Advice on Making Progress in Plein Air and the Importance of Quality Over Quantity

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Mitchell Albala, Coffelt Farm, Orcas Island, oil on paper, 5 x 7.

A student of mine, who does a lot of plein air painting, recently wrote me with an interesting question. My answers speak to several points that are at the heart of my philosophy about making progress as an artist and the importance of quality over quantity.

Question:

I paint at least five days per week, but results certainly aren’t consistent at this point. I am seeing progress, but I want more and I want faster! Is that reasonable?

Answer:

It is understandable — but not entirely reasonable. It’s only natural to want to experience the satisfaction that comes with producing a successful painting you can be proud of, and to make faster progress. But “Artists are made, not born.” No one is exempt from that. What is important, however, is that you are seeing progress. Your work has gotten better over the past few years. Plein air painting is one of the most difficult artistic maneuvers an artist can engage in. To be having any success in that challenging arena is no small achievement.

You say that your results are not consistent. No one’s results are entirely consistent. Even the best of the best do not hit a home run every time. Working “en plein air” is particularly humbling in this regard. I often refer to it as the improvisational form of landscape painting — not in the sense that we are making it up on the spot, but because so many correct choices have to be made in the correct order. Every bit of painting wisdom you’ve amassed over the years comes into play and every variable — from the weather to your inspiration level — has to be firing on all cylinders to produce a successful plein air painting. It’s unreasonable to expect that to happen every time.

It’s also good that you are aware of your “inconsistent” results. Not all painters are. Every artist must cultivate the ability to assess their own work, to know which pieces are headed for the closet or recycling bin and which ones should represent them publicly. The unsuccessful ones should not be exhibited or put on your website. You’re building a reputation and every painting you display reflects on that. I believe that it is always better to show fewer works of high quality, than lots of work of mixed quality which may diminish the overall impact of your work. What would you rather have buyers or gallerists say? “Wow, she doesn’t have a lot of paintings on her site, but what she does have are real gems!” or “She has a lot of paintings, but some aren’t very good. I wonder if she knows the difference?

Every artist must cultivate the ability to assess their own work, to know which pieces are headed for the closet or recycling bin and which ones should represent them publicly.

And lastly, while we’re on the subject of plein air, I would also like to make the case for the radical idea that we should take our time. There is a popular belief that when working outdoors, we must work quickly. Yes, I know, the light is changing and we’ve only got a limited amount of time. But until we have the facility of a Sargeant or a Sorolla, I recommend taking it slow, being mindful of your choices, and following the approach. It is much better to go home with an unfinished painting that is well thought out, than with a finished painting that was rushed and is filled with mistakes.


Additional Resources

“The Approach” – Five Essential Steps to Plein Air Painting

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About Author

Mitchell Albala is a Seattle-based painter known for his semi-abstract and atmospheric landscapes. His book, "Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice," is a national bestseller with nearly 40,000 copies in print. Mitchell is also a popular workshop instructor at Gage Academy of Art in Seattle, Pacific Northwest Art School, and Daniel Smith Artist’s Materials. He led painting adventures in Italy in 2015 with Arte Umbria and in 2017 with Winslow Art Center. He has lectured on Impressionism and landscape painting at the Seattle Art Museum and written for International Artist and Artists & Illustrators magazines. His popular painting blog, which serves as a companion to his book, was awarded #12 on feedspot.com’s Top 75 Painting Blogs.

3 Comments

  1. Stan Chraminski on

    Thanks for more good advice, Mitch. Now that I’m in Hawaii I paint plein air weekly, all year round, so do make some clunkers as well as some good ones. More I choose a good slice of the scene, and take my time, the better the result. I always have to do some finishing touches, or repaintportions in the studio afterwards, especially to push the contrasts more. I reread your book every season to learn more but with no seasons here, LOL, I need to schedule it.

  2. Brilliant, I believe 120% of everything you have said here! As a matter of fact, I always use your plein air checklist before I go out for painting. Thanks for always sharing your ideas on painting! It’s pretty full of great insight! I have had to discipline myself to slow down over the years and it has really helped me tremendously!

  3. Patience, careful observation, step by step through the process: This is exactly why I enjoy painting with you! I have a lot of work to do but now am more optimistic that a painting will work.