A plein air painting in 20 minutes: Detail of final painting

Plein Air Painting In 20 Minutes!

A plein air painting in 20 minutes? Why not!

Ever had a burning urge to paint, to sit down and paint something, anything? I know the feeling really well! Yet so often we succumb to the excuses we’ve made like not having enough time. It’s amazing how we create obstacles to prevent ourselves from painting. And so we end up NOT painting when our soul yearn to express creatively.

So, picture this: the village of La Manzanilla, Mexico, a brilliant turquoise wall patterned with flickering shadow and the light from a fast descending sun, a gentle breeze blowing. I yearned to paint! But the time, the time was short to capture this experience. I turned away. “Another day,” I thought but that part within me that yearned to paint made me turn back. Damn, just do it!

I grabbed my sketchbook and pastels and got to work. And yes, I actually created a plein air painting in 20 minutes! I think it’s one of the fastest plein air pieces I’ve ever done. The thing is to treasure and enjoy the process and not worry about the outcome.

Let me take you through the sequence.

Here’s the scene I painted:

A plein air painting in 20 minutes:  the scene I painted
The scene!

First, even with limited time, a quick thumbnail. This allows me to check my composition and delineate the three main value areas. You can see from the thumbnail below that much of my pastel painting will be in a middle value and that there will only be a few dark areas. You can also see how I compressed what I saw into a narrower format.

A plein air painting in 20 minutes:  My fast small thumbnail sketch
Pen and ink thumbnail dividing the space into three values.

With time racing, I didn’t spend much time on drawing up the image in vine charcoal (but if you know me, I rarely do anyway!).

A plein air painting in 20 minutes:  VERY fast vine charcoal sketch of the scene
VERY fast vine charcoal sketch of the scene. I’d just begun to add pastel when I realized, stop! photograph! Time: 16:04

I’m not sure why I didn’t use the green/blue colour used on the wall on all of the middle-value areas. I’ll blame my decision on lack of time!! Also, I was beginning to get frustrated with the lack of mid-value greens in the Sennelier set. (You can read about my colour frustrations with my other plein air piece here.)

I moved along, starting to layer. I added the palm frond in the only green mid-value colour I had available. There is a warm grey green in the set which I used above the wall upper left but it was too dull for the burgeoning plant life!

A plein air painting in 20 minutes: I'm starting to build the colours.
I’m starting to build the colours. Time: 16:11

I’m working fairly intuitively now. This is what the limited timeframe forces you to do. You paint with a mix of rational perception and feeling. Also, having a limited palette helps with painting more instictively. Although the colour choice is pretty constricted, the pastels are arranged into values and there are only so many sticks to choose from. This can actually be a good thing!

You can see I like the pattern of shapes created beyond the gate and I’m spending a bit of time on that.

I’ve brought in a dark dull olive/green in the overhead tree canopy.

A plein air painting in 20 minutes: Moving along! Time: 16:15
Moving along! Time: 16:15

And with time moving along, I shifted into getting the values right AND mark-making. There’s something vibrant about life in Mexico. It exudes energy and aliveness and I think my marks reflect that, if unintentionally. My painting became more about pattern and light and colour and texture than it did about a careful rendering of the scene in front of me. It was influenced both by my emotional reaction to the scene and the rapidity of creation for sure!

A plein air painting in 20 minutes: Done!! Gail Sibley, "The Turquoise Wall," Sennelier pastels on UART 400 paper, 10 3/4 x 9 in. Available.
Done!! Gail Sibley, “The Turquoise Wall,” Sennelier pastels on UART 400 paper, 10 3/4 x 9 in. Available. Time: 16:27
A plein air painting in 20 minutes: Gail Sibley, "The Turquoise Wall," Sennelier pastels on UART 400 paper, 10 3/4 x 9 in. In black and white.
Gail Sibley, “The Turquoise Wall,” Sennelier pastels on UART 400 paper, 10 3/4 x 9 in. In black and white.

In the end, I decided to leave the piece untouched. I was tempted to work on it once I got back to my home studio in Victoria, BC, but I knew that if I started to tinker with it, I would surely diminish some of the boldness and life I see in it now.

One thing that made this plein air painting in 20 minutes happen was having materials at the ready. I travelled to La Manzanilla with a small box of pastels (Sennelier 30 half stick collection), a few sheets of UART paper, and a board on which to support the paper. All of these materials were out all the time and easy to access so I had NO excuse due to unavailable materials!

A plein air painting in 20 minutes: The Sennelier pastels I used.
The Sennelier pastels I used.
A plein air painting in 20 minutes: The pastels I used seen in black and white. You can see most of the colours are in the light with only three darks.
The pastels I used seen in black and white. You can see most of the colours are in the light with only three darks.
A plein air painting in 20 minutes: The Sennelier 30 set (not yet sorted into values!). The yellow ovals circle the only real greens in the set while the pink rectangles reveal the muted grey/greens. The dark isn't even really a green - it's more of a brown.
The Sennelier 30 set (not yet sorted into values!). The yellow ovals circle the only real greens in the set while the pink rectangles reveal the muted grey/greens. The dark isn’t even really a green – it’s more of a brown.

Sooooo, what did you think? I’d love to hear how this idea of rapid plain air painting strikes you. How fast do you work when outside? Do please leave me a comment!

And I leave you with this: I challenge you to do a plein air painting in 20 minutes!

Until next time,

~ Gail

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43 thoughts on “Plein Air Painting In 20 Minutes!”

  1. Much nicer than the original scene. Lana Ballot has persuaded me to try this modification, and now you are reinforcing this same concept. I guess I had better follow the sage advice from it not only one woman but two wonderful women artists. 🙂

    1. Awwww thanks John 🙂
      There’s something about working on site, in the moment, reacting directly without a lot of time to judge, that fills an artist’s soul. And like I say in the post, it’s the process, the actual doing that does this rather than a successful outcome. When I finished, I was sure this piece was going to be a paint-over. But still I was deliriously happy from DOING!
      With space and time, I recognized the energy that the piece exuded and ended up feeling good about the outcome.

  2. Hi Gail I love reading your blog because just like me, you aren’t afraid to experiment, and unlike me, your experiments are very successful! I tend to sketch outside with pen and watercolour but you’ve inspired me to try pastels for plein air painting. I’m also delighted to see that you live in Victoria BC. I hope I can visit you some time as I have a son who lives in BC.

    1. Thanks Julia!! But hah, not all my experiments are successful! Still, one thing leads to another and by doing and pushing and risking, one develops ones ability and voice.
      Do try pastels on location and let me know how it goes 🙂
      And see you for coffee when you are in Victoria!

  3. Gail I love the way you break down your process. And your color choice was difficult with what you had. One color I kind of missed was the soft lavender in the color photo. Is there a reason you stuck to just those shades? Could you have veiled that light color in the bottom line over the deeper violet?

    I am going to try the 20 minute tomorrow !


    1. Hi Ronnie, glad you enjoyed seeing the process.

      Now to your great question! I had to read it a few times to understand what you are saying and I’m hoping I’ve got the gist of it. Please correct me if I haven’t! What you say when you “miss the soft lavender in the photo,” I think you are referring to the colour of the cast shadows on the ground. And then you offer a solution for this by pointing out a colour I could have used to achieve this colouring.

      First, remember I worked from life. The photo I shared has captured (in the way photos do) a certain softness and colouring that I didn’t see while painting on location. What I saw was a pretty dark shadow from the building off camera. (This comparison-making is the problem with posting photos of the scene!) I think working from the photo, you could make a lovely painting, just not my painting.

      Second, If I wanted to achieve that pinkier colour seen in the photo, yes, the pastel you picked out would be a good choice. BUT I would have started with a lighter colour as my undertone. For instance the lightest blue or even the turquoise-y green. Or I may have started with the peachy colour (top row, third from left) and then cooled it with a scumble of blue.
      Hope that helps and is fairly clear!!

      Let us know how your 20 minute painting goes!

    2. Gail, I now thrive on 10 – 15 minutes “Hairy Dog” portraits. At first they seemed daunting, then with practice my confidence grew. Now I take the challenge of doing 8 pet portraits in a 5 hour session to fundraise $400 for a local good cause. I travel to teach in NZ, Australia and beyond and my students learn lots about pasteling from such quick demonstrations. It’s fun with no time to agonise over details.

  4. I think this painting is amazing. So much movement, colour and light. It’s a lot more energetic than a lot of pastel work I’ve seen. I think you’ve really captured something special here.

    1. Whoo hoo! You made my day Amanda! It means a lot to hear this as my initial response to the piece after doing it was to scrub it and recycle the paper. Sure glad I didn’t! And this is a great lesson for us all – don’t be so quick to judge (especially negatively).

  5. The light & shadows & energy are wonderful! And such a great message; even if this painting hadn’t turned out so successfully, it was exciting to do! That means it’s always a success! Thanks for posting.

  6. This is beautiful, Gail. I love that you a)show us your thumbnails in your blog posts, b) show and discuss the progression, and c) show the black and white comparisons (Holy! these help me a lot!). Question for you – do you have a plan to address the greens in the Sennelier set – adding greens from another set/manufacturer perhaps, or a would you prefer a totally different set from a different manufacturer, or put together a mixed set of your favourite plein air colours from a mix of manufacturers (if you had the “perfect” plein air set)?? Thanks!

    1. Hi Jane, thank you!! Glad so much was useful.
      As to your question, I am thinking of doing a review of the Sennelier set and that would address the green situation. What do you think of that idea?
      Ideally, it’s best to put together your own set. For me though, these small sets are self-imposed challenges. Can I manage to paint with just what’s in the set? How much of a struggle do I have etc? This I do to show what’s possible (hopefully!) with the restriction of what’s there.
      And by the way, I am working on a Basic set for Unison Colour!!! So excited!!

  7. Love this painting! It’s so bold and exciting. Also, it manages to seem both representational and abstract, which is something I really admire. I’m inspired to head out today–weather looks fine–and take a shot at a 20 minute painting.

    So are you actually traveling without a tripod, heilman box, and all those other things that get so heavy they turn me off from ever wanting to do plein air? Do you paint on your lap? Standing? What the what do you do?

    The idea of plein air without all the gear is as exciting to me as your painting! Please explain further…

    1. Thanks so much Leslie! Yes, I too like the mix between realism and abstraction in this piece. LOVE that you inspired to go out and paint quickly!
      And yes, when I’m not teaching, I quite often travel without an easel or big box. I paint in my lap, propped against a table, standing at a bar, whatever I can make work.
      I will take a photo tomorrow of what I travel with when I go light and add it in the post. (Now to remember to do that…)

  8. Your piece has wonderful vibrance and energy! Would you mind sharing what sort of board and how you secured the paper? I’m looking for ideas for a more minimal travel setup.

    1. So great to hear Elise!!
      I have a small sturdy board. I take tape and either create hinges or tape the paper to the board. I am going to take a photo of what I travel with and add it to the post.

  9. Loved your description of doing this quickie!!! And also I’m impressed how you multi-tasked keeping time and progress of every step! I agree with Gisela! There is so much energy here. Even with a limited palette, you created a painting that requires a long look!! Love it!

    1. Sooooo good to hear Ruth! THANK YOU!
      As to keeping track, I feel I sometimes miss the best transitions. It’s easier when there’s more time. Happy I caught the steps that I did!

  10. Remarkable….you really aren’t afraid to experiment like many of us. I wonder if I could paint a sunset if I left my wine home and took my pastels instead….hmmm.
    Are you coming to IAPS?

    1. Lynne I have a better idea. Take the wine AND the pastels. Sip then paint then celebrate and sip!! And take only a few pastels and see what you can do. And then the next day take a different selection. SMALL selection
      And YES, going to IAPS. Assuming you are?? Planning on getting HowToPastellers together. I’ll post plans in my email.

    1. Thanks for the idea Gisela. I’ve never tried this brand of pastel and this may be an excuse to do so. Hoping Dakota will have some at IAPS!

  11. Hey Gail,
    Wow, I love this! I like the big blocks of color (squares, triangles) and the sharp contrasts between darks and lights (which really shows up in the black and white photo at the end). I probably would have been tempted to tone down that central blue, but it seems to hold the whole picture together really well and provides such wonderful vibrance. Love the center yellow also. Thanks for showing all of the steps. Can’t believe you did the picture and captured the process all in such a short time. Thanks!

    1. Thanks Ruth!!
      I know what you mean about that central blue! I think if I’d had the “right” colour handy, I probably would have toned it down too. Also, with more time I would have fussed with it.
      I can’t believe I managed it in so short of a time either but the times on the photos tell me so!!

  12. Lovely! And what really impressed me was the finished piece in black and white. How close it is to the original tonal study you did and to your photograph of the scene. Those 3 values you always talk about really work !!!!

    1. Thanks Mum 🙂
      The whole value thing is big with me (as you know!!) – I really do find that having that design understructure really helps guide me and the piece.

  13. Gail, I love seeing the process, of your inspiration, and the thought brought into response to it. You cut right to the heart of the matter – response! And not to worry about making a salable painting, but to practice skills.
    The b&w photos of pastel box and painting are very instructive. I am heading to IAPS this year and your methods are helping me pack an art kit that is pared down.I’ve no idea if it will frustrate me or leverage me to be resourceful – I always aim to use what I have, where I am. Scary, exciting, challenging!!
    Your blog is something I always receive with the pleasure of an absorbing read. Thank you!

    1. Mary Beth, that is soooooo wonderful to hear!! Thank you.
      Regarding your pared down art kit – you will be both frustrated AND challenged yet I KNOW that both of these experiences will lead to places you may never have gone. Discomfort is ALWAYS an opportunity to grow.
      See you at IAPS 🙂
      (If you’re interested in getting together with other HTPers, please complete this short survey: https://forms.gle/Q66GkQbPQBXyubSg9)

  14. I really love the painting. I love the overhang of the vegetation and the shadows on the ground. I feel like I’m in a vibrant cocoon. I have never tried plein air painting. I have been taking lessons for a couple of years. I love color, which is what draws me to this medium. I enjoy your blog!

    1. Ohhhh thanks so much Janis!! I LOVE that you feel this way – in a “vibrant cocoon”!
      I hope this and other blog posts I’ve written on doing plein air work will inspire you to give it a try. It will be a struggle but oh the rewards are tremendous!!

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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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