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Friday, August 5, 2011

Plein Air Tip and a Big Fat Challenge

"The Sunshine Coast"
Original oil - 6"x8"

What trips you up the most in plein air painting? It's a good thing to ponder. Once you have an answer, there is huge value in focusing on that particular thing the next few times you go out.

For me it's detail and design. Seeing past all the detail - and the challenge of finding a good design. Here is one exercise that will really help you address both of these issues at once:

Do a quick (15 minute) value study of the scene - in paint - using only black, white and one or two mid-tone grays.

Photo of scene

6x8" value study

Remember the goal is not to copy the scene. It's to create a strong design. As you go -  squint and compare, and be exploring:
  • how to eliminate detail
  • where to link shapes to create an interesting pattern of light and dark
  • where you can lose edges by bringing values close together (to connect shapes)
  • where to push values lighter or darker to strengthen your design
  • what stays - what goes
Lots of folks do value studies with pencil in a sketch pad. I prefer to do them in paint as it gets me thinking about edges and brushwork at the same time that I'm sorting out simplification and design. This was a workshop demo so there is no finished painting to show, but you get the idea.

Big Fat Challenge:
A few of my students have taken on a challenge to do 50 of these studies in the next 30 days. If any of you want to do the same, jump on in. Once you've done 50, send me a photo of your best one, and a photo of the scene it was done from, and I'll post a selection of them here on my blog later in the fall. Bonus - you have until September 30th to get me your image. :-)

On another note, I am only teaching one Daily Painting workshop this year. It will be in my Canmore studio Oct. 1st-3rd. For more details please click here.


  1. Lovely sky Liz! I'd love to join this challenge but I'm moving with only 16 days between inking the deals and the move! This will have to be later for me but it's just what I need. I find it hard to get enough contrast with pencil value studies.

    One question - do you do these value studies on board or another surface?

  2. HI Cheryl, sorry you can't join in but if you do it down the road, please let me know how it goes.

    I do the studies on my regular painting panels (Raymar linen on board) and then I just wipe them off if I want to use the panel again. I'll take a photo of the study if I want to use it for further reference.

    You could certainly use a much cheaper substrate though, primed museum board or gessoed MDF are a couple of options.

  3. Thanks so much for the mini-lesson. I do more pencil studies. I should do more value studies in oil. May attempt the 50/30 later, as I'm trying to finish up my 100 garden and floral series.

  4. I would have liked to participate to the workshop in Canmore, the subject interests me a lot, but I'll be in Canmore September 3rd to 5th, will you be in your studio on 3rd afternoon?
    (I'll come back to France on September the 20, after a 15 days trip).

  5. Hi Sylviane, please email me directly (not through blogger) at and I'll be happy to arrange a meeting with you.

  6. this is very cool. This beach is so Nova Scotia and I have many photos of places just like it.
    You're doing great stuff here. I'll be back!

  7. also choosing this color harmony creates the ultimate color vibration in this piece. It is very hard to use purples without going saccharine. The balance here is perfect.
    Just beautiful.

  8. Fascinating work.
    It has been delightful
    to visit your gallery.
    Good Creations

  9. it never fails to amuse me when I see a painting. And I LOVE it. So I go to make a comment ....and I already have :D
    Well, that's the hallmark of good work.