The Gifts of Plein Air – Living Color through Direct Observation

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Painting in Italy

Painting in Lubriano, Italy, Sept. 2017.

Like many landscape painters, I work from photographs and studies during the cold winter months. When the plein air season arrives, and colors spring to life, I head outdoors to re-engage in that timeless one-to-one conversation with color. So often, as I begin to paint, I experience a ritual reawakening. I never cease to be awestruck by how much more color I see outside than in the studio.

I had a particularly vivid experience of this “reawakening” at a recent workshop I taught in Italy. One of our excursions took us to Lubriano, a small village in Umbria. Here visitors can gaze across the valley to the ancient hilltop city of Bagnoregio. Lubriano offers a panoramic view of the valley and its tuff cliffs, aglow in the morning light.

Landscape painting of Lubriano, Italy by Mitchell Albala

Tufo Cliffs, Lubriano, Italy, oil on paper, 8 x 6. Collection of the artist. See the short video of me painting Tufo Cliffs, below.

I was amazed by how much color I saw. My brush flew around the palette, searching for the color mixtures that might capture the subtle blues, violets and golden earth tones I saw. This was the experience of living color. Later, when I looked at the photo I had taken, I noted that It lacked nearly all the rich color I had seen.

Of course, photographs are incapable of capturing the luminosity we see with our eyes. The stark difference between my painting and the photo underscores the object lesson: how we interpret colors outdoors is different from how we interpret color in the studio.  

Photograph of Lubriano Italy

Lubriano’s tuff cliffs. In the photograph, much is lost in translation. We see much more color through direct observation.

Direct and indirect observation

With direct observation there is nothing between me and the subject but the air. I can see every nuance of light and shadow and color my eyes are capable of registering. This is the gift of plein air. Part of the excitement of painting outdoors is trying to “capture” the colors I see. If I see golden greens on the hills of Lubriano, then those are the colors I try to mix. Can I create a color impression that is close to what I see? I know that pigments and canvas cannot compete with the luminosity and brilliance of actual light — but I try. That is the play of the outdoor painter.

landscape painting of Montegabbione Italy by Mitchell Albala

Mitchell Albala, Montegabbione, Italy, oil on paper, 5 x 7. Collection of the artist.

In the studio, it is a different story. I have my inspiration, but I am once removed from the original subject. I have visual memory, photos, and perhaps sketches or color notes — but I am no longer connected to the living color. To the painter, the photo is an already resolved color problem. A subject observed directly is not. (See Using Photographs Like an Artist.)

I see the difference between interpreting color outdoors and in the studio in this way: in plein air I am much more involved in working with the colors I actually see. I take liberties, to be sure, but I am striving to be faithful to what I see. In the studio, it’s the reverse. The colors are more my own own. I may call upon my years of experience observing and mixing color in nature, but I am the inventor of my color plan. (See Ways of Interpreting Landscape Color: In the Studio vs. Plein Air.)

Even if the landscape painter works primarily in the studio, as I do, the experience of interpreting color live is essential. Working outdoors is the painter’s chance to drink from the source. Only in an experiential one-to-one relationship with nature can we learn how the light and color of the landscape can translate into paint.

Painting Lubriano


Be sure to turn up the sound. You’ll hear the noon church bells in the background, heralding the completion of another painting. Video: Judith Kremen.

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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 37,000 copies in print. Mitchell is also a popular workshop instructor at Gage Academy of Art in Seattle, Pacific Northwest Art School, Winslow Art Center, Daniel Smith Artist’s Materials, and Arte Umbria in Italy. 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.

8 Comments

  1. Julie campbell on

    Wonderful observations, Mitch! I love your phrase “to drink from the source”! I’ve always felt this way about studying colour while outdoors, but have never understood how to articulate this. It’s as if the world of colour is alive and vibrating. As always, your blogs offer inspiring insights. Thank you!

  2. If color were booze, I would be drunk every time I came home from a plein air trip (with reference to your phrase “to drink from the source). Processing the information needed can be overwhelming, and learning to interpret that in a studio painting is where I am at. This is really helpful, and keeps me engaged with your book. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Mitchell Albala on

    Thanks, Marie. Translating what you know into a larger painting is a different issue entirely, and one that I should perhaps write a separate article about. I’m glad this post resonated with you. “Cheers” as you drink from the well.

  4. Mitchell Albala on

    Thanks, Julie. “Alive and vibrating” is another good turn of phrase to describe the colors we can see when outside (especially when compared to what we see in a photo!) Keep on drinking from the well!

  5. Excellent piece! Thank you so much for sharing. This is extremely valuable. I live in Juneau, AK and it is almost always rainy and I’ve had some commitments that kept me from getting out much this year, but It is my primary goal for 2018. I am excited by your experience! Thank you again.

  6. Since I have just met and “found” your teaching and blog … it is so good to feel a part of a shared experience of loving to paint in the light and hearing the bliss that others often share!

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