A common scene at the Plein Air Convention - artists of all levels and backgrounds painting together
A common scene at the Plein Air Convention - artists of all levels and backgrounds painting together

“By drawing and painting from life, artists learn to see ‘the divine quality’ of everything in nature.” ~ Carrie Curran

Carrie Curran is a professional artist who merges her passions for art, teaching, and business. At the 10th Annual Plein Air Convention & Expo (PACE), she led the popular Basics Course with exercises that focused on the principal foundations of the painting process. Here’s an exclusive look at some of Carrie’s tips for painting en plein air.

Plein Air Live - Carrie Curran
Carrie Curran during a Plein Air Live session

Which of the following painting tips will you put into practice? Share your answer in the blog comments for your chance to win a 10-tube set of Sennelier Finest Artists’ Oils, and a variety of paint brushes from Raphaël!

(Could Be New-to-You) Outdoor Painting Tips:

  1. Keep it simple – gear, sketches, limited palette
  2. Squint to eliminate detail and see value
  3. Value sketches are an essential tool
  4. Determine the focal point of the painting and emphasize with brighter chroma, strongest contrast in value, most detail, or sharpest edges
  5. Measure for proportion, distant objects are much smaller than you think
  6. Pre-tone your canvas and pre-mix secondary colors
  7. Paint dark to light values, use thin paint to thick paint, create large shapes to small shapes
  8. Observe and record gradients of colors and value in all masses to create depth and movement
  9. “Protect” the darks you first painted in to avoid your painting turning into all medium values
  10. Stand back a lot to compare the scene to your painting
  11. “Lay paint on,” pushing the brush too hard picks up previous layers
  12. Don’t be afraid to use paint
  13. Experiment with holding your brush differently
  14. Clean your palette off before finishing with highlights
  15. Practice blind contour drawing to help you see and record the character of things as well as negative shapes
  16. Keep drawing small sketches of anything, anytime, anywhere

17. Rarely do we find a perfect composition. Artists have a license to move objects in order to make a more pleasing scene.

18. Stay present while painting, you will once you get going / flowing

19. Once you’re set up in the field, make sure to breathe, relax, and have fun!

Connect with Carrie Curran at carriecurran.com.

*A random winner (must be a U.S. resident) will be chosen and contacted by August 31, 2023. The prize includes a 10-tube set of Sennelier Finest Artists’ Oils; and from Raphaël Brushes: Four brushes in the new D-Brush shape, a 2-in-1 brush with a flat side for applying paint and a rounded side for blending, two d’Artigny hog bristle brushes, and two Textura synthetic brushes. Good luck!


  1. The outdoor paintings tips are a great reminder for all painters. There are many that I need to heed but 12 and 19 hit home.

  2. I will try holding my brush differently…have not been in the habit of doing that and am interested to see what happens!

  3. Most of them I was aware of but since I paint with watercolor not all apply. Still good advice especially keep it simple. carrying a lot of stuff is tiring for this 79 year old!

  4. Value sketches are an essential tool….for me it’s probably the most important. The value sketches help to organize and simplify the design and image ( especially NOTAN). Value holds everything together.

  5. #9 Protect your darks. This is the one I really need to employ. I tend to layer, layer, layer and end up with all high chroma mid tones and then have to try to recreate the darks.

  6. I had to laugh when reading the suggestion to “Squint.” I have always been overly preoccupied with details. One day I was visiting an art museum with a friend and we saw Monet’s “Fishing Boats at Sea.” I was standing about 2 feet back and was actually appalled at the lack of detail in the work. The two boats were basically black featureless blobs in a sea that was painted with three basic colors. You could see the rough unblended strokes laid down with a broad brush and there was no detail at all. I said with some disgust, “I could paint that!” My friend studied it too and we were both equally unimpressed. After finishing a close inspection of all the paintings, I turned around and caught a glimpse of the sailboat painting from across the room. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The boats looked like they were moving and the water was glowing with colors. There was a distant boat that hung in the mist that I hadn’t even seen, and the whole painting seemed to be lit from within. For a moment, I thought maybe I had missed this particular painting. But then I realized it was the work I had so arrogantly stated that I could paint! I had forgotten this experience until I saw the suggestion to “squint.” I plan on doing a lot of it in my next plein air session. Thank you for the memory.

    • As in all things in LIFE…the most powerful and strongest
      statements, are those expressed in the simplest manner.
      But it also takes a good mind, to observe this and appreciate it,
      and better yet, to learn from it!

  7. 16. Keep drawing small sketches of anything, anytime, anywhere – I don’t do enough of this and I really should start carrying small art supplies to start practicing scene recordings as I always did as a kid.

  8. After studying for the past 4 years everything Plein air, I still struggle with “Determine the focal point of the painting and emphasize with brighter chroma, strongest contrast in value, most detail, or sharpest edges” I’ll often back up from a painting thinking that’s it’s blah… I believe #4 will keep that from happening. Great advice

  9. I loved all of Carrie’s tips, but number one for me is #19 (be sure to breathe, relax, and have fun”! After that I plan to apply #9 and #13 with purpose. Honestly, there are none that I’d want to leave out!

  10. Number 3, for me. I tend to want to jump right into the painting. Doing value sketches first could really help me work out my composition on the front end, I think.

  11. Determine the focal point of the painting and emphasize with brighter chroma, strongest contrast in value, most detail, or sharpest edges. Overlooking or underestimating the focal point seems an obvious mistake, but is the cause of many unclear choices in constructing a dynamic drawing or paintong.

  12. I am familiar with all of these tips, but I will put more effort into “number 16 Keep drawing small sketches of anything, anytime, anywhere”. My sketchbook practice is kinda “sketchy” and I really need to focus on it more.

  13. Value sketches-it is so easy to try and skip this step in the excitement of capturing the experience of the scene before me-followed by cleaning my palette off before painting in the highlights. It’s sometimes hard to leave those highlights until last, and making myself clean the palette off first will ensure I do just that

  14. “Protect your darks”! As a previous watercolor painter i tend to fear my darks. Thinking of protecting them is a good way to ensure I have maintained what I had in a value sketch.

  15. I often jump right into a painting without a thumbnail sketch or a value sketch. When this happens it is easy to get distracted and off course from the original inspiration and composition. It is always well worth the time to make a preliminary sketch and value study. This original reference brings me back on course when my painting and my focus begin to wander.

  16. !, 13 and 14!! I usually do all the others.
    1: I always feel I need to feel that I have everything, and that I might not want something while in the field, so in goes a lot more than I should take. It works both ways, there is more there than I need but I don’t feel comfortable unless I have those extra things and then I might not paint so well.
    13 and 14 I need to remember, as once I get going, I forget to change my brushes (see No. 1) to vary my marks and I never clean my palette while in the field, to touch up anything with the colors I have mixed and used, when I get home.

  17. As an enthusiastic plein air painter, I totally agree with Carrie Curran’s team of 19 tips. They are simple, practical and encouraging for new and experienced painters alike.

    I would like to suggest one more tip:

    # 20: Remember to leave your plein air spot just as you found it, with no trace of litter footprints behind.

  18. I think one of the things I will use in painting en plein air is to squint when looking at the subject\s I am painting to see the values and color placement. I never do this and I have heard of doing it before, but I have always forgotten to when I am painting. I also think that putting the brush in your other hand would be kinda hard to want to do, it would be like relinquishing control and giving it to a toddler, aaahhh scary! Lol!!

  19. 12. Use more paint because the difference between a drawing and a painting is… paint! I like making marks, brush strokes as I am working, but often simply don’t use enough paint. Something to remember and work on.

  20. All great reminders, for sure. I need to really embrace #12–Don’t be afraid to use paint. Whenever I remind myself of this and really squeeze out a lot of paint, my paintings are so much more successful. Why I don’t do it consistently is a mystery to me.

  21. Stay present: Art is like love, worthless without the artist’s heart and soul. And keep drawing small sketches of anything, anytime, anywhere. They create indelible memories of the interactions you have had with the world – as only you have seen it – and the private world that you choose to reveal.

  22. Value studies. When I do them, my paintings are more cohesive. My problem is that I’m always trying to beat time, so I “do them in my head. “

  23. These are very valuable tips! I will definitely focus on putting into practice #6, “Pre-tone your canvas and pre-mix secondary colors”, and #13, experimenting with holding my brush differently. I’d like to see how holding the brush in a variety of ways will show in the strokes or the feel of painting.

  24. #10 “Stand back and compare your painting to the scene…” This one seems so simple and yet, I continually fail to do so. I get so intense in my painting efforts that I don’t step back till the very end when I’m packing up. Then sometimes I’m shocked at how my painting looks from further back (and often not “shocked” in a good way!). It would also help to avoid backaches if I were to take more breaks, sitting down once in a while, and lessening the intensity of my painting efforts.

  25. This is truly an amazing list. Perfect for me as I am going on my first plein air personal 4 day trip. This list is exactly what I need to stay focused and make this work, thank you! I will check with it am and evening to see how I did! Terry ann swanson blakemore

  26. There are several tips that I need to follow , but the particular one is number 9. Saving the darks is something I really need to improve, especially when I when I am doing plein air paintings.

  27. All of these are important to keep in your mind. I should keep better track of my darks and values. Sketching is a joy, having the materials is an easy fix, creating the habit well worth it!

  28. I think #17 is what I need to do more! I’m to the point where I DON’T feel I have to paint in the exact colors and arrangement of shapes that I see in the landscape! I don’t have to “record”; I want to respond and interpret the scene. And #1, keep it simple! Don’t paint the whole scene! Hone in on interesting shapes, color and light! Thanks for the insight!

  29. #8 Next time out, after value sketching and while laying in my values, I want to use a card to record the colors I see. This will give me a better perspective on the distance in my painting. Love all the tips, thank you.

  30. Super list, Carrie must be a wonderful teacher as well as artist! I need to keep in mind #7 saving the darks and #12 don’t be afraid to use paint. Thanks for sharing.

  31. focal point of the painting and emphasize with brighter chroma, strongest contrast in value, most detail, or sharpest edges. This tip stands out as a reminder when painting. It’s easy to get caught up in the overall scene and give everything equal viewing. When done, something needs to stand out above all others!

  32. These are great tips. I already use some of them. As a watercolorist, some don’t work for me.
    Here are my choices: 1-4, 8,10,12,14,16,18 and 19.
    Took the essential’s day at PACE. had fun and learned a lot.

  33. I will remember this tip – “lay the paint on.” Four simple words? Yes and no. You can lay the paint on if you are confident in your composition. So a healthy plan for getting to that point quickly has to address composition and value. Then a limited palette has to include the color notes you explored while creating your work. Then have fun and lay the paint on!

  34. #9 is one I have to concentrate on. It is so easy to get mesmerized by the activity of painting and to keep going and actually loose those darks and therefore loosing the contrast in your painting. But I will have to say that more work has to be put in to the sketchbook, keeping gear simple and all the bits of wisdom here which I have to keep reminding myself of. Thanks for gathering it in one location. I will print it and post it on my studio wall to keep reminding myself!

  35. I could stand to practice many of these great tips, such as #4 emphasizing the focal point, but I really need to work on certain ones, such as #10 standing back a lot, and #12 not being afraid to use paint!

  36. Holding my brush differently is a must. When I think to do that, it makes all the difference.
    Also need to clean my pallet before those highlights!
    Thanks for the great tips!

  37. Great tips! I will try to remember #11 and #12. I tend to be skimpy with paint. I’m going to put a note on my easel to remind me! I’m

  38. Definitely #1 so I can get to #19!!!! In my first forays in plein air packing gear, it was like everything plus the kitchen sink!!!! I spent more time setting up than painting! Simple is better. A limited palette is key.

  39. Tip 19 is very important for me especially during A Klein air event. I will remind myself to breathe, relax and
    have fun. Painting the world around me is a joyous occasion of grace!

  40. #1-keeping it simple. I want to bring everything but that gets pretty darn heavy, especially when hiking. Simple setup, simple shapes, simple values, and limited color. #19 is also a good reminder that we are blessed to be able to paint, go out, and have fun!

  41. Could be “New to You”, though they weren’t to me, but honestly a copy of these 19 tips should be kept handy and read before setting up your easel every single time!

  42. I need to work more on #2, squint – or else take off my glasses when I’m looking at my scene.
    I like the idea of #15 – contour drawing and #16 – sketch all the time. I realize I’ve wasted a lot of time watching TV and I should be taking that time to draw while I’m just sitting there.

  43. I have never painted en Plein air, so I feel way behind. I am going to print these tips out to read and reread (like when I am in line at bank, waiting at doctor office, etc.). I have heard of some and will start painting outside in my yard just to get the hang of it. Thank you for these tips!

  44. To all the incredible artists, your passion and commitment to your craft are truly inspiring! No matter which tips you choose to practice, remember that the journey of creating art is just as fulfilling as the final masterpiece. Embrace every stroke, observe keenly, and let your creativity soar! Thank you all for making this blog community a vibrant and supportive space. Best of luck with the giveaway, and let’s make sure to see everyone at The Great Smoky Mountain for PACE24! Carrie

  45. After converting to oils after more than 20 years using watercolor as my primary painting medium (I’ve always loved to draw with pencil, charcoal, ink) I find 7 the most necessary to incorporate from all these great tips. By virtue of my watercolorist’s approach (light to dark) it’s challenging to begin with darks and by virtue number 9 is suffering. Number 14 is also another of all these tips I will apply more diligently.

  46. Number 17 is great advice for me. It help me to be more creative. Also number 14 keeping my palette clean is big for me. All the tips are very helpful. Thank you!!

  47. Wow! Number 11 really resonates with me. As a beginning-beginner (have painted less than 5 paintings), I’m finding it frustrating when painting wet-into-wet. Today, when I try again, I’ll remember to gently place the paint instead of stroking the brush on my surface. I love these tips! Thanks a bunch!

  48. All of these tips are very much appreciated, and so are the replies you posted. I’ve been painting in watercolor and have been hesitant to try oils, or plein air. These tips will be very helpful in my attempts to begin that journey. Thank you!

  49. I tend to push my paint around and over work the surface, so I will practice laying my paint on the surface of my canvas .

    Tip 11. “Lay paint on,” pushing the brush too hard picks up previous layers

  50. So many wonderful reminders. I am a miser when it comes to paint. I will honestly try to put out more paint and load up my big brush, while remembering to squint. Thank you for sharing these great tips.

  51. I practice pretty much all of these tips, with the exception of 14. I guess I never thought of cleaning my palette off before mixing and applying highlights before–but what a great idea to keep those highlights bright and unadulterated by muddy mixes! My new, useful tip of the day, so thanks–and I could really use those brushes (mine are worn) and paints (those are pros)!

  52. #2. Squint to eliminate detail and see value – This is a good reminder for me because I love to jump into detail and need to be reminded to stop and see the shapes and values first!

  53. No.1 Years ago went to paint with a group. We didn’t have the right gear, too many supplies. It was a negative experience for everyone. Following all of the wonderful artists on Plein Air Live learned it didn’t have to be that way.

  54. It’s definitely #9 for me! Protecting the darks to avoid my paintings turning into all medium values is my biggest challenge in painting plein air. I start every painting with that goal in mind. Then somewhere around the half way point, I first forget and use my “brushes for lights” on the dark areas. Then I compound the issue by getting brush happy and over blend. Ugghh!

  55. 14 is one of those “why didn’t I think of that?” items. I usually wait a few days (at least overnight) before adding highlights in the studio. But for painting plein air I am looking forward to trying that in the field.

  56. #15 I never thought to use blind contour drawing in plein air painting and to focus attention on negative spaces which will become more apparent with this exercise. I will start there and continue to add this as an exercise. It will reduce the complexity I see when I arrive at a scene I want to paint, thanks for a great idea.

  57. Great tips! I use them all but add
    . Take champagne and olives!

    As an Australian subscriber and active contributor and PastelLive attendee etc it is very annoying to see prizes limited to US residents.

  58. Wow! So many good ones! But, if I had to narrow it down to two tips that I will try, it will be number 6, Pre-tone your canvas and pre-mix secondary colors and number 8, Observe and record gradients of colors and value in all masses to create depth and movement. Thanks for all of these great reminders while painting en plein air!

  59. No. 12, “Don’t be afraid to use paint”. I have a tendency to skimp on paint (because of the expense and our financial situation), and I need to learn to be more generous with it–I see this tip over and over again but am having a hard time making it happen. I also love #15, the blind contour drawing suggestion — I would never have thought of that as a pre-painting exercise.

  60. ALL of them! I work primarily in pastel but all of Carrie’s tips apply. #18 resonates with me to “Stay present while painting, you will once you get going / flowing.” I’ve printed these tips out. Such great reminders. It’s a keeper! Thanks!

  61. They all ring true. 16 and 19 are my favorites. Sketching frequently, keeps me observing, capturing and recording moments. “Breathe, relax and have fun” is key to a satisfying experience, and helps conquer the many challenges of Plein Air painting!

  62. Oh boy such good advice. Mine will be #12 I’m so afraid of wasting paint and then #8 still learning and very appreciative of these blogs
    Thank you

  63. The reminder that it is rare for the composition to be perfect. That we will have to adjust/change it (most likely simplify). I tend to try to do it exactly the way it is, which usually does not work.

  64. I finally had time to slow down (during Covid) and found Eric and this wonderful group! I have practiced most of these tips but lapse in remembering and do need to be reminded!
    “Keeping my darks” improve when I step back
    but what I find needs the most attention are the sketches and value studies. I’ll forever be learning and loving all the tips that come to me! Thanks to you all!!

  65. Keep it simple! Do value sketches! Sketch a lot! Protect your darks, measure for proportion, and lay on the paint. Stay present, breathe, relax, and have fun! Thank you for all the great tips.

  66. 14. Clean your palette off before finishing with highlights
    9. “Protect” the darks you first painted in to avoid your painting turning into all medium values

    14. This is a very useful tip to remember when highlights need to be clean and crisp.
    9. This is also a must to achieve an interesting tonal range.(Notan Structure)
    “Protecting” is a good way to think about it.

    Thanks for sharing these tips Carrie!

  67. All great tips. Value studies and correct measuring Of distant objects are the things I notice when plein air painting.

  68. Numbers 14 and 16. Have never considered cleaning off the palette before beginning the highlights and will be giving it a try during my next plein air adventure. As far as drawing anything, anytime I will need to get back in the habit of it. It really does help your art.

  69. Mine is #11 “Lay paint on,” pushing the brush too hard picks up previous layers. I really struggle with leaving it alone! Thanks for the opportunity!

  70. Numbers 5 and 10.
    No. 5 Objects in the background are always smaller. Hard to remember here is the west where the mountains seem to touch the sky.
    No. 10 step back to view your painting. Helps you see the composition and overall success or failure of the painting.

  71. No. 7; especially large shapes to small shapes. In that regard I use the largest brush possible to lay in all shapes.

  72. I’m aware of mostly all these great tips but avoid Plein air because I end up disliking what I do. #9 protecting your darks is a great idea and doing blind contour drawing is something I’ll try. Wiping the palette clean is another smart idea for highlights. Thank you for these important tips! I need to remember #19 and relax and savor the moments.

  73. I really appreciated the reminder to protect your original darks to avoid an overall medium value painting at the end. This also helps if you like to keep some transparent shadows in your painting.

  74. How can I choose just one or two off this list. They’re all great! I need to print up this list and refer to it often. I first need to get out there and start drawing. After watching and reading your recommendations to get outside and paint, I bought and easel, and failed miserably. And stopped. I’ve put together a simple small bag to head out soon. So I’m ready to implement 1-5. I’m planning on succeeding this time with one small step at a time. I’m determined to get going with this.

  75. Here is my tip that I need to heed: Rarely do we find a perfect composition. Artists have a license to move objects in order to make a more pleasing scene. I seem to think that changing anything from its natural appearance is sacrilege. But no one knows or notices but the artist, and the improvement in the composition can make the painting a success.

  76. 16. Keep drawing small sketches of anything, anytime, anywhere

    I have my sketchbook with me often as I’m out and about, capturing scenes or people on the street, in parks and cafes and bars, at parades and other events, theater included. I have more than 300 sketchbooks of all sizes, many small ones. Some of the sketches serve as the inspiration for larger drawings and paintings. I find sketching taps a different part of your brain than most of our day-to-day activities, and that’s refreshing and renewing.

  77. The painting tip that stood out from all of the others was to practice blind contour drawing to help you see and record the character of things as well as negative shapes. I frequently practice blind contour drawing when I am drawing. I want to try to use that technique when I am doing plein air painting. I think this may help my plein air painting. Thanks for the great tips. I am going to make a copy of the tips and put them in my pochade box as a reminder. Thanks

  78. #16. Keep drawing small sketches of anything, anytime, anywhere. I have a sketchbook I started a few years ago but it should have been filled up by now. Just retired so gonna’ get to it!

  79. “Don’t be afraid to use paint.” This is the main tip I need to put into practice. I am always hesitant with my paints, especially at first. I understand that more paint will help my artwork come alive! Thank you for asking. 😊

  80. Lay paint on. I need to become mindful of using a softer touch when applying highlights. I have a tendency to paint “heavy handed”.

  81. No 1 is mine. Often times, and sometimes ALL the time the burden of carrying all the stuff means I don’t go. Consequently then #s 2-19 can’t even come into the practice. If #1 doesn’t happen then nothing else does. I didn’t even realize what’s causing my apprehension until I saw this list. Thank you Carrie

  82. #2. I tend to put too many details in, especially in the early stages. I’ll try squinting to simplify. #9. I have to work hard not to let my painting become “muddy” that’s all one value.


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