Step 1: I set up my easel to paint along a stream on a sunny day in January when the sun was low to the horizon and the shadows were long.

John D. Cogan, Ph.D. brings a scientist’s understanding of light, color, and atmosphere to the practice of outdoor painting. He shares some of his knowledge about painting with acrylics in this issue, as he will during the Plein Air Convention & Expo (

Step 2: My setup was fairly simple and included acrylic paints stored in separate sections of a plastic craft box that keeps air movement to a minimum. I used a water mister to spray the paints to keep them moist.

John D. Cogan is an award-winning full-time artist, but he also holds a Ph.D. in experimental physics and brings a knowledge of science to his responses to natural phenomena. He shares some of his vast knowledge here, as he will in the May 2013 issue of PleinAir magazine and during the Plein Air Convention & Expo, to be held in Monterey, California, April 10-14, 2013.

Step 3: By the end of the blocking-in process, I knew whether the painting was going to be a success. A painting does not improve merely by piling on more paint.

“I spend the majority of my painting time in the studio, but I would never discount the importance of painting outdoors,” says Cogan. “It is in the field where we see the true colors of things, experience the reality of effects like aerial perspective, the movement of clouds, the effects of wind and changing light. When I am trying to learn these things, my field studies are not meant to be finished paintings, but tools to improve my studio work. So also, photographs are aids to my memory and a source of details for studio paintings. And there are many times when in the field, I neither paint nor photograph, but merely observe and try to remember what I see.

Step 4: The finished painting, “January Waters,” by John D. Cogan, acrylic, 8 x 10 in.

“When I paint en plein air at a festival or to produce a finished work, I paint with that end in mind — a finished workrather than just gathering information to use in the studio. My ‘finished’ plein air pieces may sometimes be the inspiration for studio pieces. More often, however, my studio paintings are ends in themselves, inspired by plein air work, observation, study, reference photos, memory, and imagination. In plein air, I usually do not invent much at all; in my studio, I take many liberties within the bounds of depicting the landscape realistically. I change skies, clouds, lighting, mood, and foregrounds to suit the major theme of my painting.”

“The Ledge,” by John D. Cogan, acrylic, 11 x 14 in.

Cogan explains, “Over the years I have changed my supply list as I have found things that work better and colors that I like better. Most of the time, I use a French easel with a custom-made tempered glass palette. Occasionally, I use Open Box M pochade box, especially when I need to travel light. I use Golden Open acrylics outside because they are formulated to dry more slowly than regular acrylics. I use the earth colors more than I used to, especially burnt sienna, burnt umber, and yellow ochre. I also use Golden’s Van Dyke brown hue, red oxide, and carbon black (very sparingly).

“Losing the Light,” by John D. Cogan, acrylic, 9 x 12 in.

“I store my wet paint in a plastic jewelry-sorting box with lid — about $3 at the craft store. The depth is enough to protect the paint from the wind. I also use a water sprayer to mist the paint in the box and the paint on my glass palette. I usually use Trekell synthetic mongoose brushes for thicker paint and the Golden Taklon brushes for smooth or thin passages and glazes. I prefer flats or brights, but also use filberts. I use Golden Open gloss gel as a medium. If there are areas that I want to build up, I may use regular gloss gel as a medium to allow for faster drying. I bring a small plastic bottle of isopropyl alcohol to clean the paint out of my brushes when I am finished. I paint on RayMar and SourceTek panels, Fredrix watercolor canvas panels, or panels I make myself by adhering scraps of canvas to hardboard, birch plywood, or Gatorboard.” For more information, visit


  1. Congrats to Carol Swinney! Well deserved. Hi to Jake and Steven… see you maybe in Tucson again. Was so fun last year. You’re all such fun folks, and I feel privileged to have gotten the chance to know you and paint alongside you.

  2. Can I subscribe and receive the freebies if I live in Canada? I know our dollars are far apart. I know there is no duty on artist’s materials, but I do not know your own policies.


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