Techniques and Tips

Plein Air Techniques: Land, Sea and Sky

Plein Air Techniques: Land, Sea and Sky

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Plein air enthusiast and instructor Catherine Gill shares her tips on how to capture the colors of three landscape essentials when painting outdoors: the earth, sea and sky. Plus find out what to pack for painting on location, whether you prefer a large or small setup.

With Gill’s tips and techniques in hand, you’ll be ready to grab your gear and go explore painting outdoors. Enjoy!

Painting Outdoors | Landscape Techniques to Know

I do plenty of studio painting. But I really enjoy painting outdoors, capturing the landscape en plein air whenever I can. I like what happens with the ideas generated when I’m out there. Working on location provides a depth of experience that expands my skills and my mind.

The lessons I’ve learned about the changes in color and value in the landscape stem from my experience painting outdoors. The benefit of having the opportunity to observe — to really see the effects of the light firsthand — is unmatched.

Plein Air Painting Gear

When painting outdoors, I carry everything I need in a backpack. I use a larger setup when I’m working in the field on a quarter sheet of watercolor paper. And, I carry a smaller kit for the times when I’m sitting under a tree, by a creek, in the snow or in a kayak.

Tool Kit Basics

The backpack I carry when painting outdoors contains the following:

  • A tripod easel with a board that attaches to the easel
  • A lightweight board that attaches to the easel and serves as a shelf for holding my palette, water and tools
  • A folding palette (with large mixing areas) that holds about 20 watercolor paints (which I carry in a bag)
  • 140-lb. watercolor paper (quarter sheets). I use cold pressed paper if I’m doing straight watercolor, and hot-pressed paper if I’m using mixed media.
  • 3 brushes
  • 2 small yogurt containers (and water)
  • Pastels, pastel pencils and other drawing materials
  • A sketchbook
  • A folding stool

Considering Color and Value

Take a look outside, and you’ll see earth, sky and — in some cases — sea or fresh water. They’re the usual cast of characters in a landscape.

Now look again. Notice the direction of the light. Is it coming from the right side? The left? From above? It’s important to determine. You’ll find, for instance, that if the light is hitting one side of an object, there’s a color change — not just a value change — across that shape from its lit side to its unlit side.

The light source will loan its light to the part of the shape that the light hits, or is closest to. It also will loan the color of that light to the object. So, when you’re outdoors and the light source is the sun, for example, it will loan its yellowness to the color of the object, creating a natural warm-to-cool color change across the object.

You can capture this color change immediately in the first application of paint. First, take a look at the object, then go to your palette and select a paint that’s close in color and value.

Then, take a yellow (or a hue warmer than your first choice) and place both colors on your palette about 3 to 4 inches apart. Mix them into a gradated trail (as seen in the photo below). Within that mixing trail will be the desired color change.

Color Change vs. Value Change

In the tree foliage A (below), the light is coming from the right, so there’s a color change from yellow-green to green to blue-green, but the values are close. Tree foliage B shows the same color change, but there’s too much value change, which breaks apart the shape.

For tree foliage A, I selected an aureolin yellow and cobalt blue — both transparent paints that I knew could offer a similarly light value. In tree foliage B, I chose aureolin yellow and phthalo blue (a stain), which produced a much darker color when mixed.

In the sky A (below), you can see the color change — from pink to blue — as well as a limited value change; this enables the sky to hold together as one shape. I used two transparent paints — rose madder genuine and cobalt blue — which were likely to produce similarly light values.

In sky B, I used rose madder genuine and phthalo blue (a stain), which darkened the mix. It produced too much value change to hold the shape together.

The Colors of the Earth

When the land makes up the bulk of the real estate in a landscape scene, this often includes a lot of flat space that receives the light differently from one area to the next. If the land has dips, and changes in heights and contours — as in rolling pastures — then there will be changes in value, however slight, and changes in hue.

If the scene includes a view of the land in the distance, the color of these areas will change, appearing cooler — and perhaps grayer, and bluer — than the land in the foreground.

Changing the hue, and maybe even the value slightly, as the eye travels over the land is an important tool for creating interest and indicating three-dimensional space.


In Swauk Valley, I captured the overcast sky, typical for a valley in winter, using soft edges and close values. The color of the sky has a big impact, because much of its color reflects onto the land and influences its color.

In these rolling fields, for example, there are subtle changes in color, but not value. The front field is the warmest; the field in the middle distance is slightly cooler; and the farthest field, on the left, is an even cooler, grayed yellow.

For the back hill, I mixed a trail of aureolin yellow and raw sienna, and then added a touch of a violet (cobalt blue and rose madder genuine) to gray the yellow. Notice how the mountains on the left fade to a cooler and lighter value as they recede into the distance.


Color change is a great way to indicate distance. The colors of the fields in Whidbey Island, for example, become more cool and grayed as they recede. Even the trees lose a bit of their brightness and warmth as they recede into the distance.

For the front field, I used aureolin yellow with some cadmium yellow. The color in the middle field was less yellow, and thus a cooler green. For the farthest field, I grayed the yellow with a light violet mixed from rose madder genuine and cobalt blue (a sky color).


The colors I used for the path in Ravenna Park get cooler from front to back, which creates movement and a feeling of distance, but the values remain the same.

The little hill on the right is a slightly darker value than the value of the flat path. That darker value change separates it from the lighter flat path and makes it appear on a different raised plane.

I used aureolin yellow, rose madder genuine and burnt sienna for the path, adding some cobalt blue sky color in the back to cool and gray it. For the hill, I used the same paints, just thicker so they’d be a darker value.

The Colors of the Sea

The sea is always in motion. At times, though, it appears quite still, at a slack, just before the direction changes. It’s important to take a gestural approach to drawing the sea, keeping the lines loose and feeling the movement.

Where the sea is flat, between waves or ripples, it reflects the color of the sky. Waves, on the other hand, have vertical planes that require slight value and color changes.

Because the sea is moving so much, a painter needs to look closely. You’ll see that the hues in the sea are connected with the hues in the sky, even if the sky isn’t shown in the painting.

Bouncing Waves

The sea depicted in Morning Light lines the rocky coast of the Straits of San Juan de Fuca in the Pacific Northwest. It was early morning, and the sunlit sea had waves that bounced against the rocks and created lots of movement — with a calmer sea surface farther back.

The sky above was a pale yellow, so this is the color (aureolin yellow) that reflects down onto the flat water between the waves. The purple (a mix of cobalt blue and rose madder genuine) is on the side planes of the waves — a reflection from the side of the rocks (where I was sitting) and the cliffs behind me.

Active Waters

In Ireland Shore, the sea is active, especially at the shore. The waves and movement of the sea mean changes in colors and values. The distant sea has fewer visible waves, so I’ve applied a flat wash without much change.

To keep a light value overall, I used a transparent cobalt blue and a touch of cerulean blue in and around the white wave tops, which were first lightly drawn. Notice how I’ve also used the sky colors in the sea.

The Calm Before the Storm

The sea in Neah Bay Mist shows an unusual slack tide on a calm misty morning in a protected bay along the shore of the Straits in Washington State. The sea is calm; the sky is calm; and there isn’t much tidal movement.

The feeling of something about to happen dictated my choices of color, value and edge treatment. Because the water is basically flat, there isn’t much color or value change. But in the tide pool reflections on the left, I’ve captured the reflected color from the forest farther back.

Notice also that in the sand along the shore, there’s a slight color change, but not a value change. This creates some interest and visual movement, but not too much for this calm scene. I used two transparent paints — rose madder genuine and aureolin yellow — in a gradated mixing trail on my palette and kept the thickness of the mixture consistent.

The Colors of the Sky

The sky is important for setting the tone and mood of a painting. If it’s excitement you want, then you’ll need color changes and hues that are bright, and edges that vary from hard to soft to rough.

If, on the other hand, it’s a quiet, somber mood you’re after, then you’ll want to use more grayed, lower-intensity hues and let them blend together with soft edges. These color changes in the sky will create visual movement, but keep the changes close to one another in value. Also, note that the colors of the sky nearly always play a part in the color of the landscape beneath it.

Interesting Skies

In Mount Stanley, B.C., the sky isn’t the main area of interest, but I still wanted to add interest there. I painted the sky and clouds separately, allowing for some hard and rough edges between.

For the darker sky above, I mixed a trail of cobalt blue with some more opaque cerulean blue on my palette, which I charged in at the top. There’s less modeling in these clouds than in Cle Elum Sky (below), which helped to keep the focus on the mountain area beneath. Notice how the shapes of the clouds subtly mimic the shape of the mountains.

Active Values

The sky in Cle Elum Sky is active — a typical sky viewed over the Cascade Mountains, where the air gets whipped up and moves fast. You’ll see a bit of value change between the blue sky and the clouds, and also within the clouds, but not so much change that the shapes fall apart.

In the lower center of the cloud, I used a gray composed of all three color primaries — aureolin yellow, rose madder genuine and cobalt blue, all transparent paints. I applied the mix quickly, creating soft edges to suggest the airiness of the cloud bottoms.

For the sky above, I used a slightly thicker mixture of cobalt blue with more opaque ultramarine blue to darken the mixture. I was careful to paint these two areas of sky and clouds separately. I wanted to get some hard and rough edges, as well as a little more value contrast, to create interest and excitement at the top of the clouds.

A version of this article, written by Catherine Gill, first appeared in Watercolor Artist. You can subscribe to this magazine here. And, peruse through past issues here.

Do you love painting outdoors? Tell us some of your favorite tips and plein air hacks in the comments!

Watch the video: Kyle Buckland Beginner Plein Air Oil Painting Demonstration Art Lesson #8 (August 2022).