Dark Plein Air Paintings – By Intention? Or by Accident?

Why are my plein air paintings so dark?  A good question and one we will answer here.  As plein air painters we have all had the experience of creating a pleasing painting outdoors.  Everything look right – the values, the color.  We put our painting away and take it home, feeling that we have had a good day and produced something worthwhile. 

Later we eagerly put our fresh painting up in our studio and are shocked and disappointed by how it has changed.

The Gremlins have been at work it seems!  Now our artwork looks so dark and drab.  What happened?

This is a common experience for all of us, especially in the beginning.  Be comforted, there are some things we can do to improve the situation.


Paint in the Shade

Painting in bright sunlight or with our painting and palette in sunlight causes our eyes to see paint color lighter than it is.

Try to set up your easel so that your palette and painting panel are shaded from direct sunlight.  Position the easel so that shade is provided by the upright of the easel. In addition, you can place a tall piece of stiff, thin cardboard behind your painting surface to provide additional shade from the sun. 

Painting in the earlier and later parts of the day make this more feasible than at high noon – another good reason to paint at the most advantageous times of day. 

Look for tree shade or use an umbrella.  In addition to improving the overall look of our paintings, our eyes and skin health will benefit as well.

If you have to paint at midday, adjust your values a shade lighter

In addition to positioning your easel as best you can, when mixing paint colors on a really bright sunny day, adjust your values a shade lighter than you think is correct.  Your adjustment may prove to be a more accurate choice.  Give this a try and see what happens.

Make Sure Your Painting Surface is Adequate

Painting on canvas board or other inexpensive panel can create difficulties if the surface is too absorbent.  I remember being reduced to tears during my first plein air workshop because of what I was painting on.  I was using home made wood panels with one coat of gesso.  These panels were so absorbent that it made it impossible to get any good result.  My thinly applied paint immediately got sucked up by the surface.    If using home made gessoed panels be sure to apply at least 3 coats of gesso to ensure a proper seal.  Canvas board panels can be very absorbent – so give them a coat of gesso before using them.  No need to make your painting experience difficult because of a bad surface.

Paying attention to easel position, value adjustment and the surface we paint on should help produce a more consistent painting result.

Wet Paint v. Dry Paint

Thinly applied oil paint can lose some of the initial brightness and color.  Therefore, only use color mixed with mineral spirits at the very beginning of the painting process, during the initial block-in of your painting.   Thereafter, use thicker paint.  If you are using a good quality paint it should be creamy and easy to apply, not chalky and stiff.


Unless you use a lot of thick paint on your canvas most plein air paintings can benefit from a coat of varnish once dry.  Drying time will vary from 1 month to 6 months depending on where you live, how dry things are etc.  Varnish will bring back that “just painted” brightness and luster. 

We recommend a product called Gamvar by Gamblin.  Click here to read about Gamvar and why we recommend it over other varnish products.

Oil Painting Techniques

Plein Air Beginners

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