A Plein Air Experiment

A Plein Air Experiment

Jana Botkin joins us again this week. Her topic? A plein air experiment she conducted with colored pencils this summer.

Here’s what she has to report on her experiment.

A Plein Air Experiment

By Jana Botkin

In 2019, I took a plein air oil painting workshop, wanting to learn the skills of slamming out a painting before the light changed too much. It wasn’t easy for this studio artist who is used to a fixed environment, working from my own zillions of photos.

It also wasn’t easy for this near-sighted artist who has fought to see clearly her entire life to enjoy painting loosey-goosey. Blurry on purpose?? Why would anyone do that?

The teacher was fabulous, and I learned a great deal, some of which is actually helpful. I haven’t changed my painting style, but have several new techniques and an appreciation for those who are able to successfully paint this way.

My recent conversations with Carrie about colored pencils reignited my interest in the medium. So, I decided to combine the plein air painting lessons with colored pencils. This was very adventuresome, since I have never used colored pencils in this manner.

I took a clipboard with a piece of good paper and twelve Polychromos colored pencils to a spot along the creek near my mountain cabin. This is a view I have drawn and painted many times, although never using colored pencils.

Plein Air Experiment

The Sketching Process

First I photographed the scene so I would know how to finish the drawing when the light changed. One of the helpful things I learned in the plein air workshop is that most plein air artists do finish their pieces later. What a relief to know that isn’t “cheating”! (Who makes these rules? Why do we feel bound by them?)

I chose brown for sketching, because the plein air oil painting teacher taught us to use browns for our first layers. By sketching, I mean putting down the shapes of the the scene before me, outlining and filling in a little.

Plein Air Experiment

I was surprised by how long it took to fill in the spaces compared to using a paintbrush, so I skipped that layer and just dove in to coloring. I knew it would take umpty-umpt layers to even vaguely approximate the colors I saw, so I was scribbling as fast as my fat little fingers would go.

So many layers needed! I needed Indigo Blue! I needed Dark Green! I needed Sepia! Ugh, where were my Prismacolors? Oh, that’s right—this was an exercise in using the limited twelve color set, and Prismacolors are almost useless with their continual crumbling, so I soldiered on with those twelve Polychromos, wondering yet again who decided that these colors were adequate?

After an hour, I decided to quit. The results: a sore hiney from sitting on the ground, a tired wrist, a few bug bites, an incomplete rough pencil drawing, a nice big helping of humble pie, and a resolve to keep colored pencils in the studio.

That’s Jana’s Experiment

Have you tried drawing plein air with colored pencils? If you haven’t, I highly recommend it. Even if all you do is sketch, it’s a great way to practice drawing skills. You can also reconnect with the great outdoors, and try something fresh and new.

What’s not to like about those things?

My thanks to Jana for another great article!

And to you for reading it.

About Jana Botkin

Jana credits her 6th grade teacher at Ivanhoe Elementary School with teaching her to draw. She spent several years in college in San Diego, changing schools and majors, until she realized she belonged back in her native Tulare County. After drawing her future husband’s cabin, he told her that other cabin owners would also love drawings of their cabins. That was the beginning of Cabin Art. Now she paints in oils, paints indoor and outdoor murals. She also teaches people how to draw, with hundreds of happy students since 1994. Jana works from her studio at home in Three Rivers, with her 3 cats stopping by for occasional visits. You see her work and browse her lessons on her website and read more of her articles on her blog.


  1. Patricia+E+Wilson

    I loved this experiment and just goes to show that sometimes you can use every day items like Polys and something wonderful happens. What a great scene, also. Thank you.

  2. Gail Jones

    What a neat experiment! I have yet to try Plein Air drawing very much except for a few clouds I captured. At this point I am too intimidated to work from 3D images and not a photo. Kudos to Jana for trying it and with limited colors! Looks like she is off to a great start for more outdoor projects.

    1. Gail,

      I was intimidated by the idea of drawing from life for a long time, too. Then I realized that I didn’t have to re-create something 100% accurately, and I started sketching from life.

      It also helped to set a time limit. I figured I could “doodle” for fifteen minutes while sitting on the front porch. Those doodles turned out pretty well, and now I enjoy sketching from life.

      So give it a try. You may very well be surprised what happens!

      1. Gail Jones

        Thank you, Carrie, trying plein air would be a good idea since I want to focus on scenery and nature in the near future. I will try and implement that in the coming weeks and months as I try to draw more free hand and do less tracing over pixabay photos for line drawings.

  3. Patricia, I appreciate your kind words. I think it belongs in my flat file drawer labeled Why Bother, which means that I could pull it out to finish later. The scene itself is fabulous, so maybe there is hope!

  4. Gail, here is an idea for drawing from real life: hold a piece of plexiglass out with your elbow locked, close one eye, and trace the main shapes with a dry erase marker, then you can copy that new 2-D outline on your paper. It will give you the bones for starting a drawing. It is completely understandable to be overwhelmed by a scene that has no beginning or end.

    Another thing: just tell yourself, “It’s only paper!”

  5. Gail Jones

    Carrie, thank you for the encouragement to get out and just draw. I am trying to draw more free hand anyway and scenery and nature is my focus now, so getting out and just doing something small would be good practice. I will try and implement plein air more in the coming weeks and months.

  6. Gail Jones

    Jana I like your idea. I have a piece of plexiglass that I used in a class for still lifes and that is a great idea for getting basic shapes for scenery. Thank you! I will try to implement that idea in the coming weeks and months.

  7. Jae Haussling

    I like your sketch plain air. I wish you would finish and share it to give hundreds of us hope. I’m always gobsmacked by the detailed animal and human portraits. I’m watching YouTube tutorials so generously given. I have pencils and paper and very long ago life drawing lessons. Where do you buy solvent like they have in UK?

  8. Jae, I’m with you in Gobsmackville when it comes to those perfectly detailed colored pencil pieces. Thank you for checking in. . . maybe I will try to finish this. I just wasn’t sure it was worth the effort, but if it will give someone hope, then it IS worth it!

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