Techniques and Tips

Plein Air Tips, Part 2: Sun Vs. Shade

Plein Air Tips, Part 2: Sun Vs. Shade

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Of the many issues that can arise when working on location, whether to work in shade or full sunlight is one of the most bothersome. Having struggled with this for over 25 years, I have some observations that may prove helpful.

Start by analyzing the direction the sunlight will be traveling. It will prove helpful since you’ll be working in the same location for a considerable amount of time. Otherwise, pastel choices from the palette will appear completely different on the painting surface, confusing the mind and eye collaboration. If possible, try to position the easel so the painting surface is in shade.

To shade the open palette, employ a neutral colored umbrella like the “Best Brella” ( This can be attached directly to the easel. For a freestanding alternative, the “Shade Buddy” available from Dakota Art Pastels (, that utilizes a ground stack holder, works well. Conversely, a large plein air umbrella can be attached to an extra camera tripod, making it easy to move as the light changes. Umbrellas for working en plein air have improved quite a bit over the last couple of years and thankfully there are a number of good choices available. Research what other artists are using and check the plein air suppliers to find out what’s new (reference previous blogs on using umbrellas dated July 15 and 21, 2008).

When it’s not practical to position your painting and palette in constant open shade, or when the surrounding area is extremely bright, making it difficult to accurately determine your pastel choices, working in full sunlight is the best option. Since individual pastel sticks will look lighter and brighter in this scenario, it’s imperative to have value and chroma designations well organized within the palette.

Wearing sunglasses is another option, provided they’re neutral in color and are worn consistently throughout the painting process. Select the most neutral gray pair of sunglasses possible and avoid overly dark lenses. Fishing supply stores are good resources. Currently, polarized lenses are very popular. If possible, find good lenses that aren’t polarized. You’ll see the scene more closely to the naked human eye. If not, realize that what you’re experiencing is akin to the photograph taken with a polarizing filter attached to the lens. Distant blue haze will be diminished and surface reflections nearly eradicated. In extremely bright situations, I’ve had to recently revert to wearing sunglasses to protect my eyes. With a little practice and discipline, it can be done. Minor adjustments to the painting can be made later in the comfort of the studio.

The best advice is to be consistent. Through trial and error, we learn solutions that ultimately allow us to intuitively respond to the painting situations we find ourselves in. Whether we work in the shade or in the sun, a good painting is the goal.

Check out a calendar of Richard McKinley 2010 workshops on his website. If you can’t meet up with Richard live in person (or even if you can!), check out his new ANTV video workshops either as an online streaming video by visiting the ANTV website here or on DVD at our online shop here.

Watch the video: Outside The Lines Plein Air Painting Documentary, Plein Air Force (August 2022).