Two Vital Skills To Improve Your Plein Air Painting

In the style of painting that I enjoy which is representational watercolour it is essential to paint on location as often as possible (en plein air is the official term). I’ve always enjoyed plein air  painting but I have to admit that I haven’t always enjoyed a lot of success with it.  It’s only in the last year or so when I’ve started to consistently come home with interesting paintings.   I have noticed 2 stages of development that I had to go through to reach the point where I usually succeed when painting on location.

Stage 1
Stage 1 in plein air painting is when you  can go out  and consistently come back with a successful painting.  In order to do this I’ve found that 2 things are essential: 1) the ability to create a successful composition and 2) the ability to create an effective value pattern.  To create a successful composition requires   many decisions in terms of leaving things out, moving shapes around, and especially simplifying things.  Almost never can you just copy what is in front of you.  An effective value pattern is the arrangement of lights and darks that will lead the eye on an interesting journey through the painting.

Stage 2
Once you are consistently able to produce a ‘successful’ painting the next stage is to be able to create a painting that shows your own personal vision.  This is where your painting starts to tell a story or evoke a feeling. It’s not copying nature it’s using nature to tell your story.  This stage requires a whole other set of skills.  The most important is that you need to be able to pre visualize or see in your mind what you want the painting to look like.  Responding to the moment and responding to what’s happening on the paper are of course some of most enjoyable aspects of painting but it is important to start out with a fairly clear direction that you want to go in.  A successful stage 2 painting needs to have washes  that are fresh and lively and this can only happen if you get the right colour and value in the first wash and that only happens when you have an idea of what colour and value you want.

Rex Beanland, Glendale Community Centre, watercolour, 9 x 12

Glendale Community Centre


Rex Beanland, Inglewood, Winter Sun, watercolour, 12 x 15

Winter Sun, Inglewood


Rex Beanland, Downtown, Winter Sun, watercolour, 9 x 12

Downtown, Winter Sun


What’s The Point Of All This

The 3 plein air paintings above which were done very recently are ones that I feel do have a consistent vision and successfully tell a story.  Glendale Community Centre is a challenging perspective as the building and rink are down at the bottom of a little valley.  This painting very accurately follows the value pattern of this partially sunny day.

Winter Sun, Inglewood  plays with the colours of the scene to create a strong centre of interest.   Every wash was done in one go except for the 3 large shadows of the 2 groups of figures and the central car.  I had to add a second wash to them.  So the painting is clean, colourful and I hope very inviting.

In Downtown, Winter Sun I again played with the colours to create a more interesting journey through the composition.

I’m very pleased with all these plein air paintings because I think that they use the elements of the scene as a starting point to create an interesting and effective painting.

If I were to summarize what I have found most useful in this particular journey it is to take as much time as needed before applying any paint to get a clear vision of where I want to go.  There will always be ups and downs but when I do the necessary work before I begin painting I find that it almost always works out well.

P.S. I don’t normally want to diminish my paintings but just in case you are interested in a further illustration of the stages of plein air paintings take a look at this previous post .  It illustrates what I feel are a couple of successful stage 1 paintings.  Pleasant enough, definitely accurate but lacking a vision.  They were in effect nice copies of  some buildings and structures in Ogden Yards.



2 thoughts on “Two Vital Skills To Improve Your Plein Air Painting

  1. shelley

    Hi Rex,
    I was skimming this page and saw the 3 paintings on this post. Was so surprised when I went back to read the blog that they were plein air paintings – they look like studio pieces. Amazing to see the incredible progress in your work. Neat to read your process too and see the interplay between planning and being in the moment/getting into the “zone”. The need for both could be a life lesson for a lot of things ;o) I especially love the Inglewood piece. I like how old Inglewood is almost like a window frame to modern hazy “new” Calgary. It flips around how the past is usually portrayed as a fixed picture to look at . In this case, it is the vibrant part where the action & actors are. The placement of the figures right on the road (who appear to be strolling) is really interesting, as if persisting in something that happened on that road perhaps 100 years before. Nice work!

    1. Rex Beanland Post author

      Hi Shelley:

      Thanks for the comment. You nailed it. What you got out of it was exactly what I was hoping was in the paintings. My thrill to be able to do this on location and also the story that the Inglewood painting was trying to convey. This story element is big in my idea of painting and I always thought the story here was Inglewood casting an eye on Calgary. Needless to say I really enjoyed your comments.



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