How I Start My Plein Air Paintings

Learn how professional artists start plein air paintings, and gain a few tips along the way!

We’ll review the importance of a quick lay-in when doing plein air paintings.

Plein air painting

Hello all you art lovers out there. Today I’m going to give you an example of how I start some of my plein air pieces. This particular painting was done at Caesar Chavez National Monument.

It represents several of the plein air paintings I actually start. So check out my starting process (watch the video), maybe there’s something you can learn from it. Mainly I want you to focus on how my lay-in is very quick.



I have a tendency to work from back to front with things that are furthest distance then come closer. There are time where as you may have seen on some of my demos, I tend to put the brighter colors in and then the darker colors. For this plein air painting I’m doing the sky first.

hand painting sky

I’m going to build up some of the foliage to help give me depth of field as I go. As I lay more information in, I can determine whether I have enough depth or too much depth in some situations. But I start sky, build some foliage in front, lay-in the lighter color greens,

I get the shadowed area on the right hand side then go to the foreground elements to help me begin to build the basic foundation of values that I’m seeing.

That’s how I want to think of it. Laying in roughly, not fine detail, just quick elements so that I can build my plein air painting as I go. Putting the color that I think will help me establish the final colors that will come together eventually.

It will change as I began to fill in more and more of the details. But the basic background, middle ground, foreground elements that’s going to establish what I need as I move into the detail aspects of the plein air  painting.

Here I’m trying to get more of the middle and foreground area colors developed as close to what I’m visually interpreting as possible.

Then putting in the lighter tree foliage now and building the values around it.

When completed you see how roughly layed in this is. You can still see the loose brushstrokes. This is a good foundation for me to carry over. Good loose tree information.

Lay-in painting in progress

Now I build the middle ground trees in the painting. Putting in additional branches, structure for trees on the left side.

brush painting landscape


Here is more leafy shapes building over top of the first lay-in. The rocks more detailed.

This is how the final looks.

plein air painting of trees

This is how I would approach my first lay-in and build from there.

I hope you found this helpful. In the future I’ll show you the full plein air painting approach from beginning to completion. But my focus was the lay-in today. Happy painting.