Chicago Skyline: Step-by-step Creating A Painting “en Plein Air” (that means… “outside”)

Chicago Skyline - Watercolor
Chicago Skyline - Photo

I spend much time outside painting with my watercolor materials. This makes me a “plein air” painter—one who paints in the open air.

It seems daunting to some of my students to think of being so mobile and so nimble to simply pick up your materials and plunk down wherever you want and start to paint.

Surprise! To me, that is what makes it so appealing. It can be spontaneous. It allows you to be present. You study the world as it exists in that instant. I love it!

This post will take you through a few steps in the process.

I’ll leave out a bunch of details…. Basically, it comes down to: you decide on a place to paint. You look around. You want to find some flat even ground so you are not too tippy. You want to be able to be out in the open enough so you are safe. Yet, you want to find a space off the beaten-path so you aren’t in the route of walkers, skateboarders, strollers, and dogs — more on dogs later.

The cover photo shows the scene I selected to paint. It was early morning on a chilly fall day in Grant Park, along the Loop in Chicago. I loved the backlight, luscious fall grasses, the bright greens and the deep shadows. The morning light catching the edge of the buildings was also a moment I wanted to catch. It would be fleeting so I took a bunch of photos to capture that instant. NOTE: that’s not “cheating”. You can take photos. Use all the technology you want. 🙂

Here’s the paint I used. It’s a watercolor field box by QoR. I got mine at Wet Paint Art in Minneapolis. I love the consistency of the paint. It’s very creamy and smooth with intense color. I use a bunch of different paints. sometimes Schmincke. Sometimes Winsor & Newton. Sometimes Daniel Smith, etc. But this is a neat little kit. I like that it’s metal. I like the concave indentations for mixing paint (Apparently, from the photos it seems that I couldn’t stay within the circles… but in theory, I like the concept!)

This is a mid-phase of the painting. I have put in the mid-values (those are the colors that are not too dark and not too light– in the middle.) I tend to like a very broad range of value –from white to the darkest darks. So I get some darks in now because it’s fun and it lets me pop out the spaces that will become the backlit grasses, statue, and people on the path.

I always attract a lot of dogs, little kids, and other visitors. I enjoy interacting with them and they all seem so intrigued with me and what I am doing. It’s a hoot.

Here’s a little video I made talking about some of this excitement: Dogs and Other Visitors on my YouTube Channel.

Here’s the finished painting. I made a few adjustments in my studio. Added some details. Then adjusted the contrast of the buildings vs the sky. I added a bit of white gel pen to emphasize that edge of light I found so appealing when I first picked this scene.

Entered in an Exhibit and Accepted

Here my little painting is on the right-hand side of this photo. Grant Park is above my Giant Snow Flake painting at the Palette and Chisel Gallery, in downtown Chicago.

And, here’s a photo of my two paintings in the Plein Air Painters of Chicago Exhibit.


Here is an example of how this painting printed as a fine art print (not the original) could look in “your” bedroom. If you are interested in the original, please take a look to see if it's still available. If you are interested in a print, please send me a message so that we can discuss options.

This painting is in my Chicago series of plein air paintings. Lots more coming because I love painting around Chicago and Cook County.

Let me know what you think about this plein air post. We have a few videos about getting set up for plein air on our YouTube Channel. (Good for all ages.)

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