M. Stephen Doherty

M. Stephen Doherty
The editor of Plein Air magazine at work

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Plein Air Landscape Painting: Risking Failure to Make Progress

After feeling good about the waterfall paintings I did in the early spring, I needed to take chances with a different range of subjects, painting techniques, and levels of finish. Yesterday I picked up on some of the ideas expressed by artists I've interviewed recently, including Joseph McGurl and Jason Taco, and I was pleased with the results. 

Joe talked about building up fairly thick applications of oil color modified with fast-drying alkyd medium.  His point was that the physical texture of the paint can impact the levels of transparency and opacity, thereby adding a greater sense of space in a landscape and, at the same time, making it easier to suggest detail. During a recent trip to Italy, for example, Joe used Winsor & Newton underpainting white during the early stages of the painting process and then added Liquin impasto alkyd medium when he was ready to paint foreground shapes with thick oil color. He applied the thick paint with a palette knife and manipulated the texture to suggest grasses, stones, plastered walls, etc. (Joe's paintings from Tuscany are on view at Tree's Place Gallery in Orleans, Massachusetts) 

Jason Taco talked about using a limited palette of colors to achieve harmony and subtlety in his landscapes. He restricted his palette to 4-6 colors + titanium white instead of trying to managing a wide range of tube colors that might not intermix particularly well. His point was that if all the color mixtures are created from the same base, they are more likely to work well together. (Jason will be profiled in the winter, 2012 issue of PleinAir Magazine)

Whether one follows these recommendations exactly, the key points are worth considering. Joe's recommendation goes to the issue of using thin and thick paint to suggest space, texture, and form in nature; and Jason's point is that harmony and subtlety can be achieved by wisely controlling the mixtures of colors. 

Painting at the entrance to Rockwood Hall State Park near Tarrytown, New York. 

The scene I began painting at 8:00am on Saturday, August 13, 2011 

The initial block-in of the large shapes on a panel toned with yellow ochre.  

The completed 9" x 12" oil painting. BTW, I'm going to bring the trunks of a couple of trees down lower on the right-hand side to break up that monotonous line along the ridge. 


  1. Thanks for posting your thoughts as well as those of Joe and Jason. I like seeing others steps to a complete painting. If you get the chance, check out my latest step by step on my blog. A really nice, secluded location with many rooms available. Would make a great location for a plein air get together.

  2. I love reading your insights. I'd love to know your thoughts on how to incorporate the freshness and thick paint application of plein air painting into larger studio paintings. I find that something gets lost in the process, even when using field studies as reference for a larger work. Thoughts?

  3. Wonderful hot and hazy atmosphere you've created and the composition just invites the viewer right in.