Plein air painting of abstract landscape and cloudy sunset sky by Canadian Artist Painter Melissa McKinnon
“From Here I Can Go Anywhere” Plein air painting of abstract landscape and cloudy sunset sky by Canadian Artist Painter Melissa McKinnon

On landscape painting > Canadian artist Melissa McKinnon, known for her landscapes with bold colors and thick textures, shares how to push out of your comfort zone on your next plein air painting session.

By Melissa McKinnon

You can often find me in my home studio in Calgary, Canada, creating large-scale abstract landscape paintings with bold colour and thick layers of three-dimensional texture. Our long Canadian winters and ever-changing weather make it challenging to maintain a consistent year-round plein air practice​, but I try to paint outdoors as much as possible, especially while travelling.

Along with my husband and two daughters, I enjoy taking several trip​s a year internationally and throughout North America. Painting as I go allows me to capture the beauty of inspiration as it strikes, and it ultimately becomes a memento of our experience.

For me, plein air and landscape painting allows me to break out of my normal studio routine and challenge myself to see the world from a fresh perspective. I use my outdoor paintings as simple studies with no particular destination in mind. I allow myself a lot of freedom to experiment and take risks — no inner critic allowed! The added challenge of working small and under a time constraint allows me to capture the atmosphere, colours, and textures of a location quickly and intuitively.

Related Article > 6 Ways to Silence Your Inner (Art) Critic

Landscape painting in Italy
McKinnon’s plein air setup while painting in Sorrento, Italy

Over the years I’ve experimented with different mediums and techniques. I started with a small sketchbook and a selection of pencils and pens which soon evolved into a travel set of watercolours so I could incorporate my passion for colour. Wanting more opportunity to add layers and texture, I now have a full set of plein air acrylic essentials that I take with me wherever I go. I’ll share what’s in my travel kit, as well as some tips for challenging yourself to experiment and incorporate dynamic colour into your work.

Plein air painting of abstract landscape and cloudy sunset sky by Canadian Artist Painter Melissa McKinnon
Plein air painting of abstract landscape and cloudy sunset sky by Canadian Artist Painter Melissa McKinnon

What to Bring For Landscape Painting en Plein Air

Plein air abstract
“Dreaming of Being Seaside”
Plein air painting of abstract landscape and cloudy sunset sky by Canadian Artist Painter Melissa McKinnon

I enjoy painting with acrylics for several reasons: they dry quickly, they can be used on a variety of surfaces (paper, board, canvas), and they work well to create soft, blended areas as well as thick impasto texture with a palette knife.

Paring down your supplies is crucial when travelling, especially if you plan on exploring multiple cities or countries. I pack the following into a small carry-on suitcase:

My essential plein air kit includes:

• small lightweight portable easel and tripod
• loose-leaf paper and pencil for sketching thumbnail images to work out the composition and value before I begin painting
• raw canvas, panels, or wood boards
• 6″x 9″ stay-wet palette
• limited palette of paint tubes
• Golden molding paste or gel medium to thicken my paint to create thick layers of impasto texture
• water container, 3 to 4 brushes in a variety of sizes, palette knife, paper towels, bulldog clips to secure your painting to your easel, sunhat, and an apron.
• additional mediums to experiment with if you choose, watercolours, pastels, charcoal, conte, etc.

Abstract plein air
“Summer Storm”
Plein air painting of abstract landscape and cloudy sunset sky by Canadian Artist Painter Melissa McKinnon

5 Tips to Add More Colour and Creativity to Your Plein Air Painting

1. Change Up Your Size
For example, if you usually paint 8×10, challenge yourself to create a series of micro minis. The small scale will force you to solidify a strong composition and use your brushstrokes wisely. Or you could try your hand at something larger, like a 16×20. Working at a larger scale will challenge you to work faster, more intuitively, and cover more area with your brushstrokes before the paint dries or the light changes. Changing the size of your substrate will offer a myriad of challenges to you as an artist and will help keep your work fresh.

I often use my small plein air paintings as sketches to capture the raw feeling of the environment, and the colours and textures that initially caught my eye. Then, when I’m back in the studio I’ll use the studies as inspiration for larger works of art. I love to paint BIG, often up to 6 or 7 feet wide and I enjoy the challenge of translating the small plein air sketches into large-scale completed paintings.

I prefer to paint large because there is so much room to explore colour transitions and textures, and working on a small canvas is a big challenge for me. Working on a small scale forces me to identify the most important elements of the scene; every decision I make while painting is intended to make these elements stand out.

In this sense, I believe it’s more than OK to use your artistic license to alter the composition, push values, deepen colours — all in order to strengthen your painting, which brings me to the power of colour . . .

2. Use a Different Palette of Colours Than You Are Used To

Colour is a major factor in my paintings, and I could spend a lifetime experimenting with colour mixing. Challenge yourself to use a different combination of primaries and see how far you can push your colour mixing. Who knows? You might find your new favourite colour.

For my plein air palette, I use primarily Golden brand acrylic paints consisting of either a warm and cool version of red, yellow, and blue, plus titanium white OR each of the primary magenta, cyan, yellow, plus titanium white.

If I have room, I might also include green gold, cobalt teal, and quinacridone burnt orange to use as a transparent warm glaze.

There are so many methods to try if you’d like to expand your colour mixing ability – monochromatic, complementaries, spontaneous choices – have fun and experiment!

Portraying skies and clouds in art
“After the Storm”
Plein air painting of abstract landscape and cloudy sunset sky by Canadian Artist Painter Melissa McKinnon

3. Get Creative With Color

Many traditional plein air painters attempt to capture the scene exactly how it appears. In my world, colour is key to creative expression. Don’t be afraid to push your colour in terms of value, saturation, or imagination. Exaggerating the contrast between lights and darks, saturated and desaturated colours helps clarify your composition and add powerful visual interest to your art.

Plein air painting doesn’t always have to be representational or realistic in its appearance. For me, it’s about creating a dynamic composition, capturing the major elements of the scene I’m painting, and using mark making and color to express how the environment makes me feel. An orange sky, pink rocks, purple ocean — if you place your values correctly, it frees you up to get creative with colour and still create a successful painting.

Using a limited palette of paints and relying mainly on your ability to mix a wide variety of colours from them is an easy way to create harmony within your artwork, regardless of whether you prefer to paint realistically or a little bit more creatively.

4. Try Different Tools

Try brushes in a different size or shape, palette knives, or even add in some silicone catalyst tools for different effects and texture.

I usually start out with brushes to work out the composition and create a simple background to work from. However, I find that I tend to get fussy and start obsessing about the details too quickly. To keep the painting loose and fresh, I turn to my palette knives, which give me less control and more freedom of expression. I ask myself, What can I say with one swipe of my palette knife that I would usually have used five or six brushstrokes to express?

I also enjoy the variety of impasto marks and three-dimensional texture that I can create with palette knives. When light skims across the surface of the painting, all of these strokes and details come alive.

5. Try Adding Mixed Media in Your Landscape Painting

It can be fun and interesting to incorporate new mediums such as watercolour, acrylic, gouache, pastel, etc.

This summer I’ve been experimenting with mixed media landscapes using layers of acrylic, charcoal, and oil pastel, and I love the unexpected results.

Textural art
“Fondness for Grey”
Plein air painting of abstract landscape and cloudy sunset sky by Canadian Artist Painter Melissa McKinnon
Plein air in Italy
Melissa McKinnon painting en plein air in Sicily, Italy

Allow yourself to be free from your inner critic, especially when you are experimenting and trying something new. For me, plein air painting is an opportunity to try new ways of working and to loosen up and be free. It’s a way to capture the feeling and energy of a place, not just what it looks like. What makes it special? What colours stand out to you? Use the comment section below to tell us!

Melissa McKinnon is a contemporary abstract landscape painter living in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

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