Choosing a spot to paint.

When plein air painting, an artist can become overwhelmed with all the choices available at each location. How does one narrow down the multitude to just one subject or view? It’s taken me a lot of years of plein air painting to figure out my own methods of what to paint. Here’s what I often go by:

1. Is the spot I want to paint from in the shade? Considering how plein air season is often in the summer, a comfortable location to hang out in is a necessity – and comfort often means out of the sun! Sometimes though, a scene is just too captivating, and a sunny set-up is necessary. One of these days I’ll invest in a white umbrella for those moments…

2. What captures my attention first off? Many times I’ll see something right away that looks promising, then I wander for another half an hour or more, taking photos of other possibilities, often returning to what caught my eye when I arrived. This has taken years to learn, and I’m trying to save time by just focusing on that initial interest. Who knows if I’ll succeed though, since I’m so curious I can’t just start immediately, especially if it’s a new location.

3. Is it close or far from my vehicle? I’m fine with traveling far from my vehicle, and carrying all I need to where ever I end up painting, but occasionally, if I’m stumped for an idea I’ll return to my vehicle, look around and spot something nearby I can paint. That makes set up easy!

4. Use a viewfinder. Because the world is vast, sometimes it’s hard to find just one thing to paint. Using a viewfinder (I have an old slide frame — remember slides?) narrows down your choices, and helps to find a focal point. If you don’t have a slide frame or hand held viewfinder, you can hold your fingers in a square shape to isolate your focus.

A couple of weeks ago we visited a farm on a marvelously cloudy day. The sun was bright, and fat billowing clouds filled the sky. Enamored by clouds, I figured they’d be a big part of whatever I ended up painting that day. Immediately after I parked I spotted a great scene facing north, but still ended up wandering around a bit to see if something else was better.

© Jana R. Johnson 2015Jun03--IMG_0933

What about this cool, very large farm “thing”?

© Jana R. Johnson 2015Jun03--IMG_0934

Or the Blacksmith scene?

© Jana R. Johnson 2015Jun03--IMG_0935

Maybe an old bathtub?

© Jana R. Johnson 2015Jun03--IMG_0942

Nope, I ended up back where I started, painting this distant home, copse of trees and clouds.


Of course, when I started the sky had changed. The clouds I wanted to paint were to the east, not over the house, so I looked that direction when painting the clouds, then faced north for the rest of the painting.

© Jana R. Johnson c-Watercolor on Yupo-"Cloudy With Sun Breaks" 8x10, 6-8-15.

Cloudy With Sun Breaks
watercolor on Yupo paper
8×10 inches
$50 + $10 shipping and handling

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While waiting for this one to dry, I started a second painting, putting in the clouds that were over the house this time.

© Jana R. Johnson 2015Jun03--IMG_0958

Possible Showers
watercolor on watercolor paper
5×7 inches
$40 starting bid (Auction) + $5 shipping and handling

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Do you plein air paint? If so, what are some of the ways you choose your spot to paint? Anything different from what I do? If you’d like to share your plein air tips, please do so in the comments!


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