Change Things Up: Gail Sibley, "The Pink Wall," Unison pastels on UART 400 paper, 9 x 12 in. Available.

Change Things Up When Painting En Plein Air

I don’t know about where you are, but here in Victoria, it’s still toooo damn cold to go painting en plein air! That’s why it was so lovely to work on location while I was in Mexico (I’ve been back just over a week). I painted en plein air a number of times, partly for the pure joy of it but also in preparation for my workshop in Spain in a couple of months. (You can read more about the workshop here -there’s still space so why not join us??) One of the things about working en plein air that I love is that you can change things up.

When painting en plein air, think about the composition and change things up as you need to. You don’t have to copy exactly what’s there. Putting everything in exactly as is probably won’t create an interesting and well-designed piece. You, as the artist, can take liberties and move things around, make things larger or smaller, change the colour of objects. In fact, I’d say it’s your function to do so! You need to ask: What do I need to do to make this painting work?

So, here’s the scene I came across to paint. There was lots of solid and barely unchanging shade to set up under (very important!) which made painting this scene a no-brainer. So what caught my attention? The pink wall, the pattern of shadow and light, and the tree – its pale greenness, its softness, the shadows it created against the wee hut.


Changing Things Up: The scene in La Manzanilla, Mexico, around the corner from where we stay.
The scene in La Manzanilla, Mexico, around the corner from where we stay.


Next up, a thumbnail sketch! This is one of the best ways to familiarize yourself with the scene. As you sink into seeing, simplify what you see into big shapes. Spend time observing to truly understand your subject and why it is you are painting it. This is also a good time to change things up!

Changing Things Up: The thumbnail sketch. As usual, I was thinking of simplifying the scene into three main values.
The thumbnail sketch. As usual, I simplified the scene into three main values.


And here’s my easel all set up, the thumbnail in front of me, my collection of pastels at the ready!

Changing Things Up: Easel set up on location.
Easel set up on location.


Now to put a few indicator lines on the paper. I don’t want to draw in everything. All I include are things that are important for marking the location of everything within the piece. But do you notice something different between the thumbnail sketch and this initial draw-up of the scene?


Changing Things Up: Vine charcoal on UART 400 paper. Just a few whispers of lines.
Vine charcoal on UART 400 paper. Just a few whispers of lines.

Remember when I said I loved that you could change things up when painting on location? Well this is one of those times. I realized that everything zoomed out to the right and to help keep the viewer in the picture, I added a waste bin at bottom right. I’ve only barely indicated it so I can easily change it out.


Now it’s time to choose three colours for my first layer of three values. I chose the dark red because I wanted it to peek out and provide a solid base for the dark greens of the background trees. It also was then used for the other dark areas. The light value shows here as yellow because I thought it would be a great base for cooler pinks that I might choose. And the middle value is blue primarily chosen as a cool colour to use under the warm greens of the foreground tree.


Changing Things Up: Three values in three colours
Three values in three colours


Using a piece of pipe insulation, I rub the colours into the paper and thereby get rid of the overall light colour of the paper. You can also see why I don’t draw in a lot of detail as it would just be covered up or rubbed out at this stage. But I still know where the main shapes and subjects fall.

Changing Things Up: You can see that by rubbing in the colour, the colours themselves become denser and that much of the colour of the paper disappears.
You can see that by rubbing in the colour, the colours themselves become denser and that much of the colour of the paper disappears.


While working on this painting, I pretty much forgot to take a number of progression shots. Luckily I did take the next one. It shows how I added the second layer of greens to the various trees. You can also see the pink wall and the cast shadows indicated.

At this point I’m pretty sure I was having that UGH feeling but I pushed on knowing this was just that place and time all paintings go through – the ugly phase! You know. It’s when you think the painting is not looking good, that it’s not going to work out, that you may as well stop while you’re ahead. But this is the time to breathe, look deeply at the scene, see what’s there, make some choices, and keep painting!


Changing Things Up: The painting well underway but feeling like it's in the ugly zone!
The painting well underway but feeling like it’s in the ugly zone!


Let’s have a look at it in black and white to see how well the values are sitting.

Changing Things Up: Partway along in the painting - seen in black and white
Partway along in the painting – seen in black and white


Between this stage and the end, I change things up. I decided that the cast shadow of the tree on the thatched roof was too dark. I also decided against rendering the brick wall (I did start on this) and chose instead to pretend that the wall of the building was painted pink like the wall and had a similar surface. I did this because I thought the pink wall on its own would call too much attention to it, taking the viewer’s eye away from the main subject of the tree and cast shadows.

What else did I change up?


Change Things Up: Gail Sibley, "The Pink Wall," Unison pastels on UART 400 paper, 9 x 12 in. Available.
Gail Sibley, “The Pink Wall,” Unison pastels on UART 400 paper, 9 x 12 in. Available.


When I change things up, I try to do it for a reason. For instance, right from the start, I shortened the length of the building because I wanted to fit in the pink wall and my paper wouldn’t allow that if I kept the same proportions. Well I guess if I made everything much smaller, it would have all fit but then I would have had a lot of trees (and maybe even sky) which would just detract from what I was interested in showing in my painting. Can you see that?

Can you see any other changes? Look for other changes I made from the middle stage to the end. And also from the original source itself. Leave me a comment below telling me the differences you see!

The ability to change things up when you’re painting is one of your prerogatives as an artist. Just because something is there doesn’t mean you have to paint it. Just because it isn’t in the scene doesn’t mean you can’t paint it in! You want to get to the essence of what it is that attracted you to paint the piece and you want a successful painting that, when it’s removed from the location where you painted it, can be viewed and understood in its own right.

Let me tell you again: you have the power as an artist to change things up!!


And here are the pastels I used:

Change Things Up: The 18 Unison pastels I used. Quite a few for me!! That's because I have a larger selection to choose from than my usual limited palette starter sets!
The 18 Unison pastels I used. Quite a few for me!! That’s because I have a larger selection to choose from than my usual limited palette starter sets!


And just so you have it (it may help to see where I change things up from the middle stage), the black and white version of the end piece.

Change Things Up: Gail Sibley, "The Pink Wall," Unison pastels on UART 400 paper, 9 x 12 in - black and white to see values
Gail Sibley, “The Pink Wall,” Unison pastels on UART 400 paper, 9 x 12 in – black and white to see values


By the way, I am not stuck on the title and would be happy to hear your suggestions! Feel free to leave your ideas in the comments.

You know I love to hear from you. So tell me, do you find it easy or difficult to change things up when painting? And remember to let me know what differences you see between the source and middle stage, and the middle stage and end painting!

Until next time,

~ Gail


Change Things Up: For you to compare the source, the middle stage, and the final piece.
For you to compare the source, the middle stage, and the final piece.


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24 thoughts on “Change Things Up When Painting En Plein Air”

  1. Hi Gail….Love watching the progression of your paintings. When I go out to paint plein aire I just seem to take in everything around me and I end up with so much stuff in my painting. So to see how you take away things and add and move stuff is a real insight for me. Makes me want to stop worrying about the sun moving and darks disappearing. I do have one question tho, on the front building (photo) the value on the end of the shed is really dark, seems as much as the dark in the trees. Is there a reason you would not use a really dark value for that wall?

    1. Hi Janet, So glad you found it useful to see how I change things up from what I’m looking at! Regarding the sun moving, it is something to consider. Often what attracts us to a scene is a pattern of light and dark and if that’s the case, it’s good to capture that right away – in a photo, in your thumbnail sketch, and in your early marks on paper. That way you won’t find yourself chasing the light patterns as they move and change. If you were attracted by a shape or a colour then the sun moving might not affect the scene as much. Having said that, as the sun moves, you may see a beautiful light pattern created. Photograph it, do a quick sketch of it (always worth the couple of minutes this takes), and make the changes on your piece immediately (once you decide, of course, that you want to capture that look!).
      To your question: yes it is a dark value and you will see in my initial blocking in that I chose to put it with the dark values. But like the cast shadows on the thatched roof, it isn’t as densely dark as the deep darks in the trees. For one thing, both areas are middle value local colour and there is light reflected on them which affects how dark they actually are. Also, photos often make the darks more dark than they are in the attempt to capture what’s going on in the light areas (and not washing them out). Having said that, I didn’t work on the painting after the plein air work and I think scumbling over that shadowed part of the house might be worth doing! I’d make it a bit blue/greyer and slightly darker. But NOT as dark as the background trees. So thank you 🙂

  2. Nancy Goodwine Wozniak

    This is a really nice demo; you are always so generous sharing your thought processs!
    I think i get a little fixated on the accuracy and it is good to have someone like you challenge us to use a little imagination and change it up a bit. Your ability to do that gives your work the verve and energy I admire.

    1. Thanks so much Nancy! It is easy to get into trying to paint things exactly as you see them. Instead, think about the main features you want to capture. If you are working in the studio, you might try setting a timer for 20 mins and go gangbusters! On location, limit yourself to 45 mins to an hour. I do find that it’s easier to change things up when working en plein air as opposed to working from a photo!

  3. Looks like you determined that the wall and part of the roof exposed to direct sunlight were too bright. Rather than use a bright yellow in those areas it seemed better to temper it with more shadow in those areas.

    1. You got it Kathleen!! I cooled them slightly as each wasn’t getting the direct sunlight that the ground was. Also with both, there is the local colour of the thatch and brick to consider. What was distracting was that white tarp on the roof which made me want to make the whole roof lighter than it was!

  4. So beautiful!!! I’m in awe of your ability to use unexpected colors in your paintings. I can’t find that ability in my brain but I would so much love to!! Do you think about the different types of color theory when you choose your palette? (complementary, analagous, monochromatic, etc.) I’ve noticed a similar technique in Ginny Stocker’s paintings and some others. I feel like it’s so far ahead of where I am in my art journey right now. Any tips on how to start being more adventurous and courageous using color?
    Also, I’m fascinated by the tree leaning on top of the roof. I would call this painting “The Leaning Tree.” Thanks for sharing your experiences, Gail!!

    1. Awe thanks Ruth! Colour is such a big subject and it takes years of doing as well as some colour knowledge. I think more warm and cool when I’m working. I also take time to look and see. I look for any underlying colours and use those too. For instance on the thatched roof – yes it’s a kind of brown colour but it feels cool to me too so that’s where the blue comes in. And when I see blue, I use blue! Not some kind of grey neutral blue. Remember, you can always tone down!!
      Oh, like your title. And in fact, it was the tree that first caught my eye!!

  5. I liked the way you took out a lot of the blue on the roof and made the bin one colour without shadow, the two tones drew ones eye away from the whole. The middle painting in colour and blk and white didn’t print for me so I had to judge by your little example at the end of your details. Otherwise I admire how you managed to make something out of nothing!!

    1. Many thanks for commenting Clarissa. I’m sorry but I am not entirely sure what you mean about making “the bin one colour without shadow” as the bin does have a light and dark side and a cast shadow. Would you mind explaining further?
      You know, when you are painting on location, there is often something more vibrant and heartfelt about a scene. I look at the photo and I think I may or may not paint it. On location, however, it called out to me! I think that’s the main difference between painting en plein air and from a photo. Painting en plein air takes more work but it can be so worth it!!

  6. Hi Gail,
    Thank you so much for showing and explaining your process. It helps to be reminded of things. I’ve been doing charcoal landscapes for many years, gradually moving into pastels. I switched to full-on pastels over a year ago and love it.

    My biggest challenge is learning to understand values. Strange after all these years I still don’t get it.

    Thank you again for doing this.

    1. Glad you enjoyed seeing the process Sasha! And happy to know you are working in pastels now 🙂

      Interesting what you said about values because working in charcoal, all you have are values (i.e. no colour)! Perhaps where you are struggling is seeing where certain colours fit in the value range. Try squinting, really squinting. Also, try doing a couple of small pieces using one of your charcoal drawings as a template. Then squint at them when you are done. And try photographing them in black and white mode and just see how they match up to your charcoal drawing. If they don’t then either adjust or start a new piece, adjusting for what you have learnt.

      Understanding values and seeing values is ongoing. Just quick working and SQUINTING!!

  7. I would like to get started on pastel painting and your process photos and text are a great window into your artistic work. I also like that you showed the colors you use. Thanks!

  8. Love the changes you made and the colorful pastel. That is exactly what I’m currently struggling with…changing it up from the native colors. I’ll keep trying things. Thanks! (Pretty in pink?
    bonita en rosa?).

    1. Glad this post might help with your own struggles with changing things up Susan. What does the painting need?
      And thanks for the title ideas 🙂

  9. Very informative….love watching your progress and the colors you use….and why you put something in or take something out. Although I don’t always respond, I get quite a lot out of your posts….and thank you…

  10. Hi Gail! I googled Puesta del Sol to show my sister pictures of the hotel , and up came this beautiful page! What a great breakdown of how you do your painting. You might have done this one during the visit when I saw you at Concha’s. Beautiful work! I’ll look for this structure in November when I return to La Manz.

    1. Hi Carol, lovely to hear from you. And how cool my blog came up as you googled Puesta del Sol! Yes, it was done earlier this year. The structure is near the arroyo on Playa Blanca. If you know Trini, she used to live next door. Doris lives kitty-corner (I was standing in the shade of her house!). Hopefully see you next year 🙂

  11. Gail,
    Lovely painting! I noticed that you left out a lot of details- the plant in front of the pink wall, the telephone pole, etc. and thus really acptured the essence of the scene. This is something I have struggle with in my limited plein air experience- how much detail to include.

    I have a question- at first with the photo, a to a lesses extent with the painting, I thought that the tree and broken through the roof and there was a hole in the roof. I think if I painted it I would have been tempted to straighten the tree a little. Do you think that would be a bad idea? I can see why it is interesting as it is, but to me, straighteneing it would avoud the question of whether it is going through the roof, and the shadows would still be beautiful.

    I also thought of a title about the tree- The Leaning Tree of Manzanilla.

    Thanks for this VERY helpful post!


    1. Hi Lynn, thanks for your detailed comment and question! And I’m glad this post was so helpful!

      Regarding the tree and your idea to change it. You are the artist and anything goes!! I loved the leaning tree and was very familiar with it so I wanted to leave it as is. I see what you mean about breaking through the roof. I had hoped that showing the trunk pretty clearly would negate that.

      When on site, you are constantly making decisions. If the scene is sunlit, the decision making is sped up! Often in the moment, you can’t “see” what might become apparent later in the studio. When I go painting en plein air, I always like to think that the outcome isn’t as important as the doing and the experience. If I get a pleasing result, fantastic, but for me, that’s not the purpose of painting on location. I can always adjust or paint from my plein air piece back in the studio.

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Gail Sibley

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My love of pastel and the enjoyment I receive from teaching about pastel inspired the creation of this blog. It has tips, reviews, some opinions:), and all manner of information regarding their use through the years – old and new. Please enjoy!

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