‘TAIN’T AS EASY AS IT LOOKS: Plein Air Painting 101

Painting Along the Yampa RiverI think most artists dream of traveling, painting beside the ocean or a river, or anywhere outdoors in the beautiful natural surroundings. I am no exception. Leaving behind the worst summer of my memory in South Texas, we journey to the mountains of Northwest Colorado. After a day or two of rain (which I will never, ever complain about again), the day dawns bright and sunny in Steamboat Springs. The Yampa River beckons, and with my trusty security guard by my side, we venture out. No matter that my guard probably would take fifteen minutes to leave the car, should a bad guy try to carry me away, I feel very secure setting up my easel and sketching the beautiful scene I want to paint. All I really try to do is show placement: where is the river, the trees, the darkest shading? I might also be stalling, which is a favorite technique I use to avoid actually putting down paint. I’m not alone. Other artists have this little ritual, I’ve discovered.

Next, I’m looking for “local” color – are those rocks warm, or cold? Do I want ultramarine blue for the water, or should I try cerulean blue? I’m also trying to decide where are the darkest darks. For me, this is the scariest part of painting.

I really need those mountains in the background before I can situate myself in this painting. And the green river bank will help me place the water and shadows where I want them.

Now I can begin to block in the shadows and the rocks as I study them more closely. I literally hear a “plop” every now and then as a fish jumps up. I wish my son in law were standing out there fishing. I know he would love this!

With my palette knife, I drag burnt sienna, raw umber and white down to define the cliffs on the left. I make the water move by adding white, and mix some green with cad yellow medium and ultramarine blue and begin to add some foliage. I’m running out of time, but it seems important to bring in more foreground details, letting the water become more alive, and starting to put in some tree trunks. While too white, I need to get all the information in this painting I can. Besides, my body is telling me we need to wrap this up, and soon! Why did I drink three cups of coffee before heading out this morning?

Quickly I add the highway, and the center stripe, load up the paints and head for our condo. Later, when it starts to rain, I can finish the work in our dining room.

Rested and refreshed, I have time to clean up the tree trunks, darken the shadows, add more yellow to the trees. How long did this paint take me? Twenty years, two hours and a few minutes. Traveling to nature’s most beautiful places, taking the time to hear the water flow and thinking about nothing more important than the right shade of green, that’s why I do it. And I invite you to come along with me. It’s a good journey, no matter where the destination!

It’s not perfect, it’s not even worthy of mounting and framing, but it’s a memory captured, a moment in time, and I’m very happy with it.



4 Responses to “‘TAIN’T AS EASY AS IT LOOKS: Plein Air Painting 101”

  1. i disagree about its’ worthiness of framing – i think this was very successful. what i like best is when the most important thing in the world is, hhhmmmmmm..which color should i use?


    • Thanks, Laura, in our busy lives, isn’t it nice sometimes to just stop, look and listen? That’s what I enjoy the most! Taking a deep breath and enjoying the moment!


  2. […] = ''; } South Mountain Plein Air Painting Worshop | Kevin McCain Studios‘TAIN’T AS EASY AS IT LOOKS: Plein Air Painting 101 // body { background-color: #ffffff; […]


  3. “…a memory captured, a moment in time…” —- What else is there?!


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