Plein Air Painting-How To Make Your Plein Air Oil Painting Colors “Pop”

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Written ByTerry Ouimet

Plein Air Oil Painter, specializing in mountain landscapes


June 13, 2021

I’ve had a few YouTube subscribers ask about how to “pop” your oil painting colors, that is, make them more vibrant and bold.

Have You Tried These Techniques?

1. Colorful Shadows

Shadows do the heavy lifting and light gets all the credit. Try mixing up some more colorful darks in your shadows and for your “core dark” (the part of your shadow that does not receive any light) put in a small splash of pure color such as cobalt or ultramarine blue.


When you paint the light next to the shadow- voila, you just popped your colors.

Avoid black or muddy shadows. Try to avoid using black oil paint on your palette. Doing so will force you to use more colorful darks such as Phaloe Blue and Alizarin Crimson.

Note that Claude Monet took black off his palette completely for this very reason! 

2. Create Contrast

The secret to radiant, vibrant light in your paintings is creating contrast, and it takes some practice but if you can implement it, wow.

Purposefully look for places to put warm next to cool, light next to dark.

This is probably the single most effective way to make interesting colorful paintings.

tERRY OUIMET PAINTING red mountain pass CO

Looking to “pop” the yellow in a sunflower? Make the surrounding purplish/brown center of the sunflower color darker and more violet/blue, which is the complementary color of yellow.

Again, the secret to vibrant, radiant light in your plein air oil paintings is the contrast of warm and cool colors placed next to each other.

Another way to create contrast is to place complementary colors next to each other such as violet and orange, red and green.

Contrast creates interesting paintings.

If your whole painting is cool for example, it’s a dead-on-arrival painting. The same is true with an all-warm painting.

3. Warm light=cool Shadows. Cool light=warm shadows

This general rule about shadows will help you make more interesting paintings that read correctly and pop your colors, even on a cloudy day.

When the light is cool such as on a partly cloudy or rainy day, all the objects in the “light” will appear cooler than your shadows. So focus on making warm colorful neutral grays for your shadow colors if appropriate.


Courtesy Don Sahli


When its a sunny day, everything in your painting that is in the light should be warmer than your shadow colors. So focus on making some rich dark colorful shadow colors to make your painting “pop” with bold vibrant sunny day colors.


4. Improve At “Seeing” Nature’s Colors

Rather than staring directly into the center of an object in nature that you are searching for color, look to its borders and compare that piece of color to its neighboring piece of color.

It will be easier to “see” the color that you are searching for if you can see the color beside it.

It’s all about color relationships.

If you are still struggling to see and mix the proper color, look away from the object for a few seconds and look back out of your peripheral vision.

This is another way of accomplishing the same strategy above. Avoid starring at an object for too long and painting it in isolation. This will hinder your efforts to achieve color harmony and vibrancy.


5. Compare. Compare. Compare!

If you look into the center of an object to discern its color, you can mistakingly be convinced that it is any color value or temperature.

A plein air painter must be always comparing piece to piece as you block in your color spots.

Remember, a color only appears as such due to its relationship to the color beside it. Compare, compare, compare!

As a plein air painter, your number one job is to compare the color, value and temperature of each piece in your painting and mix up that correct color.

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Try not to focus on making a masterpiece. Paint what you see and not what you “know.” Paint shapes and colors for 80% fo the painting, and this will increase your chances of actually walking away with a plein air masterpiece.


6. Muted Grays

An effective way to produce a colorful interesting painting is to actually use very little color on purpose.

One style is to paint 80%-90%  of your painting in colorful neutral grays and save the rest for your more pure colors.

This tactic or style is similar to lighting a match in a dark room. The light is all the more powerful.

terry ouimet plein air painting schmid ranch

A painting that uses nothing but pure color can be effective and interesting to some, but it can also be like somebody turning on their high beams driving toward you at night-slightly painful.

7. Dont Overmodel

One sure-fire way to lead yourself to a muddy mess of a plein air oil painting is to brush stroke it to death.

This is called over modeling. In my teaching method, the modeling stage is where the painter focuses on the smaller shapes and light changes within the bigger shapes established earlier on.

Good plein air painters know when to leave in early strokes that are “finishing strokes” and not cover them up. Easier said than done right?


For the rest of my tips on how to make your plein air oil painting colors pop check out my YouTube video here below. If you like it, please consider subscribing to the channel.

Click here to visit the Learning Plein Air YouTube channel, hit the SUBSCRIBE button and join the group!

Learning Plein Air YouTube


God bless, see you up in the mountains!


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