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

My “How-To Oil Paint Plein Air” Cheat Sheet

Blake Gardens Late Afternoon, oil on panel, 9x12"
Blake Gardens Late Afternoon, oil on panel, 9x12"

After my flop of a painting on Saturday, I was determined to have another go at plein air painting. But first I wanted to put together a cheat sheet; a personalized “How to Paint Plein Air” based on what I’ve learned from teachers, books, experience, mistakes, successes and goals. I started jotting down notes as ideas and images came to me and then when the list felt complete, I typed it up and taped it to my paint box so that it will always be with me when I’m out painting. I posted another on the studio wall.

Then I went out to paint. First I drove to a site I’d been wanting to try out, a hillside cemetery in El Sobrante with what I thought would be  interesting views. But once I found a spot where I could be off the road and away from mourners, it was so windy, and the view so boring, that I left and headed for Blake Gardens.

By the time I got there and set up, I only had an hour and a half to paint before they closed at 4:30. It was so serene and beautiful there and the weather was perfect, warm sunny and no wind. I worked as fast as I could, finished all of the main areas, and added the final touches at home.

It was a confusing scene with all sorts of trees and foliage, but not having enough time helped me to simplify rather than draw all the trees in the background. I took artistic license to move things a bit to improve my composition and to delete something that wasn’t working. I’m learning!

Here is my Oil Painting Plein Air Process Cheat Sheet. I imagine it will change as I learn and grow, but it definitely helped me with this painting.

  1. FOCAL POINT: Choose one!
  2. COLOR KEY: Decide: Will the painting be predominantly Warm or Cool, High key or Low key, Predominant hue?
  3. SQUINT! to see values, simplify
  4. THUMBNAIL: Keep making them until there’s a good composition with leading lines in to focal point. A bad composition can only lead to a bad painting.
  5. CANVAS: Transpose thumbnail to canvas, creating large puzzle piece shapes, using pastel pencil or thin paint.
  6. UNDERPAINT: Loose, sketchy monochrome underpainting of shapes, darks with very diluted paint (optional)
  7. DARKS: Thinly paint the darks but MATCH values and colors using value scale and testing paint first on edge of little cards held up to compare to actual color. Just because it’s dark doesn’t mean it’s black.
  8. PAINT LARGE SHAPES: Match or exagerate the average (VIBRANT) color in  large shapes, using not too thick paint.
  9. COLOR PATCHES: Break larger shapes into smaller patches of color and light, matching or slightly exagerating the color.
  10. HIGHLIGHTS & ACCENTS: Add thick LIGHT paint, thin dark accents, and occasional splashes of “broken” color  for VIBRANCY.
  11. EDGES: Put a dab of COMPLEMENTARY colors around edges of focal points to pop, SOFTEN and/or cool receding edges.
  12. STOP: It’s a field study!

If you have discovered other things that have helped you and are willing to share them, I’d love to hear about them. And if you’d like more information about any of the items on my list, let me know and I’ll do another post with more explanation and details.

8 replies on “My “How-To Oil Paint Plein Air” Cheat Sheet”

This is a stunning painting Jana – perhaps you should always only be given an hour and a half to paint! I’ve never tried plein-air oil painting, but if I ever get to try I’ll be printing this list out and sticking it in my paintbox too.


You put a huge smile on my face each time I see another of your paintings. Such joy in them! Capturing the light so beautifully! Such rich color! Blessings and thank you for taking your precious time to share.


I paint on a ‘pink’ or ‘light blue’ ground. I use acrylic primer first, then have a special mix of acrylic, whiting, and pink or blue acrylic paint for final colour. Mix the whiting with water to a creamy consistency, then mix it in with the tinted acrylic. Two or three coats of this on top of the normal white primer will give a surface that absorbs some of the oil in the paint, and allows one to put colour over ‘wet’ colour without too much picking up. of previously applied paint.


I’m so happy that the very first page that popped up in my search for plein air painting “how to” was not only super informative and helpful but from a local artist! (I live in El Sobrante) Beautiful painting and thank you for the information!


I have to thank you for commenting on this post! I’d forgotten all about it and since I’ve promised myself to do more plein air painting in 2013 it’s great to find the list again! I have a good friend who lives in El Sobrante–I love all the trees there. It’s like being out in the country yet so close to the city. Jana


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