Plein air at Halfmoon Bay, California, 2022 quick painting
Plein air at Halfmoon Bay, California, 2022; All images by Hsin-Yao Tseng

Quick painting trains our reflexes and judgment; it improves the observation of the eyes and drawing skills of the hand.

Pochade: Building Skills Through Quick Painting

By Hsin-Yao Tseng

Pochade (pōˈshäd) is a French word that refers to a type of sketching technique used when painting. This word is often used today to describe a portable plein air easel box known as a pochade box.

Many great artists share their painting methods, their process and materials, and the way in which they develop a painting to a complete state. Their personal philosophies and techniques are wonderful disciplines to know and learn from. However, to most beginner students and artists, before jumping into a big canvas with the intent to create a finished piece, I suggest developing the habit of practicing quick studies—pochades—by painting from a live model or going out to do some plein air painting.

As technology has improved, the DSLR camera, compact camera and cellphone have become reliable tools, often used to record an inspirational moment to be used as a reference for a painting. This has proven to be a great resource when creating a work of art. However, I notice many students who can paint from photo references very well, yet struggle when painting from life. Therefore, I suggest first becoming familiar with observing and painting subjects from life. Sketch often and do quick paintings as studies for more finished pieces.

pochade painting Plein air at Point Lobos, Carmel, California, 2016
Plein air at Point Lobos, Carmel, California, 2016

Craig Nelson provided a tremendous amount of valuable knowledge in his Quick Studies class, which helped me understand the importance of practicing painting with limited time. I still find doing quick paintings to be really useful and I would like to not only introduce this painting practice, but also to suggest its use by those who are not familiar with it.

In Chinese painting, the traditional emphasis on simple line and value is a concept taken directly from sketching techniques by Chinese artists. Many Chinese paintings appear to be a refined form of sketching. From Qi Baishi and Ren Bonian, the great masters of Chinese painting from the late Qing Dynasty, to the twentieth century modern impressionist and expressionist, Chang Dai Chien, their works are excellent examples of this approach.

In their subjects, flowers and birds are unique in their varied poses and different perspectives. The minimal lines capture the life character of the subjects regardless of their dimensions. The effect of these paintings leaves the beholder humbled and in awe. It is surprising to think that these landscapes, flowers and birds are actually sketches!

The fusion of sketching with rich imagination may be considered the aesthetic essence of Chinese paintings. I find this same canon in Western oil painting. The freer brushstrokes and the indicative marks are what we are looking for in a quick painting, especially when we are doing the quick sketch from life.

quick painting, Plein air painting at Ocean Beach, 2015
Plein air painting at Ocean Beach, 2015

What is Quick Painting?

Quick painting is hard to define and cannot be quantified in terms of time. In my own experience, when you paint from a live model, painting time ranges from thirty minutes to two hours or so. Quick painting calls for extreme energy and focus. Usually these paintings are executed in small format, which captures the essence of the subject without details—an overall impression is captured. Plein air paintings completed in less than one hour can be considered sketches as well. Basically, all quick paintings share one common characteristic: conciseness.

Why Quick Painting From Life?

Quick painting allows ideas to be explored without falling into the habit of relying on copying photo references. The benefits of quick painting as a practice and study become very helpful to learn before attempting larger finished paintings.

I have come to find a lot of students spend a long time in their studio and make little progress. In quick painting, you will learn how to simplify a lot of details you observe from life by selecting and adjusting values and colors into a variety of shapes in a simple way. You will train your eye to mix colors accurately and develop better control over your brushes. This leads to creating nice bold brushwork in a short time without over-blending edges. In fact, with quick painting you will discover and learn everything you need to know about how to paint efficiently.

Plein air painting at Cypress Grove, Carmel, California, 2016
Plein air painting at Cypress Grove, Carmel, California, 2016

Here are some suggestions I’ve learned from my experiences and from instructors on how to do quick paintings.

1. What’s Your Intent?

Always have intent before you start any piece. Take a look around your subject, discovering anything that interests you. What do you want to emphasize in this piece today? Play with the concept, composition, lighting, color palette, texture (paint application), etc.

2. Don’t Overdo the Painting

Set a time limit for quick painting (let’s say 60 minutes). The time limit forces you to cover almost everything on your canvas within the time frame, and it sharpens your mind! If you keep changing and overworking a painting you will lose the freshness of the paint. On location light conditions change nearly every two hours, so first try to establish the larger shapes (light and shadow pattern) and then address the details of those areas. Otherwise, you may end up chasing the constantly changing shapes of the light and shadows and will never be satisfied with your painting.

3. From Fast Speed to Slower Refinement

In the beginning, try to work fast and capture the placement of your composition by designing the light and dark value patterns. Everything is still in the two-dimensional stage at this point. When you are about to apply more accurate color notes and start modeling the form, you may then slow down a little bit, but avoid details during this stage as well.

Save the last two or three minutes for the final detail indication—the focal point. Look for the dark accent and the highlight area and emphasize them in this focal area. Even if you still have some other area of the canvas uncovered, working on your focal point will help your quick painting have a finished look.

4. Challenge Yourself to Use Bigger Brushes

Avoid the trap of using a number zero sable brush when you should be massing in paint with a larger brush. After you establish the major placement of your subject with a smaller brush, take this opportunity to improve your synthetic view with a larger brush. Depict volumes by interlocking planes of colors, rather than resorting to a linear approach. Consider the different value and color patterns of each mass as you slowly sculpt the forms and volumes with paint.

5. Always Squint Your Eyes at Your Subject

Squinting simplifies the details and allows you to see the big shapes and value pattern of the subject. Also, you can get the sense of lost and found edges.

6. Stand Back From Your Painting Frequently

Moving away from your painting allows you to see the unity of the whole piece, which prevents you from overworking small detailed areas and from making unnecessary brushwork. Many times students will overwork details and fuss with edges because they are too focused on one area without seeing the overall effect of the painting.

7. Trust Your Memory and First Instinct

Observe the subject as a whole scene. Remember that in a quick painting there isn’t sufficient time to perfect proportions and details. Instead, try painting a small area after each glance. This is a process of rapid observation and memorization.

In other words, half of the work in quick painting depends on memory and your first sense. This is part of the sketching technique and also what makes the approach click if you understand it. Many people who aren’t able to paint using the memory of their observation end up painting without specific intent behind every brushstroke and ultimately begin to feel the pressure of time. Improving your quick painting ability will be a challenge, until you are able to reinterpret what you observe from memory with efficient brushwork.

8. Approach Quick Painting as an Excercise

A more relaxed approach will lead to freer brushstrokes. Don’t worry if the piece doesn’t turn out great—remember, it is just a study! Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Every time you make a mistake it leads to an improvement in the next painting.

9. Practice Often

Painting is art and culture as much as it is a type of skill. All skills follow the rule that “practice makes perfect.” Without practice, how can you become good at something? There are no real shortcuts to create a great piece of work, even if it is just a sketch study.

My spiritual idol Michael Jordan says, “I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed. Just play, have fun, and enjoy the game.” To that I add, “Just keep practicing, have fun painting, and enjoy the happiness!” Don’t be afraid to fail or make mistakes; if you are afraid to try something out, you will never find the beauty of treasure!

3 Pochade Portraits:

Live demo of a quick portrait painting
Live demo of a quick portrait painting
"Red Dredlocks" (2017, oil on panel, 10 x 10 in.) by Hsin-Yao Tseng
“Red Dredlocks” (2017, oil on panel, 10 x 10 in.) by Hsin-Yao Tseng
"Yellow Vest" (2016, oil on canvas, 16 x 12 in.) by Hsin-Yao Tseng
“Yellow Vest” (2016, oil on canvas, 16 x 12 in.) by Hsin-Yao Tseng

In Conclusion

Whenever I see my old quick paintings done on location or from life, my thoughts fly back to those bygone years. The people, places and events recorded in these studies are therefore a record of my own life. To me, these “images” feel far more direct than written records, and are taken far more to heart. I know some galleries and collectors probably won’t find these works sellable, but in my opinion, these artworks are the most emotional, direct, and honest works by an artist. These works are for your own collection. Maybe a quick painting is not one of your best works, but it is a real connection between you and the environment or model, capturing the essence of that brief moment.

Plein air painting at June Lake, California, 2016
Plein air painting at June Lake, California, 2016

My ongoing challenge is learning how to say more while still being able to simplify. Less is more! Simplicity is the highest goal achievable when you have overcome all difficulties. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art. I think doing quick paintings is a good practice that helps me achieve my artistic goals.

Finally, I always keep in mind what artist Alex Kanevsky, a guest lecturer at the Academy of Art University, said in 2010: “If you are not excited about what you paint, then your paintings won’t excite the viewer either.” Always remind yourself why you paint, and paint from your heart. If you are tired of doing gallery works or a series of works, you may always come back to the basic fun exercise: Pochade painting!

"Fishermens Wharf" (2017, oil on panel, 9 x 12 in.) by Hsin-Yao Tseng
“Fishermens Wharf” (2017, oil on panel, 9 x 12 in.) by Hsin-Yao Tseng

Connect with Hsin-Yao Tseng:
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