Imagine you are sitting outside in the shade of a tree. Your eyes wander over the green grass around you until they settle on a large stone fountain. The sun creates beautiful reflections on the surface of the water. You can hear the trickle of water, and see koi fish gently twirling below the dark water. You grab your sketchbook and begin scratching contours that represent what you see before you. The trees and flowers around the fountain make a beautiful background to the stones. The bright yellow and red petals inspire energy and passion within you, and you start to add in some lively watercolors.
As you are sketching, clouds slowly roll in, and before you realize it, the entire scene is cast in a dim shadow. All of the beautiful lights and darks of the stone are gone, and you’re left with a monotone scene. Your sketch suddenly looks so different to what's in front of you, but you realize you've captured that moment in time. The sketch is suddenly so much more than a sketch. It's a memory of the beautiful setting and the ways in which all your senses were alive.
When you are plein air painting/drawing (drawing outside in the open air), lighting and weather conditions are out of your control. You are at the mercy of the environment. It forces you to work quickly, to develop an eye for what the important elements are, and capture those in quick gestures. It also completely engages all of your senses - sight, touch, sound, smell, etc. These contribute to your emotional response to your setting and play a role in the outcome. It’s a magical, visceral experience.
When you are in the safety of your studio, in complete control, you can take your time to look at a reference photo, to draw it as delicately and accurately as possible, and create an incredibly detailed rendering. All the shadows, all the lighting, all the colors are there, laid out for you in a 2D form, and more easily understood.
I want to emphasis something: Using reference photos while you are in your studio is extremely beneficial and necessary to develop your muscle memory and eye for detail. Don’t ever feel bad about needing reference photos. Until you paint something so many times that it becomes muscle memory, using reference photos is necessary and natural.
Plein air painting is similar - only your reference is all around you, in 3D form. It’s your mind’s task to translate that to 2D. There’s nothing quite like hiking up into the forest, sitting in the warm sun, and painting to the tune of a soft breeze and birds chirping.
In my own experience, since I started plein air painting last year, my understanding of scale, proportion, vanishing lines, color, contrast, and so much more has developed extremely quickly, compared to when I remained in my studio and painted from reference photos.
When you look at shadows and highlights in real life, your mind learns how to see color there, rather than just darkness or light. Your mind is forced to zone in on an area, and understand the layering of objects and light, to then translate that to a 2D form on paper.
Learning how to see, how to truly observe, then translate that to your paper takes a lot of practice. The more you do it, the easier it gets. TRUST ME!
As a landscape painter, I absolutely love plein air painting. The joy of being outside in nature while painting - it's a feeling I crave.
Please feel free to share your own plein air stories by commenting below or messaging me!