Ébauche or Lay-ins in Plein-Air ‘Alla Prima’ Oil Painting

Work in Progress (WIP) – lay in stage one
Large size Oil on Canvas
81 x 65 cm (approx 32 x 26 inches)
© The Artist.

Work in Progress (WIP) – lay in stage two
Large size Oil on Canvas
81 x 65 cm (approx 32 x 26 inches)
© The Artist.

There’s a nice french painting term ‘ébauche’ meaning a ‘lay-in’ or underpainting, meaning the intial layers of oil paint. This should estabilish the composition right from the outset. In the above WIP, I blocked-in the large masses of the ‘dominant’ colour (stage one) & then started to indicate the light & shade (stage two). It’s a kind of lay-in that blocks-in the colour first of all, rather than lines & tones . You can of course choose to lead with line (see Cézanne, who BTW left a large number of ‘unfinished’ paintings in the lay-in phase, which is incredibly lucky for us as we can study how he started off his masterpieces!) or tone (see Corot) as you please.

Example of a lay-in prioritising line
Paul Cézanne

Paul Cézanne left a lot of ‘unfinished’ paintings ? weither they were abandoned or left aside or just never pushed to resolution or abandoned in a state of despiar  by the artist we will never realyy know. His diaries tell us not. However these half-finished paintings  are a great testimony to his working process. They taught me to paint in oils, simply put. I used to spend hours looking at them in wonder. Looking for clues too. What a great gift he left to us artists who follow behind.


A lay-in has alot of painterly charm because at this stage, you aren’t concerned with descriptive details & little, fiddly fine brush work. You are roughing-in the overall masses.

A lay-in in oil should follow the ‘fat over lean’ rule (thick paint over thin paint). Note how diluted with turps the paint is (a great advantage of plein-air is that the artist isn’t intoxicated with fumes whilst shut-up in an atelier).

For this large size painting, working quickly with the changing light en plein-air, the surface was fairly quickly covered with the intial lay-in.

The lay-in phase comes after the conception phase (where you have the idea or see the painting in your mind’s eye) & the composition stage (where you work out what goes where & how if fits together).

I find that getting the major relationships between the colours painted early on in the lay-in stage is essential to how a painting fits together as a whole, as a set of harmonics. It also estabilshes the quality of the light, the timbre & feel of the place. Getting this clear early on speeds up the painting process, which in plein-air painting can be something of a race against the sun’s movement… if I had a euro for every time I’ve heard ” the light’s changed”.

In a lay-in, you kind of bring the whole painting-up at the same time all together, rather than finishing a bit here then finishing another over there (as much as is possible). Try & keep an eye on how the whole fits together. For such large oil paintings, done in one session ‘alla prima’ en plein-air, on location, on the spot, you really do need to have an idea of how the painting will/might unfold.

NOTE : Not every painting unfolds in the same way. Just as in cooking, different meals, different recipes require different approaches.


‘Karst Landscape’
– unfinished state
Large Oil on Canvas
81 x 65 cm (approx 32 x 26 inches)
© The Artist

Sunset 31 Dec – after session in the field and two retouching sessions in the studio
30 x 40 cm – approx12 x 16 inches
oil on panel
Sunset 31 Dec – after first session in the field
30 x 40 cm – approx12 x 16 inches
oil on panel

Photographing Paintings

Look at the difference betweeen these two photos.
It’s dificult to know which one is the closest to the orginal painting if you don’t know the the orinal painting. However, to the eye with some experience in photographing paintings, IMO, I reckon that it’s possible to identify a photo that is poor. That’s to say :

  • badly exposed
  • has a wonky colour cast
  • that has been overly-distorted in photoshop etc
  • that a crazy discordance with the colour profile of your computer screen

I miss two photgraphic lamps (it’s a bit early in the year for letters to Santa Claus isn’t it 😉

Taking photos in daylight means taking photos in variable light, which is not always (rarely!) the optimum 55 K & thus gives wild colour casts… unless you wait for the right light. But then you can forget about real-time blogging.

Which one of the above paintings seems to you about right, given that you don’t know the original painting?

Retouching Plein-Air Paintings

Look at the above two paintings.

  • Can you see the retouching?
  • Has it improved the painting?
  • Which one seems the most ‘real’?
  • Which one has a unifying ‘illuminant’ (coherent set of ligh/colour conditions)?
  • Which one keeps closest to the artist’s to the orginal impression of the scene? Does it express the orginal seduction, the thing that me you want to paint the scene in the first place?
  • Which one works best as a picture?
  • Should a plein-air piece be finished on the spot or can it be developed at a later date in the studio & allowed to evolve into something different?
  • Need a plein-air piece have ‘finish’ or can it exist/be exhibited as a kind of sketch with ‘rough’ finish?

How much you retouch/develop plein-air paintings is a debate central to plein-airism.

I consider the above painting as ‘finished’, especially as it’s part of a recent series of sunsets – Five to date, three more to be blogged over the next few days. Stay tuned.


Watercolour of The Great Sphinx of Giza

DETAIL : ‘The Great Sphinx of Giza’
60 x 77cm
© The Artist.

Watercolour of Edfou Temple, Egypt.

WORK IN PROGRESS : Watercolour made in the studio from a quick sketch & some colour notes done on the spot, a reference photo & memory, shortly after my visit to Egypt in 2001. Part of my ongoing & unfinished project… my homage to Egypt the Eternal…

:: Carnet de Voyage :: Egypt::


25 X 32cm
© The Artist.

‘Capital of a Column, Edfou Temple’
Doublespread A5 sketchbook
© The Artist.
Sixth Column in the Peristyle Hall on the lefthandside
Ptolemic VIII – XII Period
Circa 164 -55 BC
© The Artist. 


WIP : Winter Sunset

BTW, WIP = Work in Progress

‘Winter Sunset’ finished state
30 x 40 cm
oil on panel
© The Artist.
150 € -possibily of taking in sterling or US dollars via Paypal

unfinished state
Painting in sub-zero temperatures a month ago…finished off in studio, the gradients of light were wrong, there wasn’t such an abrupt change from yellow to pink but rather slipped through orange to pink. difficult to follow these rapid changes whilst froz & anyway the trees where so stark & black against the light, they needed do ‘afterwards’, after the sky, sequently more like a watercolour than an oil.

2 Rangs de Malbec- finished state

‘2 Rangs de Malbec’ – FINISHED STATE
oil on canvas
36 x 48 cm (8F)

wip = work in progree

alla prima = first take, one session, finished in one go

pein-air = sur la motif, sur la vif, on location, on the spot , from observation in the field, sometimes called wrongly called ‘impressionism’ as the Impressionist are the bets known school of plein-air painters.

On finishing plein-air oil paintings

Truth is a funny matter in painting. For the most part, I start off from observation, and an idea of what I want to express. For a plein-air painter, finishing off in the studio is a delicate affair. How far away from one’s first impressions should one go? How many edits & cuts & rethinks? Often, what one really wanted to say gets lost in these changes of direction. Lost & left to one side. Alla Prima first-takes do have the advantage of freshness & simplicity. OK maybe they can never have the depth of a painting that has taken years to achieve. But where is ‘truth’ in a painting? If one arrives somewhere close to what one wanted to paint in the first place, then that’s going in the right direction. What I’m currently saying to myself is to watch out for the junction-point when a painting becomes another painting , so what one is in fact doing is painting another painting over the top of the first lay-down. Why not just paint two paintings, different but one leading on from the next? i.e . work in a series.

2 Rangs de Malbec – UNFINISHED STATE

‘2 Rangs de Malbec’ -UNFINISHED STATE
oil on canvas
36 x 48 cm (8F)
Unfinished state – I could say that about myself… ‘work in progress’; hummm.

my fauvist desires

Actually I did this one a week ago. But since then I’ve been too busy with other obligations & not had the time to consider finishing this plein-air oil. In the studio. Since then the leaves have fallen off & browned off to a raw sienna rich bronze. I post a photo of the red leaves as proof. Yes I have fauvist leanings towards to heightened colour. The leaves did exist. Often people don’t believe bright colours but often this is because they have not looked enough at nature.
Yes, there’s also the plein-airist dilema of how to make light into paint….hmmm, thoughts on the back boiler as I’m to busy to paint but I’LL be back!
Off to Cahors to paint this afternoon, in the land of the malbec vine.

’14 Rangs de Cabernet Franc’
Oil on Canvas
25 F (81 x 65 cm, 32 x 26 inches approx)
© The Artist.
’14 Rangs de Cabernet Franc’ – 14 rows of Cabernet Franc, being the name of the type of vine.
This cepage is not the wide spread in the Bergerac Appellation to my knowledge. I once chatted about cabernet franc to Dr.Barriat, the advisory oenologue for the appellation, when we were doing a promotional tour in Belgium together (wine & art), & he said that yes, it was more an ‘old world’ cepage, more like Bordeaux than New South Wales. I remember vendanging the cabernet franc in my uncle-in-law’s vineyards for several seasons. I like the way the grapes hang in this type of vine & how the sarments grow in a very dnse & fertile fashion.

alla prima plein-air painting

This is a one-take, alla prima plein-air piece. It’s a work in progress, as don’t yet know if it’s finished or not – or if it needs some fermenting in the studio. Let it rest a bit, methinks ……. fast slow fast slow slow off on off on, the deeper work happens at it’s own pace.

‘Le Cingle de Tremolat’ 2003

‘Le Cingle de Tremolat’
Huile sur Toile
© Adam Cope
Grand Format approx 150 x 100 cm

painting, photography & postcards/plein air.

Carrying on with this rambling musing about painting, photography & postcards/plein air….Describing something of the process by which I arrived at this (popular) oil painting might be of interest… or not (deafening silence on the internet ,thanks for your comments!). Personally I like to see ‘work in progress’ , especially that which follows something of a turning, twisting path, where the end is not forseen, where one feels one’s way, sometimes in the dark.

Yann Arthus-Bertrand & views from the sky

I painted this in the studio one wet, dark, long rainy winter. Not a plein air piece as it’s a view from the sky… couldn’t convince the microlite to stay still long enough! Yann Arthus-Bertrand fever had struck France; even my cheque book from ‘La Poste’ had his photographs of ariel views of landscapes. They frequently resemble ‘cadastres’ (territory maps of plots of land ) rather than pretty postcard views. I painted this from a postcard, an ariel view of this famous meander. But first I seriously ‘doctored’ it in Photoshop before painting it in this large format studio painting.

I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with these little images or ‘cliches’ called postcards, part fascination, part desire to deconstruct, part desire to find the same view in the real world… This wasn’t the first time, as I had already spent another winter painting postcards wayback in the early 1990’s with my ‘Postcards from Babylon’ series of 24 minature oil paintings, the size of tiny postcards 15 X 10 cm.

‘Postcards from Babylon’ 24 miniature-sized ‘postcards’ 10 x 15 cm (with accompanying animation VHS, with thanks to ‘Picture This’ animations, South West Arts Council award) . Oil on Panel. 1992 © adam cope

The colour scheme for ‘Tremolat’ has a night-time feel to it, or maybe a like a shaft of light breaking through in a storm or something – ‘Quand le Diable marit ses filles’ (when the Devil marries his daughters) as they say in these ‘ere parts, referring to a mix of sun, humidity & rain. I did this study from imagination & memory, and in fact even imagination & memory act in the the large painting as well. A sculptor friend of mine remarked on the exaggerated perspective in the river bends & the way the bottom bank of the river is ‘lost’. I did this consciously & deliberately to exaggerate the swelling … during this time my wife was pregnant. Art historians occasionally remark on how the personal & private (I like to keep it private though I do always seem to be making an exhibition of myself) lives of artists effect on their paintings, such as Constable & the death of his wife in his ‘Hadleigh Castle’ for instance.

‘Treamolat, Étude’ Huile sur Toile 33 x 41 cm. 2003. © adam cope

Bergerac Waterfront #3 (finished state)

44 x 56 cm (17″ x 22″approx) Oil on Panel.© The Artist.
450 €

Well, this is about as far as I can take this one (I think…when a painting is knocking about in the studio, I sometimes see many more other things that might possibly be done). It’s what I call a ‘large small’ painting, not quiet a medium size but certainly not a post-card size minature. When working on plein-air paintings in the studio, there’s always the risk of losing the ‘freshness’ that can be found in ‘being there’ on the spot, the experience of the event, in that unique & particular moment in time.
I’ve felt extra close to the river Dordogne this past week, as we’ve had old friends & god-children down to stay on holiday. We all went for a really long lovely (no better word) canoe trip on the Dordogne. I post below something more like the the ‘canoe’s -eye view’. A truly beautiful river. These memories live in the mind’s eye, and guide the hand to see better the essential in the scene before one. The Dordogne at Bergerac is large & wide, dark & strong, sometimes mirror-like or sometimes, like in the above painting, all cut-up, stormy & more like the sea than a wee river. Begerac is the town where we were married, where my wife &, now, my two children were born. A really good town. A good place to paint.– even in the rain!

‘Reedbeds at Lalinde’ 72 x 36 cm.