Acrylic paints are perfect for capturing beautiful outdoor light effects with quick plein air sketches. Here, artist Joe Gyurcsak offers his field-tested tips for painting a scene with speed and economy in order to keep up with the changing light.
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When we go outdoors to paint in the field, we are engaging all the senses. Painting quick plein air studies is invaluable for recording light sensations, and the process strengthens our visual memory. The experience requires quick decision-making in order to keep up with the changing light. For this reason, acrylic paints are an excellent medium for these studies. The paints are fast drying and permanent, and can be manipulated to produce a full range of opacity from opaque to transparent. Each lighting situation produces unique atmospheric conditions, especially depending on the time of day, the season and the various weather conditions. By utilizing multi-layering techniques within paint passages, artists can emulate the naturally occurring light effects that we encounter in various outdoor conditions.
To get started painting plein air sketches in acrylic, there are some important strategies that will contribute to your success. Here, I’ve outlined a full list of tips I’ve picked up from more than 30 years of outdoor painting experience.
Paints: Utrecht Artists’ Acrylic Colors: titanium white, unbleached titanium, cadmium yellow light, cadmium orange, cadmium red medium, burnt sienna, brilliant blue, cobalt blue, Hooker’s green, dioxazine purple and Payne’s gray
Surface: Blick ⅜-inch thick Premier Artist Panel (12×12)
Brushes: Nos. 2, 6, 8 and 10 Blick Masterstroke interlocking bristle filberts and No. 6 Golden Taklon short handle round
Miscellaneous: Blick 12×16-inch palette paper pad and a bag of rags
Helpful Hints for Quick Plien Air Sketches
1. Look for a scene in which you can expect the duration of the light to allow you at least an hour of painting time.
2. Start with smaller-sized paintings. This will help avoid getting overwhelmed and will allow you to complete quick sketches in a timely matter.
3. Have a good selection of paint colors available and lay them out on your palette in an organized fashion. I set out my colors (see Toolkit) in chunky piles arranged from light to dark. This facilitates quick decision-making and speedy mixing.
4. A mid-toned ground will help in your judgment of light and dark passages of paint and can serve as a complement to the paint you apply to your canvas or panel.
5. Sketch out your design using a pencil or brush, making sure your composition is sound from the start. This helps to avoid redesigning your painting in the middle of the process.
6. Start with a No. 6 or 8 filbert bristle brush to block in the large masses in thin layers. Then, switch to smaller filberts and synthetic watercolor rounds to add some sharpness and a few important details.
7. Establish your light and dark patterns early in the process. To do so, squint your eyes as you observe the scene to eliminate the details. This helps in judging values and seeing the soft and hard edges.
8. A sense of color is developed over the course of the painting, but mixing more neutrals will greatly improve your depictions of nature.
9. Look for opportunities to create contrasts: small versus large shapes, light versus dark values, warm versus cool colors, soft versus hard edges, and so on. Keeping these contrasts in unequal ratios in your overall design will create a more dynamic painting.
10. Keep your paintings simple. Don’t overwork them. There is beauty to be found in simplicity.
11. Look for the natural rhythms of light that flow over organic and inorganic forms. Light and shadow patterns will repeat throughout a scene.
Painting Quick Plein Air Sketches
In these additional examples, Joe Gyurcsak shares the inspiration that stirred him to pick up his acrylic paint and brushes and make a quick plein air sketch.
Jim’s Garage (acrylic on panel, 12 x 16)
One night I was looking over my neighbor’s fence and I happened to see his garage had this wonderful glow on all his clutter. The scene was contrasted by two of his motorcycles which were silhouetted in shadow in the foreground. The glow of the night and the artificial light of the garage proved to be a very unique composition and painting challenge!
Morning Sun (acrylic on panel, 12 x 12)
When I saw the light in this scene and the repeating triangular shapes, I just knew there was something here to paint. Once I composed all of it in a square format, everything just tumbled into place.
Early Spring (acrylic on panel, 11 x 14)
The brilliance of the afternoon sun, the shadows growing from the bottom left of the painting, and the clear blue sky set this painting into motion. In my plein air acrylic paintings, I’m always aware of keeping color energy and allowing for open and lively brush marks. I try my best not to overwork those painting elements. They carry the secret to color vibration and movement.
Hide and Seek (acrylic on panel, 14 x 18)
I had my eye on this house as a painting subject for a long time. Figuring the time of year and time of day that best revealed part of the house through the line of trees took some time. It proved to be a wonderful subject in the late fall when the brush and foliage still had color but did not overtake the morning light on the white house peeking through here and there.
Two Painters in the Sun (acrylic on panel, 12 x 12)
During one of my workshops, I saw two students painting together as the light highlighted their umbrella, hats and painting accessories. The light, composition and color were so intoxicating I could not resist getting it down in paint!
Virginia Symphony Golden Hour (acrylic on panel)
I was standing in a field watching and waiting for the Virginia Symphony to arrive for an evening of beautiful music and a voice in my head said, “Don’t wait! Start painting!” I listened to that voice and then good things started to happen; the glow of the evening was upon us. Once the music started, my brushwork became invigorated. Letting our intuition lead us can drive creativity to new heights!
Zion Poplars Baptist Church (acrylic on panel)
I have been working on a series of long-view paintings. This scene, lit with the afternoon light, had such a glow. Working with acrylic, I knew I could freeze the light quickly before it faded. I added some spontaneity to the tree line in the background with a large brush loaded with flowing acrylic colors. When depicting organic subjects such as trees, I try to put some of the greens down in an unmixed fashion; this keeps them alive. The feeling of realism is there even with the limited suggestion of detail.
Visit Joe Gyurcsak to see how the artist puts his quick plien air Helpful Hints to work as he captures early morning light using an economy of steps while painting on-site at a local farm.
Learn more about Utrecht Artists’ Acrylic Colors and find all featured materials at BLICK Art Materials.