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Why plein air?

Let's face it, plein air painting is a pain in the butt. You have to schlep your materials on foot for what can be long stretches of uneven terrain. There may not be a bathroom. You can get rained on or sunburned. Wind can topple your easel and break your pastels. Curious bystanders may disturb you... So why do it? I've often wondered this myself and I think I'm beginning to understand. I just don't feel the same way about a scene when looking at it in a photo as I did when I was there. Painting in plein air helps capture the feeling of being there. The human eye can see much more detail than can be captured in a typical photo, especially in low light and shadow areas. Plein air also requires you to work quickly, which I find helps me be more spontaneous and expressive in my work. When you're out in the field, you can use a viewfinder to quickly find your composition and expedite your sketch process. Dakota pastels sells a nice one. Always take photos to help remind you of the scene if you want to keep working on it in the studio. Video can be helpful to see the movement pattern of water.

I'm a self-taught pastel artist. What I mean by that is that we didn't use pastels in college. I started using them with techniques I picked up in books, magazines and YouTube. That said, it was a real treat to get to work alongside Steve Hill, a master pastellist in northern Washington State. Here's clip from Day three of the workshop:

Mount Baker: the completed demo painting.

Here's a little practice painting I did a couple of weeks after the workshop.

Below are my take-aways from the workshop experience:


  • Practice using a light touch (soft pastels often crumble beneath my death grip). Let the edges come together, finish by defining those edges.
  • Where two very different colors meet is a good place to add pop colors and emphasize the edge (think unsharp mask in Photoshop).
  • Forget what you've learned about hard vs. soft pastels. Use either at any time depending on the color you need. That said, hard pastels are excellent at making small, sharp shapes.
  • Unwrap your sticks and organize them by value. Value is more important than hue.
  • Let your sticks do the work: find a stick close to the physical size of your desired mark or shape; air bubbles creating oddly-shaped edges can be used to randomize your strokes.
  • Paint treeptops into the sky (edge again).
  • Practice your strokes, try wiggling your stick.
  • Alcohol wash can be used anytime to create a brushy, splatter, random vegetation effect.
  • Drag your water color into the tops of foreground vegetation.
  • Let your rooftops intersect (like form an X at the top instead of just an inverted V). Fix the top after.
  • Pay attention to the edges of your shadows.
  • Reflections in water will have some wiggle to the edges.


  • Clear blue skies are typically light ochre-ish towards the horizon, followed by a slightly greenish (pthalo) blue in the middle with the darkest ultramarine on top.
  • Vary your colors within the same horizonal plane in the sky.
  • Many artists typically work from dark to light then cool to warm.
  • Distant hills are often darker at the top than the bottom and can seem to float in the sky.
  • Greenery likes to be paired with tones of purple and orange.

About this website

This website was built using the Uikit3 framework and is hosted on GoDaddy. We've built sites using WordPress, Magento, Business Catalyst and Foundation. UIkit 3 is our current favorite because it's lightweight, well-documented and easy to use. Business Catalyst is being discontinued from Adobe, so we're currently evaluating other content management systems for medium to large nonprofits and governmental entities.