Inspiration for Plein Air Artists -
Tom Lockhart, “Quiet Remains on a Centennial Ranch,” watercolor from plein air study, 16 x 22 in.

Landscape artist and nature-lover Tom Lockhart shares what he has learned from painting en plein air.

By Tom Lockhart (

Learning to paint was a childhood desire. Making a living from it for over 30 years has been a dream come true. Not in my wildest dreams could I have ever imagined being a full-time working artist.

Primarily being self-taught, I started painting for my enjoyment. While researching, studying, and photographing wildlife and pursuing that subject matter for paintings in the ’80s, I was always looking at the landscape and the light and colors. I then began to shift my focus to painting the landscape. However, the studio was limiting, in terms of light, color, and values. So on a trip to Montana with some fellow artists, I gathered the muster to paint on location, which ultimately changed my landscape painting forever. During this transition, I realized I needed to learn more, from the Great Masters, reading and collecting books. I needed more, so I sought out additional instruction from noteworthy working artists.

After taking a few workshops, I learned that my efforts were starting to pay off. I applied what I learned with more and more plein air paintings, reinforcing my knowledge on painting from life, as well as in the studio.

I began to bring my plein air studies into the studio, working up a variety of paintings from those studies. I would not only work from my plein air paintings in oils but was able to recreate my studies into studio paintings, many times larger and more complex, in the various mediums I work in: oils, watercolors, and pastels.

This helped me achieve a level of understanding in three mediums. Most likely, I would not have been able to do this if I hadn’t been true to myself and my plein air paintings, which were my guide through this endeavor.

Tom Lockhart, “High Light in Late Summer,” watercolor, 11 x 14 in.
Tom Lockhart, “High Light in Late Summer,” watercolor, 11 x 14 in.

I have tried to save my studies, as my reference images to work from, for many years. Entering many plein air competitive events, I’ve sold many pieces that sometimes (as I’m sure many others can relate) I was reluctant to sell, but as an artist I needed to, because that’s how we make a living.

So once back in the studio, I have the advantage of my sketches, photos (slides and digitals), and my studies to work from for the rest of my life.

As I scour through my various plein air paintings, ranging in size from 5 x 7 up to 16 x 20, I realize not only how grateful I am to have been able to paint so many pieces, but how blessed and fortunate I am to be able to paint from life. So I paint for myself and remember that adage, “to thine own self be true.” It has now become my mantra.

Tom Lockhart, “Along the Back Roads,” oil demo, 8 x 10 in.
Tom Lockhart, “Along the Back Roads,” oil demo, 8 x 10 in.

What I’ve Learned From Plein Air Painting
1. Working small allows you the opportunity to paint more subjects in a shorter amount of time, allowing you to explore and experiment with different times during the day.

2. Find the colors that work for you. Experiment in the studio with value ranges and colors, limiting your palette to colors that work for you. The true color palette is a great start; it’s the basis for all of us, but finding your color palette makes it more personal.

3. While you’re working up your painting in the studio based on your plein air studies, mix your colors more accurately and be sure you mix them in a generous amount. This helps to not second-guess your colors later on.

Bonus tip: I put my glass palette in a large plastic storage tub on my taboret (I use a Sterilite under-the-bed tub). I remove my palette from this tub while I’m painting. After the end of the day, I return this glass palette back into the tub, which has a few pieces of paper towels with a few generous drops of clove oil on them. This keeps my paints from drying out, giving me the time to work on my studio painting without my paint drying too quickly.

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