Ten Common Mistakes Made By Beginning Plein Air Artists – What to Paint?

Plein Air painting means “painting in the open air” or on location. It is a favored style of creation by many classic pastel Masters as opposed to creating pastel works in a studio. Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages as well as struggles and problems common to each.   Over the next couple of weeks I will write a little about the ten most common mistakes I see when teaching Plein Air art to developing artists. I will break these ten subjects up into three or four posts; so be sure to watch for them all!

Not painting what you know and love.

Quit often I have been asked to critique a students’ art work that they have in a folder. A folder full of assorted drawings in pastel, charcoal, pencil and dried oil paintings that’s on paper. As we lay the assorted mixture of art out in a row the most obvious realization is this person paints everything under the sun. 

It’s true Vincent Van Gogh painted the same way for the few years that he painted. But Van Gogh was a minister’s son and was a minister himself who had no training in the visual arts. This lack of formal training explains his unusual attitude towards the subjects he painted. He first gained notoriety not for his artwork but because of his brilliant red hair and because he would run through his village screaming like a wild man! But in the ten years he was considered an artist he spent only three years working in oil paint. The rest was charcoal drawings that he created wherever he happened to be at the moment.  

Considering his handicaps Van Gogh did have a style that would be considered “Different” from the everyday art of his time. And that one difference is what put him in the art history books.

If asked; I would say there are two important distinctions to hold close, paint what you love and paint what you know.

Choosing a subject matter that is too complicated.

In the beginning stages of your painting career keep your subject matter simple. Remember, “less is more” in many ways.

Take a few minutes and consider what you have painted in the last month or even the last six months. Are they subjects of things that you love to paint? If so that’s a step in the right direction.

Take one of your favorite paintings and consider it but not by thinking, “Am I ever good!” but with the thought, “What’s the most obvious thing wrong?”

If you can do this, with total honesty, then you’re your subject matter is not too complicated and you are on your way to developing in your art.

The next step would be to sketch this same painting in charcoal and simplify it to a better look. Once this is done you might be ready to paint this same scene in the same medium as before but use your new thoughts. Simplicity!

The more complex you make the subject and the more subjects in the painting then the more details of creating get lost in the creation. If the subject is too complex then the younger artist gets lost in the grandeur of the piece and fails to see the errors in the process.

When you go out to paint in the future consider the options around you; a whole forest or the next door fence and three trees.


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