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An Introduction to Plein Air Painting

On a whim, and with another reasonably significant birthday fast approaching, I asked myself what was it that I wanted. I could choose anything: a gift, a nice meal, an experience, or to purchase a ticket somewhere. Obviously there were limits (for I’m not made of money!), but I wanted to not just let another year slide as I sit here paralysed by fear that life seems to be passing me by.

And the one thing I wanted more than anything else right now was to learn how to paint.

I started my exploration where everyone else does: Google. I punched in a few keywords, and in less than a second, I had an answer. I was going to take a plein air painting workshop up in Mendocino, CA.

Heading North

I scheduled my vacation time around this adventure to maximize it and ensure I wasn’t running up and down the coast searching for cell phone reception so I could respond to press enquiries. I was going off the grid, and it was beyond exciting!

I left on Friday morning, stopping via a great art supply place in San Rafael to pick up the rest of my supplies, before continuing on up the 101, my road trip music playing on the stereo. I pointed the car north and enjoyed the changing scenery. In a few hours, I’d reached Willits. I took the 20 towards Fort Bragg. I wound my way down through a dense redwood forest, the road slick from never seeing sunlight. Parts of the road with the sunlight filtering through the enormous trees looked lifted from an Ansel Adams photograph. So many beautiful opportunities for photos were sacrificed for safety’s sake, (and I’m okay with that).

An Introduction to Plein Air Painting

The weekend’s festivities started with a lecture from our instructor about composition and her requirement for everyone to start their composition with a value study or notan sketch. A value study is where you document the areas of shadow in your composition — from areas of light shadow through to dark. This helps add drama, interest and depth to your painting. Most of the ladies had met before as they’d taken other classes with the instructor, but they were all remarkably welcoming to a new comer like myself. We bonded over dinner down by the Noyo River, in the shadows of the bridge that rises high above harbor.


The following morning was go-time. My previous experience with paints had just been acrylics, but I’d felt limited by them. So for this weekend, I’d set myself up with oils. My teacher didn’t give me step-by-step instructions on how to get started using them when I asked her, and it turned out that was exactly what I needed: the freedom to just have a go and see what happens. So I leapt in feet first, and I adore oils. I had been trying to force my acrylics to behave like oils, and now I understood that my style was much more suited to oils. I could blend till the cows come home.


One of the most liberating realisations was that you don’t always have to paint things exactly as they appear. You want the lamp-post in the painting? Go right ahead and do so. Want to omit that tree? Go right ahead. You are the master of your work.

En Plein Air

Generally speaking, plein air paintings should take two hours to paint. After that amount of time, the light changes and alters the look of the landscape. Your eyes won’t be seeing it the same way. If it’s unfinished, you can always take it back to studio to complete. For the first painting I attempted (of the gazebo and gardens at the hotel), I took about 3-1/2 hours. I wasn’t happy with it, but I allowed myself this weekend to work with a new medium and to not be so critical of my first attempts. And with each painting, I learned something new.


From there, we headed down to Mendocino, about ten minutes down the highway. Mendocino is a beautiful village in Northern California, perched on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific. It’s a real art hub, with a very active arts community there. The ladies were set on having yet another sit down meal, but I wasn’t interested. I was here to learn and paint, goddamnit, not go shopping for trinkets! I had packed snacks for precisely this reason, so I told them I was heading out to the cliffs immediately to get started. Seeing as I only managed to paint one canvas in the morning (and the program said we would paint two), I was itching to get to it and see what I could come up with in a landscape that was much more dynamic and exciting. One of the other ladies, Stephanie, joined me.



As it was coming into winter, I felt the clock ticking. We had a reduced amount of time to take advantage of the light.  The first sketch I did, I immediately understood the limits in my understanding of perception in painting. I was unsure as to how to display the cliffs as they appeared before me. So I went back to my sketches and simplified them.

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I painted one facing the cliffs and beaches on the South East Corner of the bay for the first one, and then I turned my attention to the sun setting into the Pacific, the headland poking into the sea from the right hand side. These were my two favourite works from the weekend by far. Being close to water, particularly the Pacific Ocean, is something I really respond to, and I can see that in my paintings. I felt very comfortable here.



Understanding Colour

In these two works, I remembered what my teacher said about not using black paint to muddy the colours. She encouraged us to see and then to paint all of the colours in the landscape. At first, I didn’t really understand what she meant.

Orange and red in the cliffs? Navy in the trees? Purple in the water?

So I thought I’d see if I could apply these colours and see what happened. I made the rocks in the bay stand out more using red. Yes! And creating the sky meant combining purple and crimson and magenta and orange and yellow. Yes! And those trees in the distance? We show them as a purple grey. YES! I understood what she meant, and that this was what my painting needed. Active colour. And from that moment, I have been mixing the colours in my head for the landscapes before me. Even two weeks later, I am still looking up at the clouds and seeing the collection of colours, not simply ‘white’ or ‘grey’.


Our final painting of the weekend required us to wake up at 6am (UGH!) to make it down to the marina in time for sunrise at 7:05am. We had to be ready to paint before the sun rose, having set up our gear and completed our value study. And the time went so fast, the light changed by the minute, the fog rolled in. It was the first time all of us were in the one place, painting variations on the same scene.  The camaraderie was wonderful, and I want every weekend to be like this.




We returned to the hotel following this sunrise adventure for the critique, and I was excited to see what other people produced over the course of the weekend and to also hear what other people thought of my work. The group had produced works in oil, acrylic, pastels and charcoal. Being surrounded by encouraging and talented women was great, and each of them had a very different style. It was great to have everyone weighing in on what they liked and what they felt could be improved upon.

One of the nicest things one of my fellow painters said about my work was about the colours: she said it’s as if I had turn the volume up. I may be new to this painting caper, but I’m so glad that part of myself was conveyed and understood.

It was great to find something I really enjoy, and to find such a talentd and support group of women to enjoy their time and company. We’re talking about doing another one in Tahoe in February.

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