Challenges and Rewards of Plein Air Painting

The weather has been beautiful here in Florida, so I’ve taken my work out of the studio to the beach the past couple of weeks. I won’t lie. I’ve spent some of the time kicking back, enjoying the sun and the sound of the waves! So, here again are some new pieces. I started with some watercolors. You can see how the weather and light changed throughout the hours I spent on my first day:


And here is an oil painting, in which I focused mainly on the water:


For obvious reasons, water is difficult to capture. I believe it takes hours of practice and observation, if you have the patience. Here are some other challenges to plein air painting, which I’ve become reacquainted with on this latest adventure:

1) The Public. This is a double-edged sword. When things are not going well, it can be frustrating knowing anyone can walk up and ask to see what you are working on. When you are happy with the piece, it can be a fun way to meet people, especially kids. I met one little (precocious!) girl who informed me, “I just wanted to see what you were doing because I’m like a REALLY good artist, too.”

2) The Sun: I’m very fair and proned to sunburn. The first day I went out, I tried to stay in the shelter, but became so absorbed in my work that I didn’t notice the shadows moving and ended up sunburned on the side of my face. I remembered sunscreen after that, but still ended up with a very uneven tan. Also, my freckles are now out for another summer!

3) The wind: One day last week I only got about two hours into a painting (unfinished and not pictured here) when I was chased back into the studio by increasing winds. My portable easel was shaking so much, there was really no point.

4) Changing weather conditions: Another longer painting remains rife with problems because the conditions changed so much between the two different days I spent on it. Apparently, partly cloudy versus sunny changes everything – from the shadows on the sand and to the colors of the water. Who knew?

Think of all the artists who spent their careers out of doors fascinated by changing light and how to capture it, from Turner to Monet. I can understand why an artist would devote a lifetime to such a pursuit.

10 thoughts on “Challenges and Rewards of Plein Air Painting

  1. I’m a fan of watercolors and of the beach! Because of this my favorite is the one with the beach and the water and the little tufts of beach grass. TFS!

  2. Lovely paintings! It is a challenge to do artwork outdoors between weather and people. You gotta watch that sun! It is very sneaky!

  3. It is amazing to me how you can paint something that is changing so fast. Really, how do you do this? And not just the waves but also the colors. How many hours do you need for a painting like this? They are all beautiful!
    Isn’t it amazing that we have both spent the same day on the beach though very far apart! Thank yo for stopping by my blog!

    1. Sonya – Thanks so much! This foray into plein air painting has been a good exercise for me, because I am used to doing pretty hard-edge realism or photorealism. Obviously, that’s impossible with something that’s changing every second. Fortunately, if the wind doesn’t change too much during a session, each wave looks much like the last so I just keep watching them, trying to catch different aspects, like the color just to the side of the white. So, the oil painting probably represents hundreds of different waves… I assume… It’s amazing to think about. I worked on that one for about four or five hours.

      I just finished reading a book called “Imagine: How Creativity Works.” In one chapter the author talks at length about the importance of working memory in terms of creating. Editing a poem, executing a design, or composing a piece of music all require a great deal of brain power in this area. Of course, I wouldn’t have even thought of that if I hadn’t just read that book, but it seems to play a huge role in painting realistically. I look up, I observe, I store it in my brain, and try to reproduce with one or two brushstrokes, then look up again… Sorry for the long-winded answer to your question, but that’s how I do it. 🙂 – Heather

  4. Beautiful! I have only ever done sketches outside. The waves are so enchanting and I find them very calming.

    1. Thanks, Kathy! I just took a look at your blog and your paintings are beautiful as well! Bugs… yes. That is another hazard. The mosquitos are out now around here, but I guess that’s one advantage of going to the beach: fewer insects!

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