Plein Air Oil Painting-Understanding VALUES In Beginner Plein Air Painting

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Written ByTerry Ouimet

Plein Air Oil Painter, specializing in mountain landscapes

Blog | Uncategorized

June 15, 2021

Value does all the work. Color gets the credit. One of the biggest struggles that I see in beginner plein air landscape painters is the lack of depth in their paintings.

If you are a beginner plein air landscape painter, the second most important thing that you should learn is values.

The first important thing to learn is drawing.

But values are a close second because a proper value structure in any drawing or painting creates the illusion of light, form, space, and depth.

Values are how light or dark the various shapes in your painting are.

If the value structure of your painting and composition do not work, the painting is dead on arrival. And no amount of color or flashy brush strokes will revive it.

What do I mean by value structure? Every successful, beautiful painting has three to five easily identifiable and separate values from light to dark.

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I call them foundational values. I try to paint with a value structure like this; light, mid tone, dark, and black.

If your painting has three to five of these values that are easily recognizable in large shapes, it will be off to a very strong start.

Have you ever seen beautiful black and white photos or paintings? The reason in part that it holds your gaze is that it likely has a strong value structure.


Have You Tried These Techniques?


Squinting out at the landscape can help your brain minimize the details and maximize the large shapes.

It can help you make sense of an otherwise complicated and confusing scene with so many pieces and objects to paint.

Squinting is a great way to identify your larger shapes that you will assign one of the previously mentioned values to.

Essentially the purpose is to help you see three-dimensional shapes as just flat simple shapes with no detail.

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However, be aware that squinting will not help you read the value of the shape itself very accurately.

Depending on the light, squinting can make objects appear lighter or darker than they actually are. Use both eyeballs wide open to help discern your proper value structure.

Abstract Painting

You have your drawing in place, perhaps you’ve sketched out on paper or in your mind what your 3-5 foundational values will be.

Now you are ready to block in some color. I call the second stage of my painting technique the “Abstract Stage” for a reason.

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My goal is to put the right color, value and temperature into my 3-5 pieces. But I keep things very abstract. Although it’s all about color, I want to keep in mind that my color mixing has to align with my value structure.

In this stage, I’m still trying to see shapes as two-dimensional, flat objects without any details. I’m painting colors, values, and shapes, not trees and mountains.

Keep things loose. Don’t “color inside the lines” especially if you are an impressionist. Too much detail in this stage can detract you from your goal of proper colors and values and prevent you from creating the illusion of depth and space.

Three Curtains of Atmosphere

Beginner plein air painters often struggle with paintings that are flat and lack depth.

Think of your scene as having 3 big transparent curtains that drop from the sky to the ground. One in the foreground, one in the middle ground, and one in the background.

Generally but not always, objects that appear further in the third curtain if you will, should be lighter in value and cooler in temperature. Think “purple mountains” at sunset from miles away.

Objects that are in the first curtain should be painted using your darkest darks and most chromatic colors. This will “push the objects in the second and third curtain further away from the viewer.

The mid tone values belong to the second curtain. The middle ground. Try not to put your darkest darks or most powerful colors here.

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I hope these techniques will help you create more depth and interest in your plein air landscape oil paintings.

If you would like to watch my YouTube video called Understanding Values in Plein Painting | Beginner Tutorial, click here below.

Consider subscribing to the channel if you want to join our rapidly growing community of beginner plein air oil painters, we would love to have you!

Learning Plein Air YouTube Channel

I’ll see you up in the mountains.


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