Step-by-Step: Creating Harmony in a Plein Air Painting

Follow along and see how Nancy Macdonald begins with a pen-and-ink sketch and color study to create a plein air painting of two figures in the Ecuador landscape.

Creating Harmony in a Plein Air Painting

by Nancy Macdonald

On site, I make a number of sketches and color studies, which I use as reference for larger paintings in my studio. I try to capture the harmony in the scene as well as the feeling or element that drew me to it.

Whilst in Ecuador, I saw women wearing striking vibrant skirts and shawls everywhere I went, particularly in rural areas. They would often have their babies strapped to their backs, even when they were working the fields. They made such a strong impression on me, especially with the magnificent mountains as their backdrop.

My Palette

When I paint locally and in my studio, I use a palette box made by my husband. It’s lightweight and contains two large mixing areas of 14 x 18 inches. I typically set it up as shown, with piles of gray on the right side followed by cooler and warmer versions next to each.

plein air painting color palette

My Toolkit

Support: Gessoed board or linen glued to a board
Paint: Gamblin — alizarin crimson, ultramarine blue, manganese blue, yellow ochre, lemon yellow, black, titanium white; Winsor & Newton — scarlet lake, transparent maroon
Brushes: Small Bristlon and Rosemary & Co Eclipse brushes
Palette: Large handmade fold-out palette
Misc.: Alla Prima pochade box; Mefoto tripod

Pen-and-Ink Sketches

I work quickly on location to capture the gestures of the figures before they move.

pen and ink sketches

Plein Air Color Studies

I also make a series of 30-minute, 6 x 8-inch color studies in oil.

plein air color study


Step 1

I start the painting with a sketch on a lightly toned 20 x 16-inch canvas using transparent maroon. I then lay in the main darks thinly, and establish the volume and contour of the mountain. I try to get variety in my shapes while keeping the composition simple. I avoid parallel lines, and opt for a low horizon line to reinforce the grandeur of the mountains.

plein air painting demonstration

Step 2

I begin my block-in of some simple color shapes. I like to keep my light-toned canvas showing through for as long as possible; it helps me to not get too dark, as anything will look dark against it.

painting block-in stage

Step 3

I establish the ground plane, which I need to keep light, and add dimension to the mountain and the figures, putting in some lights in those areas as well.

painting the ground plane

Step 4

I add the lights in the tracks and try to set the mountain back using cool colors. I also block in the sky, paying attention to the edge of the mountain. I strive for variety of temperature and brushstroke.

plein air painting how-to

Step 5

I feel as though my painting of the figures is getting too tight, so I scrape them and make some dark strokes to try again.

plein air painting how-to

Step 6

I work much more broadly on the figures, knowing that I will refine them somewhat later. I also start working grays and cools into the foreground.

refining a plein air painting

Final Step

I add finer detail to the figures and use more grays to harmonize the ground plane.

Nancy Macdonald, "Las Mujeres de la Montana"
Nancy Macdonald, “Las Mujeres de la Montana”

Connect with Nancy Macdonald at

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