• Cindy Revell

Artsnip 7 - Making Plein Air Painting Easier With Simplification and Massing

Doug Swinton

Takini River, 6x8

Plein air painting, a time honoured way to bring your art outside and experience the magic of creating in the midst of nature.

As you head out to paint the landscape or paint from photos keep the following ideas of simplification and massing in mind. There is so much to consider when painting but those two concepts will help you create a more dynamic design and make the process of painting easier.

- Keep it SIMPLE at the start of your painting, ignoring all those little shapes and details like individual leaves, grasses, boards on buildings etc. for the time being. Loosely block in big SHAPES/MASSES as if the little shapes within them do not exist.

- The block in should be done in three or so values of light, medium and dark. Remember to ignore all the little values that can be seen in highlighted leaves etc. Essentially you are assigning the in between values to either light, medium and dark for the time being. Keep those big masses of shape fairly flat. Don’t worry about blending and detail yet.

- The simple 3 value block in will be the foundation that your detail will sit upon.

- Once you have all the big flat areas painted you can start adding detail and the smaller shapes like grass clumps, flowers etc. in their appropriate values.

- Simplicity rules here, instead of painting every blade of grass, board, branch or leaf, simplify as much as possible.

The above painting is by Doug Swinton of Calgary. Notice that there is no detail at all. Doug doesn't fiddle-fart around with lots of little marks and details, he gets right to the point and yet his tiny painting is deeply powerful and compelling. You can learn a lot from his blog at

The following videos are great examples of simplification and massing. If you take this approach and apply it to photos or plein air painting you will find your paintings coming together easier. And this applies whether it is landscape, still life, portrait, interior or whatever.

This 3 minute plein air sketch by Kevin MacPherson is a great example of simplifying and massing the big shapes before adding detail. Brad Teare talks about what he is including in the painting and what elements he is excluding. Note his simple and flat block in into which he eventually adds the details. In these excellent videos Australian artist Colley Whisson is painting from photos but he is using the same approach as he would with plein air. Note he paints the shadow colour and adds the light on top. It can take some practice to paint larger areas of light on top of dark without blending them together. What is really important is how he masses in the large shapes and adds detail at the end.


- block in large areas with flat paint

- no detail

- 3 or so values (assigning the many in between values to the closest of the 3 main values)

- and finally detail

Happy painting!



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