A dear artist friend and mentor of mine, Larry Seiler, recently posted this reply on a thread titled Plein air for dummies - Do's and dont's on the Wet Canvas! art forum. He has given me permission to post it here since it is so relevant to our plein air group and loaded with nuggets of wisdom. Thanks Larry...
PS... you may want to check out Larry's plein air demos... there is a link to them in our Tips, Techniques, Demos, Videos, and Info for Plein Air Artists side bar.
Here's the post...
Re: Plein air for dummies - Do's and dont's
Plein Air is putting all your experience and knowledge aside, your reputation and prepare for chapter and verse of learning to see and paint all over again. Nature is a great teacher, but throws a lot of lumber at you.
The upside is...you may very well arrive at an epiphany moment (all prior painting experience and reputation aside), and suddenly see that you are becoming a painter.
There is something pure and honest about the moment outdoors, seeing something that excites your aesthetic senses, then introspectively being suspicious that given the opportunity YOU'LL mess it up and blow the whole thing.
The novice sees everything and attempts to paint it all. Setting up perhaps with some initial notion...but an elusive one. An undisciplined impracticality that requires to be honed, shorn up... or top the moment and not chasing it.
The mature painter sets up recognizing the compulsion to paint. Experience leads to understand that few essentials are responsible to nail down and capture that which was responsible for demanding to be painted. The mature painter discriminates...recognizing that noting what ought NOT to be painted is as important if not MORE than what is painted.
The mature painter having worked thru hundreds of paintings understands that nature throws a lot of lumber...that is, many more visual voices that become recognized to exist only after starting the painting, for painting is a means to opens the eye to see more. It is the more seen, that becomes dangerous for the novice, thinking him/herself astute in seeing to put it down as validation of some higher greater proof of their powers of observation. They will learn in time that paintings work for reasons paintings work.
A good thing to say to yourself again and again nearly as a mantra for your painting time is "where everything is shouting, nothing gets heard"
Over my years painting and teaching workshops... beginning painters are very conscientious about integrity of what they are seeing. There is this underlying sense that you are beginning to get on top of painting outdoors when your painting more accurately represents what you are seeing and the colors you are seeing. However... such is no guarantee that nature has cooperated to deliver you a fine compositional layout. As an artist that matures painting outdoors, you will learn that nature is yet a reference, and that again paintings work for reasons paintings work.
In time...you will nearly learn to see your painting finished before you begin it...seeing in your mind those few essentials extrapolated in a masterful way to assure a sound solid painting the result. Perhaps it will require to make one group of trees taller to take on that necessary role of a vertical juxtaposition against an otherwise bland horizontal mass. Perhaps it will be to extend the end of a mass beyond the central divide of your canvas so that the cliche of symmetry is avoided.
It takes time to understand a number of things, primarily that which is responsible for tripping your trigger...grabbing you by the jugular and demanding to be painted. Painting from life, the moment, responding to the light is perhaps more about coming to know yourself more intimately and coming to peaceful terms about your aesthetic whims and heart. The harmony sought thus is not one just on the canvas alone between working parts, pigments, and elements...but one that is in sync with your own artistic heart.
It is indeed about painting the effects of light...and painting outdoors you will become near insanely attuned to your surroundings. Driving down the road very little will escape you, and you begin to feel more fully alive.
You will learn to adjust your painting routine knowing your area and that important aspect of light which is threatening at any moment to vacate, leaving you standing there wondering whatever it was that drew your interest to begin with.
You may change your supports ground, a midgray perhaps or toned so that the very few touches of paint instantly record what light is doing. White canvas so often fights against such immediacy, requiring much of the canvas to be filled in first before a sense of what is happening is finally seen in cohort of everything else. By that time the light may have changed several times...and the result is you have several paintings going on at once.
So...my suggestions are that you do not set out to begin this journey with allusions of coming home with successful works. In the beginning, it will be about conditioning yourself. Developing a working palette...a routine of expediency, and empowering your sense of vision that underscores the "why?" of your need to set up and paint.
I often say it takes about 120 bad paintings to learn something about painting, and again and again I have had my share of amusement and laughs when a seasoned well known and popular artist very experienced in their genre/field tries plein air for the first time and admits to feeling as though they knew nothing of painting whatsoever!
Nature will do that to you...
No need to paint large when you first begin.
Keep them about 8"x 10"...no larger than 9"x 12"...
I suggest bringing a dozen 5"x 7"s... and in the beginning use just black and white and do value studies. A dark, mid, light and white.
Squint the eyes... see the main masses, and put them down.
then mix up a couple (no more than two) halftones within each main value. Dark...now has two halftones representing it....mid, two halftones representing it...light etc.,
Then note those areas of the main masses that melt and lead the eye into the next as a bridge. This is where the halftones are painted.
In time...mix up your dominant colors the same way. If the scene is predominantly green...pre-mix up a dark green, mid green, light green...before starting to paint. See the distant masses represented simply...perhaps cools, and relegate to one or two values.
There are many more palette strategies to go from here, but this very simple approach will get you started and cause you to feel you are getting some handle on this.
I hope and wish you well...
Check out Larry's websites and blogs...
My Bargain Bin blog- "Will Paint For Gas!"
"My Painting From Life" blog
My Artist's website!