Ways of Interpreting Landscape Color: In the Studio vs. Plein Air

Landscape painting "Night Passage" by Mitchell Albala

Mitchell Albala. Night Passage, oil on panel, 20″ x 20″

It’s early September and the plein air painting season is drawing to a close (at least for those of us in the unfortunate climes). As I’ve been working with students in my workshops and painting outside on my own, I’ve been reflecting on the nature of observation and the different way I think about color when working outdoors and when I’m working in the studio.

When I’m in the studio I usually work from photos. I use them to explore compositional options or reference the particulars of a subject, such as drawing and detail, but I never use the photo to reference color. (In fact, I consider copying photographic color one of the biggest faux pas a painter can make.) In the studio I invent color. I may call upon my years of experience observing color in nature, but the colors are my own. There’s no talk in my head that says, “Well that’s a blue sky, so I need to make it blue.” In the studio, I don’t choose colors in that way. Instead, I develop a color strategy that fits my particular goals for that painting.

When I’m outside, however, it’s a very different story. There I am engaged in an intense conversation with nature, observing the colors before me, attempting to perform a type of direct translation. I am trying to mix colors that are close to what I am seeing — identifying the particular hue, how brilliant or dull that hue is, and of course the value. If I see a subtle orange hue in the treetops, I try to mix the color as I see it. This is what colorists refer to as perceived color. Perceived color is the color of something as it actually appears to our eye under the influence of a particular color of light. Local color, on the other hand, corresponds to our preconceived idea of what color something is, based on previous experience, such as green grass or blue skies.

Now any landscape painter (or painter of any genre, for that matter) who has ever attempted to translate natural light into pigment knows that mere pigment and canvas can never match the brilliance and intensity of natural light. In my book, Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice, I explain, “This is because natural light and painter’s pigments are not the same thing. The sky illuminates brilliantly. It breathes light. The canvas only reflects light; it cannot actually glow. The brilliance of nature — the intensity of a field of sun-struck poppies or the radiance of the sun dancing on the water — is simply not possible with paint.” All our efforts to work with color in a representational way must take this into account. So we compensate by manipulating color and value beyond what is actually seen in nature. We use the colors we see in the natural world as a starting point, but getting the “right” color is never about matching color hue-for-hue.

Plein Air "Azure and Asphalt" by Mitchell Albala

Mitchell Albala. Azure and Asphalt, oil on paper, 7.5 x 14. In this plein air piece, I was interested in capturing the glare of brilliant sunlight light on the streets as the sun set. Can I truly do that with paint and pigment? Never. But with an eye toward perceived color, I am engaged in the plein air painter’s most essential form of observation. See more paintings from the series: New Works from the “Azure and Asphalt” Series.

Perceived color is like the Rosetta Stone of plein air painting. It allows us to take the rich and varied colors of natural light and translate them into paint.

When directly observing nature there is a strong urge to follow perceived color and “paint what we see” (insofar as the limitations of paint and canvas allow). But even within the constraints of that exercise there is a difference between engaging in direct observation that respects perceived color and making the color up entirely. If we are simply going to select colors that have no relationship with the actual landscape, then we are missing the plein air painter’s most important observational exercise. Perceived color is like the Rosetta Stone of plein air painting. It allows us to take the rich and varied colors of natural light and translate them into paint.

Landscape painting "Border Peak" by Mitchell Albala

Mitchell Albala, Border Peak in Sunlight, oil on panel, 12 x 12.

In Border Peak in Sunlight  I am also very interested in the glare of sunlight. But unlike Azure and Asphalt (above), which is based on an observed color experience, Border Peak uses color in a more inventive way. I may recall what the glare of brilliant sunlight looks like and how it felt to me, but to capture those sensations in the studio, I don’t refer to the photo. Instead I build a unique color strategy that fits my vision of brilliant sunlight.

Additional Resources

Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice
Real Light vs. Panter’s Light: The Limitations of Paint – page 104
Plein Air Demonstration – page 152
Studio Demonstration – page 156
Plein Air Painting: Beginning at the Source – page 34

Matt Smith on the Synergy Between Plein Air and Studio Painting

On Location with Stasinos and Albala: Same Subject, Different Visions

New Works from the “Azure and Asphalt” Series


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.


  1. Your painting, Border Peak in Sunlight, glows, and the more I focus in and linger on it, all these interesting spots of color appear that capture my attention and won’t let me get away. It is certainly an ideal description of what is meant by “a feast for the eyes.” The rods and cones of my eyes are having a party as I observe the painting; great complimentary combinations, vibrancy, interesting shapes, and on and on. I still don’t know how you master that color thing, but I sense you probably have a good time and a lot of fun in the process. Congratulations!
    P.S. One of these days I’ll take another class — they were one of the most memorable for me.

  2. Thank you so much for this post. It’s an affirmation of one of the reasons I spend most of the year painting outdoors: to observe and capture the colors as nature presents them, and turn them into a meaningful, aesthetic sense of place.

    Your painting Border Peak in Sunlight is an inspiration to approach photos in a new way when I’m forced back into the studio in a couple of months.

    Thanks again.

  3. Thanks for this piece. It kind of helps quiet down some of the chatter going on in my head about what to do when I’m painting outside. The piece above, and the Matt Smith article make it clear that my job outside, at least for me now, is to attempt more accurate translation.

  4. Stan Chraminski on

    Thanks for another great clarifying article. I get hung up on perceived color, and especially local color when working indoors from reference photos. But your guidance has let me get to a certain point after the initial block-in where I toss the photos and then ask, “What does the painting need now?” The next trick is to consistenty use your color strategy ideas and do that from the very start.

  5. Mitchell Albala on

    Thanks, Dina, for your kind words and your keen eye. I’m very proud of that painting, but it isn’t often that someone comments on the subtle color reactions within the overall tapestry. Yes, I do have a good time when I’m doing that — when it’s going well. It can also be very frustrating at times. Seeking to make the intangible tangible; that’s the business we’re in!