Plein Air Painting Concepts and Techniques

Elio Camacho, Edgar Payne, John Carlson and Richard Schmid and Charles Sovek


Elio Camacho Painting Process


Step 1 – Sketch/Design

 Triangulation – Mark three “known” points using their angles relative to each other, then place all other locations relative to them

Include the cast shadow as part of the overall shape of the darks

Using sweeping lines, without lifting brush from surface

Use the light dark structure to depict the form

Include the slopes for brushstrokes in sketch

Elio is creating a design with the effect of light. Looks for contrasts of color that he can make both interesting and believable.


Step 2 – Block in using color

Establish deepest dark and lightest light with color using the correct value, but a cooler hue than you actually see (because it is easier to warm up than cool down).  Typically doesn’t start dark-to-light because the lights change faster than the darks.

Establish the form (using vertical strokes if the form is difficult) before blending or dealing with any nuances

Turn form in shadows as well as light, especially if large shadow area

The question asked is not, “What is the value or hue I see?”, but “Should the temperature be warmer or cooler and the value or intensity more or less than other features?” Initially keep hues relatively pure and only grays them later. Starts with the center of interest and works out.

Touches of color spread around the canvas may help harmony (blue from sky across horizontal edge of objects, reflected light along bottoms)


Step 3 – May warm cools and cools warms

By dragging their opposite over without completely covering underlying layer.


Step 4 – Paint the painting

Once the painting is “complete” (based on viewing the scene) rework the entire surface focusing on “painting the painting” redrawing, warming, cooling or changing hues purely to improve the design. Make creative choices, using the scene, but not merely copying


Step 5 – Finish

Start by looking at relationships, finish by looking at the painting

First thing you do is not lighten lights, but darken darks while making sure it is the right color

“’Finish’ isn’t the details, ‘finish’ is strengthening the effect”

Add color spots - (sometimes complementary) as you might add highlights and accents, but don’t break up the form.



  • Elio focuses more on temperature than value.
  • Lay in a few accents initially to set up the depth
  • Paint first those areas that change the most and the center of interest, but follow my tonal template
  • Use the lay-in of the background to help resolve the shape of the form by cutting into the shape. Don’t want to paint a still life background too soon because the colors will contaminate the foreground.
  • Doesn’t choose a color scheme but rather just lets it evolve
  • If you hold an object like a pencil in your left hand parallel to the angle you wish to copy, you can easily copy it with the right hand
  • When Elio says, “That’s not the color I see” he means, “That’s not the temperature relationship I see.”
  • Elio defines “chalky” as uniform color, without variation, like chalk and “mud” as warm where a cool should be. “The closer you get to 50/50 [warm/cool mixture], the closer you get to mud.”


Plein Air Demonstration by Elio Camacho


Pigments – Titanium white, yellow ochre (or raw sienna), Hansa Yellow orange, Mars orange, cad red light, quinacridone red, Venetian red, carbazole violet, Manganese blue, cad green, Ptahlo green, Mars black [Elio has a warm eye so he doesn’t have many warms on his palette] “Transarent Red Oxide great for making greens.”

Painting Medium – Elio uses [Utrecht] safflower oil to help the paint flow. Ovanes Berberian uses linseed oil [mixed into his pigments] and recommends a mixture of damar/stand oil/ and turp for laying in an initial colorful wash [Utrecht “painting medium” prepared from damar, linseed oil and gum turpentine]. It enhances working consistency of oil colors and adds durability, permanence and color brilliance.

Palette surface – mid-gray glass

Support - paints on specially cut Douglas fir MDF hardboards with light grey ground (grey with a little Magenta and blue) - Art Board makes a board similar to the board Elio uses – ¼” Masonite warps beyond 16”x20”

Brush Flush – best brush cleaner

Purple Power (or Purple Magic) – “degreaser” available at Pep Boys, best for cleaning hardened oil off palette

Joann’s – sells quality Princeton brushes cheaply

Orbital sander with 80 grit sandpaper to sand down old paintings

Anvil cases – very durable and expensive

Color corrected light bulbs – 250 watt from photography stores (white, not blue, bulbs)


Elio Camacho on Painting Relationships

Soften edges relative to the focal point, temperature and value relate to what’s next to it, harmony relates to the whole painting, composition relates to masses


Choosing the right value/hue/temperature

Have your canvas and your palette in the same light – either both in light or both shadow

It’s easier to judge temperature and value if both the palette and the canvas are of the same value and color.

Paint the value and intensity relationships you see. The center of interest will retain its interest if it has more detail

If one area draws too much attention with its contrast to adjacent shapes, both areas can be subdued by slightly modifying the adjacent temperatures in a common direction, but not the values

Always consider whether stroke/color/value is breaking up form



First establish the value range, then you can bend the temperature any way necessary.

Use occasional dark accents to clarify form.



Once you begin seeing temperature, there is a tendency to paint colors too intense. It can be subtle and still seem colorful.

Use white to adjust value and turn the form but not to convey the effect of light

To help show depth, need to gradate (warmer/near to cooler/far) flat surfaces such as a building

Use a combination of what you see and temperature logic to depict form (light side = warm, dark side = cool; warms = close, cools = far; turning away = cool)

You can see drawing and value up close, but you can only see temperature when you step back

[When you step back] warms are more prominent than cools

When warming or cooling, don’t just add blue or red

Every object has a warm and a cool

When you need to change the temperature, it is often easiest to mix right over the color that has the correct value but the wrong temperature.

Sunny days, warm light, cooler at mid-day - overcast days, cool light

Refine shapes with temperature, not value. All the color within a shape value must live within that value

To understand warm and cool, paint white objects in the light.

Yellow is the easiest color to manipulate [show the effect of light] because sunlight is warm [yellow], next easiest green, then blue, red is hardest (because light red is pink and not the color of light)



Place color “notes” to help determine correct value and hue

Can use any color as long as it is the correct value and temperature

Mars black is often preferable to complement for darkening because it darkens while still keeping character of color (but not yellow)

Adjust color by mixing colors adjacent to each other on the palette if they are adjacent in the scene

Choose the purest color first and adjust relationships to it

Look for flavor of subtle or deep colors.

Blues over a yellow ochre will glow; yellows over a lavender will glow

Elio’s darks are a dark violet, not brown, because they create a beautiful color as they get blended with white

When two colors look about the same, exaggerate the difference between the two, to separate them easily for the eye

Just as you need to have a clear separation of values to make a design work, so too color

Avoid lightening colors with white. White kills color, (but is very effective in a gray-day painting) Use the next lighter value and warmer color on your palette

When painting brilliant intense colors, it is best to paint them first and go around them with surrounding color.

Gray colors (when you have sufficient skill to do so without creating mud) using “soup” (“mother” color) composed of left over paint lightened with white and grayed with Mars black to dull colors without moving color in direction of complement

Where two colors meet, the edges should have a transition color

To push color, keep the value and temperature, but the color can be any color. In the beginning keep the color in the color family. Elio pushes color all the time and may do so to create a center of interest where it would not be otherwise. Shadows won’t be intense even when the color is pushed.

Don't use the exact same color to represent two different objects in the same scene [even two oranges]



Elio maintains harmony by choosing colors that lean in the direction of harmonizing [slightly cooler or warmer than actually seen]

Harmony for Elio is more about elimination of colors. It’s not that he doesn’t see other colors, but that he chooses to leave them out if they don’t fit.

All the harmony is created on the palette.

To create harmony “add a little of each in the other” [as with a “mother” color]

The only things he is conscious of doing as he mixes colors is that he uses an octopus of colors and when he needs an intense color he tries to keep it uncontaminated with other colors


Elio Camacho on Brushwork

When massing in, use a full brush as it is easier to adjust value and color differences when there is sufficient pigment on the canvas.

Show brushstrokes in the light, not the shadow But… make brushstrokes interesting in the shadows as well as the light.

Shallow to lay down paint, 45° to blend, 90° to pick up paint

The direction of brushstrokes can help establish structure, thus two brush strokes to depict corner, not one. But … Elio uses brushstrokes to draw attention, but not to depict the form.

You follow the same procedure to paint detail as to paint loosely, but using smaller and smaller brushstrokes.

Use temperature and the direction of brushstrokes to show the structure of a surface such as a hill

Horizontal strokes flatten, and vertical strokes help bend. Thus, a tree trunk or column can be depicted with vertical strokes to the outside and horizontal strokes in the center. A wall should be painted with horizontal strokes, but a receding wall should be painted with vertical strokes

To lay paint down, don’t scrape with brush, hold brush lightly and lay it down. Brushing in one direction lays paint down while reversing the stroke picks up paint.

The less any color is mixed, the clearer and more vital that color will become.

Using a varnish medium of half turpentine and half oil of copal varnish will facilitate dragging other colors over any given mass (Carlson).

Distant sky brushstrokes are generally horizontal. Nearer brushstrokes tend to flow at an angle in conformance with the flat bottoms (following the general direction of the clouds contour/gesture).

Horizontal strokes recede, diagonals come forward, verticals are nearest

Vertical brushstrokes enable you to judge values more easily, go over later as needed.

Horizontal strokes reflect more light, and are therefore better for the center of interest, while verticle can go lighter, and are therefore better for the corners.

Paint last the edge of objects which overlap others - mountains in front of sky, water in front of distant land, near clouds in front of more distant.

To get soft edges and loose handling: Hold brush lightly from the end and lift up as you finish the stroke or slightly twist the brush so one side has softer edges.

To overlay a contrasting color on top, first paint the object in a flat mid-tone (usually the local color) then model using other colors (lighter and darker, often the complement), while holding the brush lightly from the end

To paint calligraphy, hold brush from the end, place brush firmly at the beginning of the stroke and quickly pull brush in one continuous, confident movement [lifting as you pull if you want a hard to soft stroke] Have to convey that calligraphy is part of the structure

Blend only with a loaded brush


"Roses and Roses" 24x30 painted en plein air by Elio Camacho, with detail on right

Elio Camacho on Edges

Avoid edges in the darks and in reflections

Horizontal strokes shine so vertical strokes and washes are good for darks

soften edges in relation to center of interest (hard)

No harsh edges where values are similar [Elio calls this “muddy”]

to soften edges, do so with paint on the brush and drag lightly across where the two forms meet.

If you break up the form with expressive brushwork, it’s easier to show the form if you soften the edges [of the brushwork.]

It’s all about relationships – Don’t just paint the edge you see, rather look at the edge character you see as well as the comparative value difference across the edge compared with other value differences across their edges. Greater value difference = sharper edge. Lesser value difference = softer edge. [But… “Do not soften edges” (Carlson)]

“Strokes have to belong to something.” - Brush strokes typically have four hard edges. Unless each edge of the brush stroke is intended to represent structure, only the edge of the brush stroke representing the edge of a silhouette (outside edge of a form) should be hard. That is, the edges of any stroke of contrasting value, hue or intensity appears to be “something”, and if they aren’t intended to be anything, they break up the form.

The edge character (form silhouette) of big elements decrease in size with distance and are useful in depicting depth.

Flowers have all soft edges

Determine in relation to: a) center of interest and b) lost and found within object

2 things to consider: 1) How characteristic the edge is to the thing being painted [most important] and 2) harder edges at the focal point


Elio Camacho on Light


General value relationships

light source (lightest)Þ horizontals (light) Þ verticals (dark), [from light to dark (reflection of sun on snow or water, sky, water, horizontal land, inclined land/hills, tree shadows,  trees)] Exceptions: Manmade structures Distant mountains are pale blue or violet and nearly as light as the sky; Setting sun shines along ground plane therefore upright planes are lighter than horizontal ground; early spring or fall when trees are pale yellowish-green or faded yellow (thus lighter than ground, but with a darkly accented mass)

When painting the darks, paint the dark relationship you see, not just the darkest dark possible

There is a tendency to see blues as darker than they are and reds, yellows and brilliant greens as lighter than they are

The smaller a dark mass against a light, the lighter and fainter it becomes.

Use both value and color contrast (For example: if the light side is green, the shadow side should be darker and some color other than green)


General Temperature Relationships

Unexpected transitions are the most beautiful.

Forms in light are the color of light, plus the local color, plus the color of reflected objects (such as the sky); shadows are the complement of the color of light, plus the local color [leaning towards its complement], plus reflected light. [Elio doesn’t really follow his rules, he just looks.]

Temperature differences in a painting are more noticeable from a distance.

All colors, except white, become cooler as they recede (the yellow fades out first, then red) Whites and near whites become warmer and darker; Darks become lighter and cooler.

Range of hills: nearest = warm violet (and may even contain red, blue and slight amount of yellow), next trifle bluer violet, farthest almost pure blue

Paint warm to cool shift as objects recede

Look for reflected light

As a hill rolls over it is gently lightened and correspondingly cooled.

Vibrating color (dabs of two colors placed adjacent to each other so as to produce a third) is a great help in receding tones, as in the far distance of a landscape.



"Gray Whale Cove" and "Shade" by Elio Camacho


Blue sky is darker than a filmy or overcast sky

The sky gradates toward the sun

Objects seen against a sunset sky will partake of the sunset color, esp at edges

gradation toward horizon resembles attenuated rainbow – lightening then darkening just barely above the horizon (blue = zenith, violet/blue, green/blue, yellow/green, orange/yellow = near horizon, orange/red = very near horizon, darker violet/red or warm rosy grey haze = horizon) pp 66 and 108 Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting

When painting into the sky, it helps to keep the sky thin unless you are really certain of your brushstroke’s effect.


Facing Directly Into the Sun

Shade canvas and palette

Shade eyes with hat while looking only at the specific point you are trying to paint

Keep colors clean and bright


Painting in Direct Sunlight

Keep the canvas and the palette either both in shade or both in light.

Paintings will tend to be slightly darker and “surprisingly richer in color under more subdued light” – opposite of my personal experience

There are two light sources: the sun and reflected light from the sky



Whitest and lightest tones “never near the edge”. But elio said “always near the edge.”

Darks [cloud bases] become cooler and lighter and lights become warmer and darker as they recede towards the horizon (cumulus and stratus). At the horizon they are almost a rosy warm, dull white.

Get the motion as well as the pattern

Bases are rarely as dark as the earth values [ovanes barely paints a base]

Thin filmy cloud fragments are much lower in value and cooler in color than main cloud; largest wisps to smallest gradate from silver white to cool blue gray with the value lowering as the size decreases

Because you’re are looking up, the lines of perspective converge less suddenly for clouds than the perspective on the flat earth

"The Coming" by Elio Camacho


Establish the darks before moving to the lights.

Waves don’t work unless they are nearly parallel to the shore.

Waves have a vertical light, a dark component and a slightly darker backside.

When painting reflections in the water, establish vertically, then lightly sweep across horizontally. Darkest at base, no edges, softer nearer

Paint distant shoreline in horizontal sections – otherwise it looks tilted

Almost always a light horizontal stripe where the water meets the land. Paint by first laying in the light value, then painting up to and blending into it with the slightly darker value.

Translucent objects, such as an ocean, may look darker and more intense towards back because the first color lost is yellow and the last is blue. For the same reason, waves may have greens and yellows reflecting back.


Upright Masses

Get lighter and cooler as they rise from the flat. Darkest and warmest portions are near, but not at the ground.


Street Scenes

The key is to get your mind to see and judge the whole scene, not each element.



Exaggerate the gesture of trees as you would the gesture of a model

Bottoms of upright objects tend to take on earth colors which helps trees to seem grounded

Depict the big planes, then suppress any half-planes sufficiently that they belong to the big plane.

Reflected light underneath boughs of trees.

With a bright sky, trees painted too dark will not appear to radiate light. The light may cause them to loose their local color and much of their value.

Only the largest skyholes are as light as the sky. Paint them darker than you think they are or they will look pasted on

Very difficult to paint the “skyholes” in trees. Many artists paint them after the paint has dried.

The smaller a twig, the lighter its value.

When painting the final thin tree trunks, hold the brush very loosely from the very end.

Light area at top, increasingly dark as shape leaves top, lateral gradation of color and value from side nearest sun to side farthest from it, highlights and shadows belong, but there is a strong tendency to put too many and destroy the form.

Use design to separate various portions of masses (groups of trees, etc.)

Spotty appearance usually due to destruction of vertical masses with spotty highlights

Perspective of an important (near observer) tree is obscure (but varies as the height of the tree varies). Almost impossible to see, but will help give height to tree as we seem to look up to it.

Branches that come toward you (underside) are darker than those going away (top plane)

with a cool light shadows will be warm and the light cool [green foliage]


Slanting planes/Mountains

Slanting planes must have gradation. The suddenness and gradations of color and value determine the optical slant of the plane.

Sky reflection usually strongest (coolest) at the top of any tall object. (Causing an up/down transition)

Ridges and spurs protruding from mountain must be noted.



Beginners usually paint shadows too dark.

Shadow is often much lighter than vertical objects such as the tree which casts it.

Don’t try to separate forms of similar value in shadows (Camacho) But… It is the prerogative of the artist to see light and color in shadows (Carlson)

Shadows in sunlight generally get warmer and darker as they approach object casting it.

Accents [darks under edge of an object already in shadow or small bush within shadow] within shadows add much luminosity

The farther a shadow is cast the softer it becomes

Sun shadows coming toward you increase in size with a vanishing point at the sun

Turn form in shadows as well as light, simplifying too much flattens painting

Shadow and object may be of different temperatures, blended together (as demonstrated by Berberian)



Should be depicted as undulating – See foreground as a decorative arrangement of groups that conform to the configuration of the ground and laws of perspective. Design even at the expense of truth. Diagram 23, pages 78-79, Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting

  • Ground that terminates in the near distance must nevertheless recede in color and value or it will appear vertical

Still Life

Can do anything with color, but don’t change value


Edgar Payne’s Landscape Painting Process

"Packing in the Sierra" Edgar Payne  


Painting is easier if you first approximate and place the main value areas

Interchange of values (as well as both abrupt and slow transition of colors) creates vitality and charm and should be used wherever an excuse presents itself

(Always) use a warm undercoat to avoid the danger of coldness in any picture

Step 1 – Select and arrange the elements of the scene. Try out different compositions, many pencil sketches

Step 2 – Draw the scene on canvas with charcoal, with indications of darker areas.

Step 3 – Establish the pattern of darks and lights by painting a wash or stain (often of red ochre)

Step 4 – Use thin paint to establish the color scheme, working the entire canvas.

Step 5 – Apply thicker pigment to the dark areas. Model the forms. Work to some extent from dark to light all over the canvas maintaining relationship between dark and light, warm and cool, in accordance with the chosen color scheme. Highlights last.


Richard Schmid

Likes to start out with something right; puts only large shapes in until he can see overall dynamics of painting

Uses full range of texture of paint

Chalky and muddy both mean wrong temperature

Temperature is the key to authentic looking color

Wants viewer to think brushstrokes can be done in one stroke, but actually touches up

Anything he fakes he tries to make it look like it was really there.

Much of judgment he uses is just impulse he follows because it just feels better, but can’t explain.

Few things can be painted in one stroke, most of the time one side or the other needs to be modified


"Telluride" by Richard Schmid and "Woods, Sedona" by Charles Sovek


Charles Sovek

If you want your paintings to sing, limit the tonal structure of your paintings to white, gray and black.

Design a solid abstract arrangement, decide where to pop the lights and don’t waffle when building up details.

Limit the various intensities of objects to three choices: bright, fully saturated colors; medium, slightly grayed colors; and dull almost colorless hues.

Few pictorial devices can alter the mood of a picture as dramatically as underpainting [in a contrasting color].

One painting technique is to design the painting using an average light and average dark [painting over a two-tone underpainting representing color of light and color of shadow, with the overpainting translated into local color of average light or shadow value; with accents, highlights and softened edges where needed] so that both an illusion of reality and an interesting design emerges.


Plein Air Wisdom

Key work higher than nature seems to be and indoors it will come nearer the truth

Keep the lights as near the same value as possible; keep the mass that is in shadow, always in shadow, and make differences by gradations in color

Don’t overemphasize color in the shadows –But… “Keep darks full of color.” (Carlson)

Don’t overmodel the light and dark masses or they will compete for attention

When studying color and value contrasts, be careful not to look into both at the same time

Introduce some color into the shadow before working into the sunlight masses so that color is relative to color and not just the underpainting.

Scott Christianson scrapes the entire painting after each session and adds fresh paint the next day. Thus, he can obtain detail and it still looks fresh even when it isn’t.

"San Clemente Noon" and "Aliso Bluff" by Keene Wilson  

Recommended Reading

Ovanes Berberian: Color, Paint Quality, Brushwork and Technique (Elio Camacho's Mentor)

Sergei Bongart on Art and Painting (Ovanes Berberian's Mentor)

Carlson, John – Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting

Payne, Edgar – Composition of Outdoor Painting

Schmid, Richard – Alla Prima: Everything I Know About Painting
Keene Wilson - Painting "Fundamentals" for the Advanced Artist