A photograph of Tom Hughes painting an industrial scene,

Many studio painters are hesitant to paint outdoors because they fear their lack of control and comfort will lead to failure. British artist Tom Hughes writes about his initial plein air painting experiences in an article published in the digital edition of the July 2013 issue of PleinAir. We offer a summary of that article to assure others that their fears are quite normal.

“Clifton Bridge Toll Booths in Gusting Wind,” by Tom Hughes, 2013, oil, 12 x 9 in. Collection the artist

My first experience of painting plein air was on April 5, 2012 in Gloucester, UK. Prior to this date I had been making a living as a freelance illustrator, producing artwork for various magazines and books. I had a brief and failed attempt at becoming a painter back in 2005, painting portraits from photographs, but having zero training in fine art meant that my technical ability was crude, to say the least. What I lacked in basic knowledge of the craft I made up for in energy and enthusiasm, but six months of toil and struggle had left me broke and deflated, so I abandoned painting to pursue an illustration career full-time.

“Boy With Shirt Untucked, Clifton,” by Tom Hughes, 2013, oil, 12 x 9 in. Collection the artist

“Westmoreland House From Nine Tree Hill,” by Tom Hughes, 2012, oil, 9 x 7 in. Collection the artist

“Yellow House, Hay-on-Wye,” by Tom Hughes, 2012, oil, 7 x 9 in. Collection the artist

Although I had trained as an illustrator and always made my living from it, deep down I had always wanted to be a painter. In 2012 I decided to give it shot, and I was determined to do it right. I told my friend Antony Bridge, himself an established plein air painter, about my plans to start painting again and “do it properly this time.” He immediately suggested that I join him on a trip to Gloucester to paint outside for the day. A “first time” attempt at anything is often a transformative experience that can never be repeated. My first time started with an acknowledgement of just how hard it is to paint.

If you want your artistic ego destroyed in a single hour, plein air painting is a good place to start. It seemed that everything I knew, or thought I knew, about art had vanished. Nothing made sense or translated out in the bright, sunlit 3D world of actual reality. I couldn’t cope, everything overwhelmed me, and I was deeply humbled. Antony and I went for coffee after the first piece was over to warm up and chat. I was appalled by what I had produced, but utterly exhilarated. It was as if I had suddenly glimpsed behind the curtain and nothing would ever be the same again. Over the following months, I got better. I went out more and more with Antony and then started doing my own trips around Bristol, slowly learning new skills and having mini technical breakthroughs, checking things off my internal “How do I…?” list as I tackled different subjects, at different scales, in different lighting conditions. I bought more equipment, too — an umbrella to shield me from the sun and rain, thermal layers, hiking boots, better brushes, and artists’-quality paint. The work steadily improved, but my confidence didn’t.

“St Mary Redcliff in Variable, Irritating Weather,” by Tom Hughes, 2012, oil, 9 x 7 in. Collection the artist

“The Repertor,” by Tom Hughes, 2012, oil, 9 x 7 in. Collection the artist

I continued to persevere, and one year to the day after my first attempt at plein air painting I went back to Gloucester, where it all started, and so I could tackle the same scene again from exactly the same spot and measure my progress between my first and my most recent painting. I wanted to test my newfound skills to gauge any technical progress I had made and felt it would be a nice ceremonial ending to the most challenging, difficult, enlightening, and rewarding year of my artistic career. The two paintings are quite different, with clear progress being made in drawing, tone, and color sense. Thankfully, I seem have learned something. 

Plein air has been a revelation to me. I feel I have learned more in one year than I could have done in 10 had I stayed in the studio working from photos. It has given me technical knowledge, new friends, exercise, great memories, and a new outlet for my creativity, one in which I see no end, or any real limit to. I am addicted to painting from life, or, more specifically, this lifestyle. One that I feel will keep me happy for many years to come. It’s been a blast. Onwards and upwards.


  1. Another interesting report, indicating that the plein air tradition is “alive and well,” — even during these tough economic times. This continues to be good news; very encouraging! I wonder, though, to what degree, if any, are established plein air artists modifying their choices and/or treatments of subjects because of the uncertain times? Are they feeling bolder, or more tentative? “Liberated,” or more “constricted”? More like “the pressure’s off,” or like it’s really on? And if such changes are happening, how are they manifesting themselves at events like Garrison’s “Artist on Location”? ‘Might be an interesting line of questioning to pursue in a future article. Just a thought. . .

  2. Dennis,
    We’re thinking along the same lines. I’ve just commissioned an article on marketing strategies for plein air events — whether to pick unusual subjects or local favorites, whether to price work high or low, how to work the crowd to get them interested in you and your paintings (name tags, business cards, brochures, etc), and whether awards have a positive impact on sales. The recent events may have been successful, but there are so many that artists need to go into them with a plan that will help them pay expenses and leave money in their pockets. Thanks, Steve


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