Once a week I journey outside to paint in the great outdoors. As they say, “practice makes perfect”.

But perfection is elusive.

Painting “Wow”

While I’ve noticed my studio work often results in wow” paintings, my plein air paintings remain, well, let’s say, amusing. The past few weeks have been all-out plein air disasters. But repainting back in the studio averts complete failure and actually end ups, well, nice.

So what is it that makes plein air so different from studio painting?

The same painting skills are used; the only difference is that I’m painting in a different place, right? Exactly. Simply being out doors means you have to contend with:

  • Distractions. Painting in the studio, I’m in my zone. I enter my studio cave and immediately I’m focused. With plein air, there other artists to chat with, passers-by, setup time, unfamiliar fresh air, the sun, heat, cold, rain, bugs, wind.
  • Immediacy. Artists have to rush to catch the light before the angle of the sun changes the light and shadow. I know this, and wrestle with myself to try to paint more slowly, but I skip steps and miss the important leisurely subtle passages that I wouldn’t miss in the studio.
Sky reach trees painting by Mary Hubley
Skyreach 8 x 8″ © Mary Hubley – Started out as a disaster plein air piece, yet I love this little beauty now that it had studio time as well.

While I know professional artists who consistently produce gorgeous plein air pieces, others say their plein air rarely turns out well. So why even go to the trouble if I can’t get a beautiful finished gallery-ready painting from it?

Because it’s essential. For me, plein air isn’t the end result – it’s only the first step in my painting practice. It’s purposely a sloppy playground of color notes, ideas, and impressions. It’s later, back in the studio, that I rework it on a larger canvas and correct the details. These little field studies eventually culminate with my best work and eventually, a few “wow” endings.