledge of color harmony and of the dynamics of color in the landscape. Once you’ve found a palette that works for you, create your studio piece.

Studio Goal: Create a Piece with More Interest

Sometimes I’m able to capture the element that got me excited about the landscape, but the rest of the painting is “blah.” I could try adding more interest to the field piece, but often I’m better off starting fresh, using the failed painting as a reference.


First, decide what it is about the painting that doesn’t work. There are many ways to improve a painting, but most solutions fall into one of these three categories: design, color, or mark-making. Each category leaves a lot of room for exploration so, in the studio, try every solution that comes to mind.

Studio Goal: Create a Synthesis of Several Studies

Combining studies from different locations and times can give full voice to a concept that’s weakly expressed in each individual study. For example, near my home in Arizona, there’s a beautiful, quiet creek with a waterfall and rapids. I’ve done several paintings along its banks at different spots and in different seasons. None of these efforts, however, conjured the feeling I wanted to express so I took pieces from various sketches to get a better result.


Create color studies and drawings and take photographs. Then combine their best components for a more satisfying studio work.

Demo: From Plein Air to Studio

1. Inspirational Oil Study

I’d made a few studies along the banks of a nearby creek over the years but never captured the full sense of the water and the canyon it runs through. Spring Shallows (image 1; oil on panel, 9 x 12) is one of my studies. I liked the feeling created by the submerged rocks in the shallow water and thought this piece could inspire a good studio painting, especially if I included more of the canyon.

2. Small Waterfall Study

With my studio painting in mind, I went on location to make a couple of 6 x 8 oil studies. Image 2 is the study of the waterfall that cascades from the canyon top.

3. Small Creek Study

Ultimately, I decided not to use my second 6 x 8 oil field study of the creek beneath the waterfall (image 3) because I preferred my original 9 x 12 study (image 1). I did, however, use the smaller study as a reference for the strip of exposed land with vegetation.

4. Field Sketch

While in the field, I also made carefully drawn pencil sketches of key features— adding notes about colors and values I observed. The sketch in image 4 describes the waterfall.

5. Design Thumbnails

I played with a variety of designs in my sketchbook.

6. Studio Setup

Before laying down the first brushstroke for my studio painting, I assembled my reference material. I loaded my photographs on my computer tablet, which I attached to a gooseneck arm for easy viewing near my oil sketches, all stationed to the right of my easel. My pencil sketches, out of view in image 6, are taped to the wall to the left of my easel.

7. Studio Painting

With my wealth of plein air reference material, I painted Waterfall (image 7; oil on linen, 36 x 36). Toning the surface with transparent earth red helped me achieve the effect of submerged rocks glowing in the sun. My drawing of the falls helped replicate the angle and crevices of the waterfall rocks, and I referred to my oil study for color notes. I was careful to depart from my color references as needed to harmonize the colors.

Think Ahead

Some of these studio goals require planning before you go into the field. For example, if your goal is to create a detailed studio painting of trees, you’ll need to draw trees from life. With that in mind, you might take nothing more than a drawing pad and leave your oil paints at home. On the other hand, if your goal is to work out color problems in the studio, your field kit might consist of a small paint box and a few 5 x 7 panels for quick color studies.

Whatever your goal, I recommend that you don’t settle for mining your previous plein air art but that you gather new material with a specific project in mind. This will give your outdoor work focus and increase your chances of satisfaction in the studio.

Studio Pitfalls and Perks

Let me raise two technical warnings regarding your work in the studio, especially if you combine plein air art references from different times of day or places. First, make sure you maintain the same lighting effects throughout your studio piece. The main light must come from only one direction, and the shadows must point away from it. The light temperature and hue must influence objects in the same way everywhere. Second, make sure your perspective is consistent. If your point of view is three feet above the ground, maintain that point of view throughout the painting. Watch your vanishing points. If you must, draw perspective lines. You can erase or cover them later.

On the other hand, enjoy the benefits the studio presents. When painting outdoors, you’re a slave to nature, but in the studio you control the lighting at your easel, the warmth of your room and the soundtrack you listen to. You can have coffee and check your email when you please. What’s more, if you need to take more time to work out a better design, you can take another hour—or another month. The studio is a great place to learn, so get out all those field studies and make something of them.

About the Artist

Michael Chesley Johnson, contributing editor for Artist’s Magazine, teaches plein air workshops throughout the United States and Canada. For more great tutorials check out his art instructional videos.

This demonstration is an excerpt from the feature article, “From Site to Studio” by Michael Chesley Johnson. If you enjoy this tutorial, subscribe to Artist’s Magazine for 10 full issues of instruction and inspiration per year!

Watch the video: Plein Air Studio Touch Up - An oil painting demo (August 2022).