The madness of Planning for Plein Air painting

 My challenge

In a moment of madness I decided this summer that I would try painting outdoors i.e. en plein air. My goal was to paint for 9 days in the Western Isles of the UK namely the Outer Hebrides. I planned to visit  the islands of Barra, Vatersay, South and North Uist, Benbecula, Harris, Lewis and Skye. From where I live it takes two days to get to the islands and two days to get back so quite a trek. I decided to prepare properly both physically and mentally.


I sorted out all the equipment before I left and it filled the boot and back seat of my car!! It included:

  • A comfortable painting chair that I bought from the Society of All Artists

  • Oil paints and medium
  • 16 pre-primed canvas boards of varying sizes that I had stained ochre and which I kept in a drying rack that I bought for £4 at my local store

  • Odourless turps e.g. Zest
  • Brushes and mark makers usually by Rosemary’s Brushes
  • Paper towels
  • An apron
  • A variety of drawing tools like pencils, rulers, rubbers, Q-tips
  • A thermos for hot drinks
  • A bottle for carrying fresh water
  • Plastic bags for rubbish
  • Biscuits
  • Coats, hats, umbrellas, jumpers, painting clothes
  • PLUS: Muscles for moving all this kit about!

Did I forget anything?

Did I miss anything out? OH YES!! The one thing I did not think about was that I would need to go to the loo. You can laugh but as a women it is not the easiest thing to “do” for fear of getting “caught”. I have to admit that this issue curtailed a few painting trips, much to my amusement. Since returning home I have bought a P-Mate container so that I need never get “caught short” again. It’s staying in my car until my next painting expedition.

Preparation for painting

Having scoured the literature this is what I decided to do before starting any painting:

  • Look at the view / subject (not glance at it)
  • Think!!!!
  • Frame is view (square, oblong, circle)
  • Edit what’s there (do I need to paint everything that I see – cars?)
  • Where is the focal point?
  • Where is the horizon?
  • Are there clean lines of perspective?
  • Are there any negative shapes?
  • What are the really big shapes?
  • Can I split the composition up into threes?
  • Where is my eye’s path?
  • Ensure that I don’t repeat shapes of objects and ensure there is variety
  • Look at the water’s patterns
  • Make a sketch
  • Do I think the composition interesting/ worth painting?
  • Did I put the palette and canvas in the shade
  • Should I try sketching out the composition using paper towels and lots of medium
  • Plus – remember to carry all the necessary kit. Hahahaha.

Things to incorporate into your paintings

I also understood that to produce a successful painting I needed to remember:

  • Edges need to vary; they will be sharper in the foreground than the background
  • Colours will pale into the background
  • Objects will become fuzzier and paler as they recede
  • The sky is darker at the top and paler towards the horizon. It’s a good idea to add a touch of red into the sky to warm it up compared to the sea.
  • The sea often becomes paler nearer to the shore; it gets browner/greener with the effects of sand beneath the waves; add patches of the sky colours to unite the sea and sky
  • Incorporate the colour of the sky into the landscape
  • Work dark to light
  • Water reflections are more muted
  • Warm light generally casts cooler shadows and cool light warmer shadows
  • Shadows are made up of secondary light from surrounding objects
  • Shadows in bright sunlight will tend to be bluish from the sky (Sorolla)

So – was my painting trip a success?

Well – it rained for 14 out of the 15 days and as they say in Scotland it blew a “hooley” and there were LOTS AND LOTS of midges.

Can you see the dead fly in the sky – middle right!





Unfortunately the weather also affected the quality of my reference photos which, due to the low levels of light, are rubbish. Here’s one of Kisimul Castle on Barra which I did draw and paint in th eopen air (and rain).


Because of the bad weather I could not sit outside for too long as I got soaked or everything was getting blow away. You have to laugh!!

I drew and painted sitting inside the car or sheltered by the door. I must admit I was nervous painting inside the car with oil paints but was very, very careful not to get any paint on the car’s interior.

Did I abide by the rules I set myself before I left? Of course not. Some of them I remembered after I started painting, others I just plain forgot. BUT – I think a vestige of all that I researched stayed in my head and was reflected in the paintings that I did manage to complete.

Here are some more finished paintings all of which were finished off in the studio when I got home.

To cap it all my car broke down on Skye and it took me 18 hours in the back of 8 different AA lorries to get home from Scotland to Wiltshire. You have to laugh!!

The future?

Will I go painting outdoors again? Yes but I will have lower expectations of myself and the results. Perhaps I thought that if I could only prepare properly I might have a chance at creating a “masterpiece”. In the end I was just glad to have painted something.

Good luck and happy painting. Do message me with stories of your successes or failures at plein air painting.


P.S. These paintings are all for sale – message me if you would like to acquire one.

8 thoughts on “The madness of Planning for Plein Air painting

  1. Allison, you are a great story teller! I enjoyed reading your story and laughed (internally) with you at the hilarious outdoors scenes. Better luck next time!

  2. That was a good read! What a shame about the weather. Presumably future trips can only get better! Maybe the rainy wild views will permeate your imagination and work their magic in your paintings even so.

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