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Written by Jennifer Young
  1. Step one: Choose a scene
I often head out to the Virginia mountains to do some plein air painting, and on a morning last week I visited Veritas Vineyards in Afton Virginia. This is a beautiful winery and there are many possibilities for painting subject matter. However, my umbrella broke and I haven’t yet purchased a new one, which can make painting on location in an open field a bit difficult.
If the sun is shining directly on your canvas, all you see is a bunch of glare and your paintings end up turning out way to dark and muddy as a result. Having said that, I can’t stress enough how important it is to take the time to choose a scene that excites and interests you. You have a better chance of producing a much better painting as a result. Luckily I came upon a nice shady spot in a private area off of the main road past the winery’s tasting room and became excited about this scene:

Okay, so it loses something in my photograph, perhaps! But what I liked about this scene was the abstract shapes and patterns formed by the sweeping lines of the vines and ground. The light was constantly going back and forth behind cloud masses, making painting with consistent lighting very difficult. But that is the fun challenge of painting on location!
  2. Lay out the design.
My paintings usually begin very inauspiciously, I’m afraid! All I want to do at this point is plan my layout and get the elements of the scene down in very abstract shapes.

As you can plainly see, I have to work quickly with the changing light, so I don’t do a lot of detailed drawing.
In fact, I’d say I do far fewer details in the plein air drawing stage than I do in the studio, and if any one were to come upon my painting at this stage they would hardly be impressed! But the marks mean something to me, and I guess that’s what matters. In the coming days I will continue to unfold this plein air painting demo, so stay tuned!
  3. Lay in the sky:
I like to lay in the sky as early as possible in my process. The sky is the source of light and generally it appears to have the lightest tonal value in most landscape paintings. By laying in the lightest value first I can more easily judge value relationships (the relationship between lights and darks) for the rest of the painting.

  Step 4

With my sky in place, I can now judge how dark the mountain range should be. I begin to block in the distant mountains and trees, still with very little detail.
  After I’ve blocked in the distant trees I step back and begin to reassess my composition. What is my focal point? The eye tends to like to zoom in on something when looking at a composition, and up to this point I’ve been focusing more on the abstract shapes of the vineyard to move the eye around the painting. This is good, but is there something more? I’ll let you know what I decide in the next installment!

I look again at my subject and notice a little tree in the field. To be honest, I am not sure that I had noticed it before. I decide to play up this element and use this as my focal point or center of interest.
  The light is really changing a lot now. Sun shines intermittently on my scene, but behind me there are some pretty threatening clouds. I decide I had better not dawdle around any more if I want to get this painting finished!
  Step 6
To help my process along, I try and pre-mix large piles of the various colors I see in the rest of the landscape.
  Step 7
I add a little more detail to the focal point tree than I do the background trees, which will help to push the little tree forward in the picture plane.
  Step 8
I really have to look hard to see the subtle variations in the green shades, but once I start painting in the ground and the vineyard, my picture begins to take shape.
  Step 9
The clouds called off their threats so I was able to relax a little and put the finishing touches on my painting right there on the spot.

“Vineyard Patterns”Oil on Canvas, 12×16


My process for painting in the studio is very similar to my process on location. The exceptions are that I don’t have size limitations, nor do I have to deal with the changing light, bugs, and sunburn! On the other hand, painting on location is an exhilarating challenge and helps me to develop my observation and decision making skills. It also gives a far better understanding of the play of light on the landscape.

Depending on the lighting conditions, color temperature changes dramatically. In a session of changing light like the one I had, I needed to make a decision early on about which lighting condition I wanted to go with, and then commit that to memory in case the sun went away completely!

Painting on location, (or “en plein air”, as the Impressionists used to say) is a wonderful complement to my studio work. I often use my plein air sketches and studies along with the many, many photos I take on site, to develop larger paintings in the studio.

These images are original works copyright of Jennifer E. Young, and are protected under International Copyright laws. They are for online viewing purposes only and may not be copied, saved to a computer hard drive, reproduced or distributed without the express permission of the artist.
Jennifer Young is a professional artist and oil painting instructor who creates vibrant landscapes of France, Italy, and the American south. She enjoys a full schedule of  exhibiting, teaching workshops, and traveling to paint directly from nature. To learn more, please visit her website at and her blog at