How to paint landscapes - John Hughes -
“Diamond Fork” 9 x 12 Oil – Field Study, Collection of the Artist

On painting landscapes en plein air > Finding meaning in the journey, along the way to a finished landscape painting.

Savoring the Moment: Why the Process Is So Important When Painting Landscapes on Location

How important is the “finish” in a landscape painting anyway? Well, very important I would say, since without it, we would all have a ton of unfinished landscape paintings hanging around our studios… Wait a minute, that does sort of sound like my studio, and maybe yours too; but that’s a topic for another day!

Today I want to talk about not only finishing paintings, but also the beginning and middle stages as well. I have found that the process is more important than the last brushstroke, because it has so much more to do with how the finished work looks.

Let me veer off course for a moment in order to make my point more clearly. Some years ago when my wife and I were parents of two young children, we decided to take a job for a year, or possibly even two, managing a lodge in Big Bear Lake, California. We wound up staying for six years. Taking the job was a sort of whimsical decision on one level, but one that we have never regretted. It was there in Big Bear that we met so many lifelong friends, honed many life skills, enjoyed the rugged mountain environment, and it was a place where I was able to jump start my career in art as well.

These were youthful, carefree days in many ways, but at the same time, we were keenly aware of what our next move needed to be in order to succeed in life. This may not have been all that evident to others, judging by the fact that a concerned friend once asked us when we were going to settle down. The implication was that we weren’t doing enough to plan for our future retirement, along with owning a home. I suppose that this person meant well, but I couldn’t help wondering if that was all there was to life, reaching some finish line and rushing to get to the end of the journey in order to finally land on a plush couch. What about the beginning and middle years, was that just a time to hustle, hunker down and wait for the “bliss years” to happen? Was it possible to do both, and would that be a more reasonable approach?

Well, for us it was. Eventually we did settle down and we don’t seem the worse for the wear either; and life so far has been an amazing adventure to boot.

Art is no different, in a sense, and the Big Bear experience was for me, an integral part of that understanding.

During those early years I wasn’t completely new to painting, but I still had a long way to go in my understanding of what it took to paint a credible landscape. My approach back then, and the approach of many others I have met since, involved getting to the completed painting as soon as possible, and then on to the next canvas. It was a sort of product-driven mentality, and the painting process was just something that had to be endured in order to get to the finish line. I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy any of the process though; how could I help it, living in that mountain environment with the National Forest and Big Bear Lake within walking distance of our front door.

Ultimately that experience taught me something valuable, not only about painting, but also about life as well; the stops along the way are well worth savoring! As a matter of fact, I now believe that those stops along the path are essential to the way things eventually turn out, both in painting and life.

Think about it for a minute: how can an artist imbue their work with a piece of their soul, if the only aim is getting on to the next painting? Sure, many have the ability to dash off little jewels from time to time without giving it much thought, but at some point this type of approach can seem more like a treadmill than a fulfilling experience.

The journey itself can provide most of the rewards; artists pitting their concentration and skill against the ever changing challenges of a blank canvas as it morphs into a work of art. What could be more rewarding and fun than the accomplishment associated with hundreds, or even thousands of artistic choices which go into a painting, especially when you actually pull it off.

Yes, finishing a painting is a great thing, but one only made possible by a truly engaged artist, who for a time is completely absorbed while living in the moment, and that, to the fullest. Does it really ever get any better than this? I would think not.

Painting landscapes en plein air
Photo of John painting in the field – courtesy of Adelaida Galarza

Just for a moment, I want you to drift back to a time in the field when art and nature just seemed to coalesce into one grand experience for you. A moment when time stood still, and you felt the breeze on your back and the sun on your face, and you were quietly absorbed in putting your impression of nature down on the canvas. What a day that was!

In a sense, every day should be that day, whether we are working in the field, or painting in our studios. That oneness with the process of creation is really what it is all about; so don’t let those precious moments get away from you. Even in those times when you find yourself having to scrape back passages because the marks you previously put down weren’t what you wanted, you can take solace in the fact that it is all part of the process; so savor that as well.

As an added benefit, once the change within you takes affect and you begin to savor your time while engaged in the process, the real artist will emerge and your work will improve as well!

Until next time,

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  1. Thanks for promoting the long, beautiful view of the painting journey, but oh it’s tough to resist the drive for the finish, where we hope to prove our worth with those products! But you are wise to remind us of the big picture.


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