Painting outdoors


Dear Artist,

My experience has been that plein air requires a different mind-set than indoor work. Small inconveniences that do not occur in the studio can make or break the effort — a cool wind on the neck or a lightly primed canvas that lets the light through — minor irritants, but important to anticipate and prepare for. I recommend building up to the activity, finding comfort with your own methodology, not expecting too much. It’s the time-honoured “field sketch,” and it’s noble. Better to have a small diamond than a large piece of glass.


“Gold and Grey: The Sunny Shower, Dordrecht”
1884 watercolor by
James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903)

At the same time, and I’m not trying to influence your style here, try for the “big picture” in the first few strokes. I find that very often that when the grand gesture is made early on it holds the thing together. Don’t be afraid to keep it simple and broad; there’s always time for detail. A few minutes of Zen-like consideration before the first stroke will generally pay off, too.

Most of my outdoor paintings are unabashed two-steps. The outdoor part attempts to be joyously cursory — as fresh and fluid as possible, first impressions, happy accidents — with lots of canvas, paper or panel showing and unrealized areas just left. It’s really a set up for what’s coming — the second thought — the work around the fortuitious strokes, the tightening and figuring out back in the studio or in the cabin later in the evening.


“Sea and Sand, Domburg” 1900
watercolor by James McNeill Whistler

There’s another quality to outdoor work: Communion. Try a boat. An evening drift on a river or lake in a floating easel, going with breezes and currents, softly turning this way and that, trawling for visual interests and suggestions that bubble up from the mysterious subconscious; clouds, reflections. Hands down, it beats dragging in fish.


“Hastings: Fishing Boats” ca.1880
watercolor by James McNeill Whistler

Best regards,


PS: “He is only an eye, but my God, what an eye.” (Paul Cezanne commenting on Claude Monet) “Let the beauty we love be what we do.” (Rumi, 1207-1237)

Esoterica: Whistler’s palette (not his mother’s). In some work he was supposed to have used only these earth colors: White, Yellow ochre, Venetian or Indian red (Venetian for oranges and Indian for violets) Ivory black, Raw umber, Raw sienna. Also Permanent blue. This limited palette, while difficult, can be expected to bring quality control and surprising range. It’s good training too. Less is more.

This letter was originally published as “Painting outdoors” on June 6, 2000.


Download the new audio book, The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“For art and joy go together, with bold openness, and high head, and ready hand — fearing naught and dreading no exposure.” (James Abbott McNeill Whistler)



  1. I’ve never quite figured out plein air painting, and only attempted it once or twice. This letter takes the heat out of the challenges and makes it all sound possible, and inviting. Thanks so much for posting Sara, and thank you Robert.

  2. hi

    great letter as always

    I WILL get the audio letters in fall – we were forced by blizzards and safe senior rules to stay in so much this past winter my Independence fun was cancelling all my audio video stuff including cable – I LOVE that one – will never go back to cable – and running out daily with glee here in lovely Connecticut. So grateful that I can. When the weather cools again, I will be looking for more on tv and online and the audio letters will be cozy fun and helpful to my winter painting


    Your fan


  3. While I have limited experience painting in the outdoors, I agree that it is more about being in the moment and seeking inspiration from communing with nature. I recently ventured to Pender Island for the inaugural ” Le Mistral Painting Adventures” and was completely inspired [much needed after our winter horrible]……Emily Carr sought to commune with the sublime …. and nature can inspire all of us to reconnect…. interestingly, it might also change your colour palette and your moods…… I didn’t seek to paint a masterpiece … only to capture the mood and spirit of the moment so I can paint back in the studio on those next wet, cold days

  4. I have always believed in the importance of plein aire painting and have almost always failed miserably at it. At best, I have nailed some of the colours in the landscape and brought them back to the studio to try to incorporate them into a finished work. At worst I have added one more muddy panel to the stock in the basement. Robert’s admonition to start large and loose is a great tip and encourages me to get back out with the mosquitoes. Thanks again Sara.

  5. Robert was always “right on” with his advice, and this advice from 17 years ago still holds true. I also find it helpful to have a goal when outdoors painting, either personal or technical. Remembering that you are just one creative spot of energy in a greater creative whole also helps, and that you are part of the equation. “Smile, breathe and go slowly.” – Thích Nhất Hạnh

  6. Rosa Rebada on

    To me the Whistler quote parallels the truth, Perfect love casteth out all fear — whether the “exposures” be of winter winds that shake the bones or human views that threaten to crease our hearts. Art and joy are fruits of the spirit of love that prove a stronghold especially for the sensitive heart. I’m going to hang those words on my wall like a hammer. Thank you Sara.

  7. Choosing the scene is the hardest part. Rather, narrowing down an infinite number of views to one site (sight?) that represents the landscape is the hardest part. I’ve spent days in Analysis Paralysis (thank you Brenda Behr for the perfect term) trying to decide where to set up the easel…

  8. I was painting in a busy park some years ago

    Sometime ago I was painting in a busy park and was approached by a young critic. She proceeded to inform me the picture I was well into looked nothing like anything she saw in front of me. I thanked her and told her it was the nicest thing anyone had said all day. She wasn’t sure what to say so she left. It is still one of my favorite pictures.

  9. Plein air painting has always been my favorite. By dragging a large 16″x20″ canvas, a heavily loaded back-pack full of supplies deep in the woods in Tennessee early in the morning and working in silence alone until noon, every spring for ten years taught me so much. The light would change every hour. Noon was too late to finish, had to be done by 11. Sometimes, with my knives flying I would finish a masterpiece in an hour and a half. It was always fun to see what I would end up with. Many of those paintings have sold for a decent price. I was surprised that no one really cared if I had painted it in the woods.

  10. Steve Eborall on

    Thank you for this reminder about outdoor painting. This reminds me, do you have a photo of Robert’s “Art Dog” that you could re-share? This was a small wooden trailer on wheels that he would tow along with his bicycle when he was painting outdoors. I saw it on one of his posts, a few years ago.

  11. Years ago I attempted my first and last plein air experience painting in watercolor with friends in a park in Florida. Things were going well until a class of elementary students on a field trip showed up and took too much of an interest in what we were doing. I think one little girl must have thought the paints in my watercolor palette box were finger paints because without any hesitation, she jabbed a finger into the alizarin crimson! Horrified, I immediately tried to wipe the paint off of her finger before it went all over her. Alizarin crimson has a reputation for “traveling” everywhere, and it sure did–for weeks afterward I found A.C. all over everything in my supply bag from the rag I used to wipe off of her finger!

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to late afternoon sun on the tip of Savary Island's Indian Point highlights the design elements of the logs and the summer surroundings of the island.

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My enjoyment in representing the beauty of our world with strong design and bold colours is what drives my passion for my landscape painting of Savary Island and other parts of our amazing planet.


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