Plein air painting using broad brushstrokes
Aimee's setup for a plein air painting of birch trees, using broad brushstrokes

In “Plein Air Techniques for Artists: Principles and Methods for Painting in Natural Light,” award-winning artist and respected workshop instructor Aimee Erickson demystifies how to capture a variety of light effects and guides you in strengthening your plein air skills through practice. The following is a brief excerpt:

What To Do If You Don’t Have An Idea

by Aimee Erickson

Try doing less. Limiting some aspect of your scope has the effect of sparking creativity. You can introduce physical limitations, limits to your palette or stylistic approach, or what tools you use.

• Paint with your non-dominant hand.
• Paint with your back to the subject and limit the number of times you can turn to look at it.
• Set a time limit. Try twenty minutes, or less, and reduce the number of decisions you make to fit.
• Work small. On a big canvas, mark off a small box in the corner and do a mini painting.
• Use a single big brush on a small canvas.
• Do the entire painting with a palette knife—or a credit card.
• Work in black and white only.
• Choose a limited palette that has no relation to your subject.
• Limit yourself to four colors only.
• Find something very small to paint—a single well-lit object or a color relationship.
• Make thumbnails and design sketches instead of something more ambitious.
• Paint a familiar subject.
• Make an abstract color study.
• Make vertical brushstrokes only, or horizontal brushstrokes only, or all diagonal brushstrokes.
• Use a toned canvas and keep all your brushstrokes from touching each other; then, make an exception.

Technique: Using Broad Brushstrokes

The painting below demonstrates the efficient use of a very broad brush. I had very little time before dinner, but I’d been passing these birch trees daily and the moment had come.

I had with me a 6-inch (15.2-cm) wide hardware-store paintbrush with soft bristles. Looking at the complex patterning on the tree trunks, I figured I could use that wide brush, in a horizontal stroke, to put in all the darks at once, as a broken pattern, maybe even with a single stripey brushstroke, and then add grass and white birch bark to make an illusion of different-sized trees. It worked!

I tend to not be a detail painter, and all those dark markings on the birch trunks would be mighty discouraging if I had to paint them with a rigger.

Aimee Erickson, "Birches of Volzhkiy Priboy," oil on linen, 15 3/4 x 23 2/3 in.
Aimee Erickson, “Birches of Volzhkiy Priboy,” oil on linen, 15 3/4 x 23 2/3 in.

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