Art theory Landscape Oil Painting Outdoors/Landscape Painting Places Plein Air

Now I Am Having Fun!

View from Old Borges Ranch; Plein air, Oil on panel, 9x12"
View from Old Borges Ranch; Plein air, Oil on panel, 9x12"

I’m celebrating a bit of progress I saw today when I painted plein air at Old Borges Ranch in Walnut Creek. I painted at this site a year ago and had a terrible time, titling the post of the awful painting I did that day, “Am I Having Fun Yet? Uh…no!”

Today was a lot more fun. I started the painting with a plan (described below) and stuck with it until I started rushing to wrap it up in time for our group critique at 1:00 when I muddied things up a bit since the light had changed in the scene from when I first started at 10:30.

When I put the painting in the line up with the other 14 paintings, I didn’t even cringe or feel embarrassed. It helped too, that I now understand that my plein air paintings are sketches, not finished works of art.

Here are the steps I took that seemed to work for me:

  1. Picked a scene that interested me with a specific focal point (the little red building) rather than just a general landscape.
  2. Used a viewfinder to visually crop the scene and see what would fit on my 9×12 panel.
  3. With a yellow pastel pencil, sketched in the “puzzle pieces” — the various shapes that comprised what I saw as layers in the depth, from the close up foreground, all the way to the most distant layer or zone of the hills and then the sky. I used a yellow pastel pencil to draw the shapes and indicate the darks.
  4. Squinted at the scene to better see values and find the darkest darks.
  5. Mixed a thin, dark, transparent mixture of paints and thinly scrubbed in the all of the darks, varying the temperature where I saw warmer or cooler shadows.
  6. Began mixing and applying paint, one zone or puzzle piece at a time. I started with the sky, first putting down a pinky yellow color, seeing it looked wrong, then following step 6 below to correct it, and using that method until I started rushing at the end.
  7. Before putting the paint on the panel I painted a smear of the color on the edge of a piece of white card stock (old business cards) and held it up to the scene to check the color. Most of the time my first mix was too light, too dark, or too warm, too cool, or completely the wrong hue. I changed the mixture, tested, and tried again until it was close enough. (More about this very helpful technique in this article by Diane Mize on Empty Easel)
  8. Began adding a bit of detail…then ran out of time

13 replies on “Now I Am Having Fun!”

I don’t know, Jana, it looks real good to me. I think the colors work and also your design. You’ve got some dark darks in there, maybe all that’s missing is a really light highlight. What do you think? Don’t overwork it!


Thanks Christine for pointing out the missing lightest light. I’ve been taught that the lightest light should always be the sky because that’s where the light source is (the sun). Of course all rules can be broken, but in this case, I think you’re comment is absolutely right, and indeed my sky should be lighter! Thanks also for the reminder not to overwork it, which as you know is always my biggest downfall! Jana


Good for you, Jana. This is a nice sketch. In a book I was reading recently featuring works by Clyde Aspevig, he calls them “field studies.” I think that’s a good term for describing these works without giving them too much (intimidating) meaning.

Another way to check color, which I’ve seen Libbey Tolley do, is to just touch a tiny dot of color on the canvas – this works if you’re using a toned canvas instead of a white one.


Thanks Karen! I love that term “Field Studies.” How perfect! I’ve not heard of Clyde Aspevig before. What is the name of the book he was featured in? Have you actually seen Libbey Tolley work in person? I almost got to go to one of her workshops (scheduling didn’t work out) but I do love her work and have her book. I agree that putting a dot of paint on the canvas is important to check the relationship with the neighboring colors and the overall painting. I wonder why that would be more important on a toned canvas than a white one?

Putting the paint on a card and holding it up to the subject is more a first step to get the color closer to the actual scene (or to first match the color before exagerating or slanting it to fit the plan for the painting). I’m sure once I’m more experienced with mixing oil paint color that will become more intuitive as it is with watercolor (though I often test my mixture on a piece of paper before putting down watercolor too). But for now, until I’m able to really see the color without aids, using the test on a card first really helps.
Thanks again!


Thanks Linda. Someone at the critique asked what colors I used to paint the hills and I said they were just different versions of muddy grays. I was surprised when I first mixed the color and held it up to compare to the actual color that my original choice of color was way to saturated and definite a color. Jana


I loved reading your plan of attack, Jana but unfortunately your painting is not showing up for me. Maybe Blogger is having a breakdown. Delighted to hear you are having fun though and I’ll come back to see the painting.


Eek! Thanks for letting me know. It should be fixed now. I use WordPress so can’t blame this one on Blogger. I think I might have goofed it up when I tried to edit the text using the WordPress application on my iPhone when I woke up this morning and realized I left out the step of “Squinting”. Jana


This is lovely. Your light is so powerful….reflecting that springtime gold. Have you seen the BBC series (about 2006) called The Impressionists? I recently rented it from Blockbuster and recommend it to all artists.


That right foreground hillside is luscious. It reminds me of sliding down grassy hills on cardboard. I love the movement and rich paint application and being able to see all the colors within the color. It is like a beautiful painting all on its own. I keep scrolling back up to look at it again and again.


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