Plein air painting – from outside into the studio


In the warmer days of summer, I had the pleasure of going out on a couple of plein air painting excursions with my Mum and Dad on Salt Spring Island. One of those days we drove up Duke’s Road, a place we’d never explored before. (To read all about another excursion click here.)


When you are out to paint plein air, it’s easy to keep going and going, looking for that perfect spot but then time goes by and before you know it, you’re tired out and haven’t done a darn thing! So we agreed to make a pretty quick decision. We stopped by a barn near the side of the road yet even with its appeal, I found myself drawn to the dappled road winding its way up the hill.

And so that’s what I painted. Eventually the sun moved (and I ended up in sunshine instead of shade!) and there came a time when I began ‘dabbling’ – ie. time to stop!


Back in the studio, weeks later, I had a look at the pastel. Hmmmmm…it needed some work. And so, along comes the danger of overworking a piece in the quiet of the studio. It’s a tightrope to walk that’s for sure; you don’t want to lose that plein air feel.


Let’s have a look:

1. Thumbnail, 2 x 1in, pen
1. Thumbnail, 2 x 1in, pen. Not much to see really!
2. The first layer of pastels on white Wallis paper (prior to wiping to cover all the white)
2. The first layer of pastels on white Wallis paper
3. The layers being built up
3. The layers being built up
4. At the end of the painting day. Felt I needed to add some warmth to the shadows so you see the hints of that here.
4. At the end of the painting day. Felt I needed to add some warmth to the shadows on the road so you see the hints of that here.
5. My set up - easel, board and paper, pastels
5. My plein air set up – easel, board and paper, pastels. My subject matter is to the right, up the road
6. The Sennelier pastels used
6. The Sennelier pastels used
7. Back in the studio, days later, I continue to work on the pastel
7. Back in the studio, days later, I continued to work on the pastel. You can see I decided to add in a figure
8. Feeling like it was all becoming way to busy, I begin to simplify the look
8. More days pass and feeling like it was all becoming way to busy, I began to simplify the whole thing
9. More days pass and I come back to the plein air pastel. Now the painting looks too simple and I add more details and some deeper darks. I think this is it. "Afternoon Walk, Dukes Road," 12 x 9 in.
9. More days pass and I come back to the plein air pastel. Now the painting looked too simple so I added more details and more darks. I think this is it. “Afternoon Walk, Dukes Road,” 12 x 9 in.

I’d love to know what do you think of the process? And the end painting?? And is this still a plein air painting?


Happy International Artist Day!! As they say on the website:

October 25,  International Artist Day, is to honor the contribution artists have and are making to society.  Use this day as the opportunity to take an artist to lunch [I’m all for that!], buy that painting that’s been haunting you for months, visit a gallery,  go to the symphony or participate in something creative that is “outside the box” of your day to day life.


I also want to take the opportunity on this Artist Day to say how much I appreciate your being with me on these blog journeys. Without you and everyone else, I’d be talking to thin air. So keep those comments coming and let me know you’re there 🙂


See you next time,

~ Gail



12 thoughts on “Plein air painting – from outside into the studio”

  1. I love your demo and enjoyed each step that really shows the process of a pastel painting …such a talented artist ,great teacher too.

    1. Sandi, thank you for your very kind words. Really made my day to receive your comment 🙂 I am so glad you enjoyed the progression of the pastel.

  2. very enjoyable when does the artist know she’s finished ?The different stages shown could actually be complete pictures in themselves

    1. That’s the million dollar question Sandy!! For me, it’s when the pastel doesn’t make me think, Oh it’s unfinished, or That part isn’t working that well. Having said that, on occasion, I have gone back into a ‘finished’ piece and worked on it – usually adding or subtracting. As you say, some of the stages could be complete pictures and sometimes, an artist can go too far and oops, can’t go back. But I think it’s better to push further than to hesitate. This is a lesson I am learning. And it’s a toughy. The fear of making a mistake can strangle one into doing nothing!!

  3. Gail, what a wonderful tutorial! I learned so much about laying out pastels, which I have never learned. Love the way you created so much vibration between values, warm/cool modulation and placement of compliments and splits. Very instructive and love the final product. I can never seem to leave a plein air alone once back in studio and know there is a very fine line between the natural first impression and the overworked version. I felt better when I read even Sargent corrected or added once back in studio but still never lost the impressive quality. Thanks for this. Vicki

    1. Wow! Many thanks Vicki. I hardly realized the painting had all these qualities – thanks for pointing them out. Sometimes one paints intuitively, perhaps knowing the theory but not painting with it in the forefront.

      I know what you mean about picking at plein air paintings, it’s so hard not to even though you know it’s best to leave it alone. There’s so much freshness in the plein air work and you don’t want to lose that! I have been reading about Sargent and yes, he seemed to do a lot of correcting. Hoping to do my next blog on him!

    1. Jonathan, yes, I think that’s why I added it. It gives scale and a sense of story and as you say, interest. Thanks for commenting 🙂

  4. Very timely blog for me since I just put the finishing touches on a bunch of plein air pieces myself! Some only needed a few strokes, others a whole lot more. As I look at them on my computer when sizing them to put on my website I see more areas that I want to rework…ugh! It’s a very difficult line to walk.

    1. Your response made me smile Daggi 🙂 The trials and tribulations of a plein air artist. No, actually, the trials and tribulations of an artist!!! Actually, that’s a great idea you just suggested – check out work on your computer. I know that seeing work small can help see the big picture (counter intuitive I know!) but it sure helps see the design, colour and value balance etc.

  5. I thought the painting was lovely and that all the final studio changes look perfect! I sent this blog to our friends who live on Dukes Rd. She enjoyed seeing the process… which you know I always love! As I drove by Mistaken Identity Vineyards the other day the grape leaves were lovely golden yellow in the sun and I thought it would be nice to see the pastel you did in the summer in each of the four seasons… just saying!

    1. Thanks Andrea for the compliment and for sending on my blog to Dukes Rd friends. Good idea about Mistaken Identity. And yes, the vines are so lovely in their yellow coats at this time of the year especially under this glorious sunshine we have been having. Guess I’ll have to get to SSI quickly!

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