Plein Air Painting Demo in Acrylics by Donald Neff

Artist Statement

“I paint the places I love to be. I paint the freshness of eternal nature, icy lucid streams, thunderous waterfalls, and soaring granite crests over silent lakes. I paint the descriptions of John Muir, the echoes of Ansel Adams, the American West of Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran. I paint luminosity filtering through the landscape, reaching to the foundation of a stream, bouncing off rocks, and illuminating the shadows.

Using oil and acrylic, painting realistically is merely my means to an end. I want the viewer to connect with the places I love to be. I hope the observer will want to walk right into my painting and maybe even drop a line in the water to catch a trout.

My published works include both “plein air” and studio paintings, which helps me translate the dynamic experience of the moment and communicate in a more personal way of what I am trying to say..”

– Donald Neff

Follow this link to learn more about Donald and to view more of his work.

Acrylic Landscape Painting Tutorial By Donald Neff

It was a winter day and not much light. I did however locate a nice pool at the west end of Yosemite Valley. This is a snapshot of the scene.In the low 30’s, it was barely warm enough to do an acrylic painting. Since acrylics are water soluble, it is difficult to paint in below freezing weather!
Acrylic Painting Lesson 1 After locating the scene I wish to paint, I pencil in a quick sketch of the scene. I want to capture the colors and reflections of the river, so set the horizon line high with the large rock towards the top of the painting.
Acyrlic Painting Tutorial 2 This is a shot of my palette. When I paint outdoors in acrylic, I use a paper palette. I don’t mess with any type of ‘stay-wet’ palettes or boxes as I usually paint fast and use a spray bottle to keep the acrylics from drying.My palette here consists of Thalo Blue, Ultramarine Blue, Quinacridone Red, Cadmium Red Medium, Raw Sienna, Burnt Sienna, Dialiryde Yellow, and Cadmium Yellow Medium. I use other colors, but for today, that is my choice.

Before I get too much into the painting, I usually mix a combination of Ultramarine Blue and Quinacridone Red to form a purple. I also sometimes mix Thalo Blue and Cadmium Red Medium to get a rich gray.

Acrylic Painting Demo 3 I next block in quickly the general colors. I do this primarily to get rid of the white so as to judge values better as I go along. Many times I prepare my canvas with a coating of Yellow Ochre or Burnt Sienna to tone the white. However, today, I am starting with just a white canvas.For the background, I am using the mixed purple. The other areas are from the mixed gray. The water is Cad Yellow Med and Thalo Blue.

I usually try to let this stage dry before going on. Outdoors with acrylics, this generally takes only a few minutes.

Acrylic Painting Tutorial 4 I then start working from the background forward. I usually work from the back to the front so as to be able to overlap foreground objects more crisply and readily against the background.Here I have blocked in more of the distant mountain and the sky. I am using the same basic colors as the previous block-in.
Acrylic Painting Tips 5 I keep working forward, blocking in the tree line on the left, working the distant stream bank, then the stream itself. I am working more colors into the background such as Burnt Sienna in the stream bank.I work the entire painting again, giving everything another coat of color.

I generally do at least three complete layers over every part of the painting before it is complete. Acrylics tend to be thinner than oil, and this multiple coating technique builds different colors over one another giving more depth and feeling to the painting.

Acrylic Painting Tutorial 6 At this point, I start putting more detail in the distant trees. I also work the far stream bank a little more, adding more detail such as the rocks. I start adding reflections in the distant water.I start adding some Sienna to the water in the middle ground which are the rocks in the bottom of the river.

For the large rock I switch to a palette knife. The paint here is laid on fairly thick to form the consistency and sculpture of the rock. I use the premixed Gray and add Burnt Sienna, premixed Purple, a little Sienna and others to give the rock more texture and color.

Acrylic Painting Demo 7 I now work further on the pool of water. The green is quite brilliant, so I use primarily a mixture of Thalo Blue and Cadmium Yellow Medium. For the darks in the stream bottom, I add Burnt Sienna, and sometimes the purple which I mix from Ultramarine Blue and Quinacridone Red.
Acrylic Landscape Painting 8 I continue working on the foreground pool and begin to sculpt in the smaller rocks with thick paint and a palette knife. I used the premixed gray along with Sienna for these rocks.I also begin to develop the reflections and patterns in the bottom of the pool.
Acrylic Painting Lesson 9 I continue to work on the pool, working the deep greens into the reflected light.I also start adding in the reflected light in the pool. I do this by dabbing a little light gray at the top of the reflection and then pull it down with my finger.
Acrylic Landscape Tutorial 10 I keep adding more reflection on the surface of the water. Since the under painting is dry, it is easy to drag down a wash of grayish white to indicate the reflections of the rocks. I also add some white sparkles around to give the effect of the glinting water.One of the advantages of acrylics over oils is glazing can be quickly done in the field. With oils, you would have to wait days for the painting to dry in order to accomplish the same effect.

I spent just under two hours on the painting, and this is the way it looked as I was finishing it on the scene.

Acrylic Landscape Painting 11 Here is a photo of the scene when close to finished with the painting. I forgot to mention, it rained, sleeted and hailed while doing this study. You can read more about that day and painting on my weblog.
Acrylic Landscape Painting Final Here is the final painting. After I got home, I realized the light reflection in the water detracted from the overall scene, so painted some of it out and grayed out the rest.


  1. Phil says

    I liked the way you composed the picture it looks so well balanced. The water,trees and rocks is highly impressive.I hope to reach your level of achievement some day.

  2. David Church says

    Excellent step-by-step presentation; Seeing the painting “built-up” in steps
    along with the colors and mixtures used is extremely helpful.

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