M. Stephen Doherty

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

Monday, May 6, 2013

When Plein Air Is a Start, Not a Finish

As I've been challenging myself to work larger on location -- up to 16" x 20" -- I get home with the paintings and immediately notice somethings that are obviously wrong or incomplete. The issues are usually about the range of values and their ability to convey the sense of space, or they relate to areas that aren't sufficiently developed. I find that I get so involved in covering the canvas it 2-3 hours, that I lose the ability to see the pictures objectivily. As I work on resolving those pictures in my studio, I remind myself there is nothing sacred about completing paintings on location. Plein air is a process of gaining inspiration and information from nature, but it isn't the only path to expressing what is observed.

Here's a sequential set of photographs of a painting I did recently on a hill overlooking Fishersville, VA. I'm still trying to decide how I want to resolve the lack of spatial separation and the awkward change of scale in the middle of the canvas, as well as the lack of harmony in the depiction of the houses.


  1. I don't see anything awkward or lacking in your painting. It is very inviting. Thank you for reminding us why we love to paint outdoors. It is always mostly about the process - less about the product.

  2. Steve- I have a recurring problem of thinking the saturation and values of my paintings looks great in the field but when I get them back inside the color looks darker and less saturated. Fellow painters suggest just keying my values and saturation to lighter and brighter in the field but this seems false to me since I paint in the field to record natural effects. Have you had a similar experience and do you have any suggestions to compensate?

    Just subscribed to your blog. Looks like it will be great!

  3. Thanks, Steve.

    For me, your post raises a persistent set of questions: Do I keep struggling to produce the masterpiece I set out to paint? Do I bag it and go on to the next painting, hoping to solve the problems in that one? Do I accept the painting's flaws as I see them, resolve the most pressing problems I see, then call the painting a masterpiece? The questions get endless from there.

    Thanks for sharing your struggle with this dilemma. I'm working on a painting which has very similar issues. In mine, I painted the larger piece, a 20 x 30 in the studio over the course of a day, after painting three 8 x 10 to 11 x 14 plein air studies of the scene, along with numerous sketches. However, I'm left with a very similar question to yours: how do I incorporate the middle ground with the deep space and the foreground? My approach has been to let the painting sit for several weeks, hoping that a solution would present itself. Meanwhile, I've been working on other paintings, believing that one of them will provide me with inspiration to solve the problem.

    It's refreshing to see your struggle. So often, I see only the finished product. Whatever the outcome, I hope you find joy in it. David