Plein-Air vs Studio Painting: Why I Paint Outdoors

When painting, I’m in the process of producing works I intend to exhibit.  Rarely do I experiment.  If I wanted to do this, I’d do it in a studio, workshop or academic setting (e.g. in a classroom). But I don’t really have a studio.  There is an area in our garage where I keep glazing, mats, paper, and easels… all my art supplies and tools.  But since I don’t paint there, I can’t really call it my “studio.” Neither do I call the small office inside my house a studio… the place where I have a desk, computer, printer, and piles of correspondence.

watercolor of creek and dock, watercolor long neck creek, transparent watercolor art

Click Picture to Purchase: "Long Neck Creek, St. Michael's Manor, MD" 11x30

I have no place reserved specifically for painting. My paint bucket with supplies, painting boards, paper, palette… my box of pigments, brushes and tools are generally somewhere out in the open, in my office, the front hall of our home, or the trunk of my car… ready to go wherever I’m going to paint… outdoors!

I rarely do any painting at home. When I leave the site where I’ve been painting, the painting’s done. It goes straight to my photographer for a digital image and proof.  Sometimes I’ll get slides made for future exhibits.  But nowadays, most exhibits prefer/require digital images. And this can be problematic because I’ll later want to exhibit the work I’ve done when I’m painting and traveling out there… and I may end up having the good fortune of selling one or two of these paintings before returning home where I’d typically get them photographed. Unfortunately, when you leave a painting with the buyer, it can be a challenge recovering it in order that you may get a photographic image of it. So I recommend you include a proviso allowing the artist (you!) to reproduce it digitally before the painting is actually delivered to the buyer. This way you don’t have to rely on other people to take it to a photographer, or you don’t have to worry about finding a local photographer to take an image before it is sold (this has caused me all kinds of problems: No photo, no image for your files! No image, nothing to submit to exhibits; no exhibits, no awards!). Again, without a digital image of the painting, there’s no record (outside of the painting itself, of course) of what you had accomplished!

Click to Purchase: "Pasture Gate at Lucas Road"

I view whatever studio work I’m able to accomplish as an opportunity to experiment.  Since I don’t do much experimenting when I’m painting outdoors, I need to experiment indoors.  In a studio situation, you can experiment with anything… new and different colors, techniques of painting, whatever… working quickly towards the completion of perhaps several paintings in the time it may take you to do but one such painting outdoors.


Outdoor painting takes more time to absorb everything that’s going on around you. None of these “distractions” occur while you’re painting indoors, particularly when the subject’s unreal (e.g., when you’re painting from a photograph or image of something).

When you’re painting outdoors, absolutely nothing’s left to your imagination. Everything’s real!  The experience of being there involves ALL your senses.  That’s precisely why I paint outdoors. It’s all about the “experience”: taking in everything around you!

Discovering a subject to paint is the first experience. Targeting elements of your composition is the next.  Then it’s about getting comfortable: nestling into your bucket seat and allowing the sun to shine down on you.  You begin to smell and hear things around you, observing how they change: the highlights, shadows, backlighting of leaves, the petals of flowers. You see how the sunlight passes through blades of grass; how shadows contrast with the brighter sunlight areas; how little twigs and branches capture the sun or shadows from their neighbors; and, how sunlight, colors and shapes of clouds are reflected on the water below.  You see wind moving over the surface of the water, deep shadows among the rocks and about the earth around your feet.  You see the intricate nature of plant life growing about you… and images in the distance of various colors and values. All these things are perhaps captured for an instant in a photograph, so you really don’t experience them as you would on site where they continue to evolve every moment you’re looking at them during your outdoor painting experience! That can be a challenge for some artists. They may have trouble sorting all these things out. But you have to learn how to do this is if you want to become a successful plein-air artist.


Click to Purchase: "Scene at Park in Palm Beach, FL"

While you paint outdoors, anything you do with your brush while removing pigment from palette and placing it on wet or dry paper becomes a conscious decision… and is never wrong, since the context in which you do everything always changes.  What’s important is being inspired to do something at the moment! This is generally impossible in a studio. You can simulate this experience painting in a studio while listening to music… since music, like nature, can inspire you. As a matter of fact, that’s how I was taught to paint in high school. Can you imagine what might happen if you painted outdoors with music!

The clue to successful outdoor painting is being able to transmit what you see with your eyes to your hands and then your brush. It doesn’t happen all the time, but it does happen a great deal… as I mix the pigments in my palette with the particular brush I’ve selected… lift the brush and subsequently place it on the paper. Inspired by what’s going on around me, captured by every sensing mechanism… my nostrils, eyes, ears and skin,… how could I ever fail to produce something of substance?  Given the proper circumstances, the right time of day… adequate time to paint… you’re bound to be successful! I am! Sometimes your painting will be exceptional!  Very rarely is it unacceptable. That’s why I paint outdoors! Nearly all these outdoor paintings are photographed, framed and exhibited. Not so with studio work. Some studio work may end up in an exhibit… as “successful” experiments, but nowhere as many as those that have been painted outdoors.

Douglas Stenhouse also wrote a book about watercolor painting.

“I decided to write about how I paint, not only to share my observations with others, but also, frankly, to do some self- examination. I wish I had done this earlier in my life! But then, how was I to know I’d benefit from doing so, certainly at a time when I had no aspirations of becoming a professional artist.” 

To learn more about Doug’s Watercolor Painting Book, click here. To purchase a signed copy, use the link below.

Douglas Simms Stenhouse, watercolor artist, transparent water color art, watercolor painter, painting with water colors