Kathleen Dunphy helps many artists through her workshops, and one gem from her instruction recently made the rounds in social media. She agreed to share her 10 “Plein Errors” — things plein air painters do that make success more difficult.

"Downriver," by Kathleen Dunphy, oil, 9 x 12 in.
“Downriver,” by Kathleen Dunphy, oil, 9 x 12 in.
"Indian Summer," by Kathleen Dunphy, oil, 12 x 12 in.
“Indian Summer,” by Kathleen Dunphy, oil, 12 x 12 in.

Here are Dunphy’s Plein Errors, delivered as David Letterman might:

No. 10: Forgetting to squint to eliminate detail and see values more clearly.

No. 9: Getting bogged down in detail instead of massing in the basic shapes.

No. 8: Painting over an incorrect passage and making mud instead of scraping down/wiping off that section to start over.

No. 7: Painting too large a canvas for the amount of time available before the light changes.

No. 6: Not mixing up enough paint and skimping on paint application.

No. 5: Giving up too early.

No. 4: Wiping off the entire painting in the field (your painting might just be better than you think it is…)

No. 3: Focusing on one area too long instead of seeing the entire design.

No. 2: Using small brushes at the start.

And the Number One reason why paintings fail: Not having a clear plan before you start!

"San Pasqual Valley Overlook," by Kathleen Dunphy, oil, 12 x 16 in.
“San Pasqual Valley Overlook,” by Kathleen Dunphy, oil, 12 x 16 in.
Dunphy's setup and "San Pasqual Valley Overlook" in progress
Dunphy’s setup and “San Pasqual Valley Overlook” in progress


  1. Kathleen is such a wonderful artist and even more wonderful is her willingness to share her ideas with other artists – thank you so much!

  2. Excellent ideas! I can relate to 2,3,6 & 9! I feel rushed when I paint and I don’t know why! I also have a problem painting lights over darks but I try to remember to block darks & lights separate!
    Thank You for posting this!

  3. Thank you so much for your “top ten”! It’s one thing to know these “10” ,, but it’s another thing to act on it. Gotta keep me on my toes! Ah yup!

  4. Perfectly said. Simple, easy reminders. And, I think I’ll follow Marcia Hirschy’s suggestion and print these “plein errors”, one for the plein air gear and one for the studio. Thanks for sharing, Kathleen.

  5. Thank you for your willingness to help other artists improve. I had always been one to*make it perfect* now I know better. I do the best I can and try not to criticize myself too harshly. It seems people who see my work like it and if I try to say *but I* they stop me and say there’s nothing wrong with it.
    I do a lot of painting in my cottage as I don’t get out much, I paint a lot in my yard and from my porch. Living in the mountain area where I am there is so much inspiration I don’t need to travel. When I do go out away from home I take my sketch pad or camera and paint when I get home.
    Thank you again for your generosity. God Bless you and keep you in His care.

    • Thank you for your willingness to help others to improve, A fault of mine was trying to *make it perfect*, I have since learned better.

      I live in a mountain area and do my painting from my cottage porch or yard I have a lot of inspiration all around.

      Thank you again for your your generosity. God Bless you and keep you in His care.

  6. Wow! Number 9 is got to be the toughest one to get around because when you arrive at the composition the first thing you see is detail. I guess that is why number 10 is so important.

  7. Great advice. I turned it around and still liked it:

    1. Have a clear plan.

    2. Use big brushes to start.

    3. Work on the overall design before focusing on any one area.

    4. Reserve judgment a while before wiping off your painting; it might be better than you thought.

    5. Don’t give up too soon.

    6. Mix up plenty of paint and don’t skimp on application.

    7. Choose a canvas size that you can finish before the light changes too much.

    8. Scrape off a serious mistake instead of trying to paint over it.

    9. Mass in the basic shapes first.

    10. Squint so you can see values more clearly

  8. Timely advice Kathleen, I hope you don’t mind me sharing this with my students this Saturday during my plein air workshop. One more I can add is to wipe the brush in between strokes, I see too many muddied plein air paintings.

  9. We all learn by doing, we all make mistakes, but that is how to learn! You have to practice almost everyday, don’t ever be afraid to try something new, you never know what might becomes of it. I try to share all that I can about what I know, remember no other one can paint of draw like you, your the only! It’s always nice when other artist give us helpful hints and Ideas to help us along the way! So I Thank You very much Kathleen Dunphy for your helpful hints and ideas, we all can sure use them!
    Grant, Oil Painter/Artist


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