Tutorial: “The Reluctant Plein Air Painter” with Angela Fehr

Angela Fehr Watercolor Tutorial Plein Air Painting

I’m a bad watercolor instructor. Until recently, the LAST thing I ever wanted to do was paint from life, in the (gasp!) outdoors! It’s not the bugs, the heat, the wind, the dirt or even really the onlookers. What really held me back was the sheer scope of needing to try to capture the panorama of the world spread before me. With a photo, you hold stability in your hand. The shadows don’t flicker, and the size is contained within a few inches. It’s manageable.

Plein air painting, on the other hand, feels to me to be completely UNmanageable. A slight turn of my head and the view before me doubles in scope. Everything is just so, so, three-dimensional! And the light changes from moment to moment, so the small shadow you start out painting might triple in size before you’re finished, or disappear entirely as clouds pass over the sun. What I see doesn’t translate onto paper, and in plein air painting the disconnect between what I see and what I paint feels even more pronounced and disheartening.

Guys, I’m supposed to be a professional, with twenty years of experience, and painting plein air still scares me. It’s a vulnerable crack in my veneer of experience So…I can either live in avoidance or confront the issue, and only one of those offers the opportunity for growth. For the last few years I’ve made it a point to bring my plein air painting kit when I travel, and while I’m not very disciplined about using it, just pulling it out a few times a year has made a big difference in my attitude toward plein air painting.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

  • What goes in your sketchbook is personal. You don’t need to share it with anyone, or apologize for anything in there. Like a diary, it has ups and downs and some are going to be more private than others.
  • Plein air painting should fit YOU. When I realized that I didn’t need to paint the entire panorama before me, but could focus on a tiny area, or just work the mood and atmosphere into a completely imaginative sketch, many of my struggles with plein air painted melted away.
  • It’s going to feel hard. One student commented “When studio painting feels hard, I paint plein air. Then studio painting feels easy again.” Expecting to feel lost, distracted, frustrated or disappointed can help adjust your expectations so it’s not devastating if you don’t get a great painting to show for your efforts.
  • You don’t have to do it every day to get better at it. This goes for all painting. We often feel guilty for not being as disciplined about our artistic development as we think we should be, but this doesn’t ever help us paint better. Make peace with the slow & steady growth that comes from just doing what you can, when you can.

I’m blessed to live in a rural and beautiful region of northern British Columbia, along edge of the northern Rocky Mountains, and when I paint my experiences exploring nature with my family, I get to savor our country’s beauty and precious family memories all over again. And when I can’t travel, and paint my back yard, I get to slow down and appreciate the small beauties found in the every day. Great reasons to get out that sketchbook and struggle through a little more plein air painting!

What are your struggles with plein air painting? I grabbed the World Watercolor Month prompt “Nature Hike” to share a quick video on “making do” as a reluctant plein air painter in this week’s video.

Don’t forget that as a World Watercolor Month Artist Ambassador, I’m sharing more lessons and giveaways at watercolorsummerchallenge.com and donating 10% of sales of Sun, Snow & Flowers, a 3 painting online watercolor class, to the Dreaming Zebra Foundation. Thank you for supporting World Watercolor Month so generously!

Angela Fehr is an internationally known watercolour artist and instructor living in in northern British Columbia, Canada. Teaching over 5,000 students in her online school, Fehr emphasizes fluid and intuitive painting, teaching technique clearly and encouraging students to explore their own unique style as they develop watercolour skills.

Recommended4 recommendationsPublished in Tutorials
8 Comments
  1. Sharon Nolfi 3 weeks ago

    Wonderful tips and video!

  2. Laura Hale 3 weeks ago

    One of my watercolor heros. Thank you Angela for another wonderful video.

  3. Sandra Strait 3 weeks ago

    Great video! I find plein air difficult as well. I think in part it’s because I’m near-sighted and don’t need to use my glasses when painting at home. Outside, I’m using a whole different form of vision and I feel like I’m staring at one of those 3D images where you have to adjust the way you view to see what hides in all the wild color.

  4. Sandra Gilbert 3 weeks ago

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who finds plein air challenging. As soon as it get a bit cooler here, I’m going to push myself to go do it at least once a week. Thanks for the encouragement you have been a great inspiration to me.

  5. Lalay 3 weeks ago

    I will never get tired watching your video tutorials!!! You make my day happy and complete, Angela!

  6. Sharon Bonin-Pratt 3 weeks ago

    This was a wonderful invitation to stretch skills and learn something new by checking my fear at the door and heading outside to see what I can create. Thanks, Angela, for a great experience.

  7. Les Grindey 3 weeks ago

    Another great video to learn by .

  8. Jill Gustavis 2 weeks ago

    I definitely had some frustration at the beginning, mostly since I like to paint detail, and that’s just not always possible plein air. I’ve come to accept and even embrace that my plein air style is not the same style as my studio paintings. The two are clearly relatives, but resemble each other more like siblings or cousins than twins. I find plein air more freeing in that the environment almost encourages you to be looser, quicker, and more suggestive in your techniques to capture the object or landscape before something changes. I also found it comforting to take a quick picture at the start, and even if I don’t necessarily use it, it takes some pressure off. If I’m called away or something I really liked about the scenario changes, I have the photo as backup to fill in the remaining gaps to finish the painting as I want.

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