Free art tutorial and my first plein air class - Manuela Bianco
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Free art tutorial and my first plein air class

Plein air art class

I’m excited to give you my very first online art tutorial right here! And I also want to fill you in on all the details about my first plein air drawing class which took place recently. I have to admit it threw me a few curve balls but it was a great learning experience…

“To look, to see, to understand, to capture – however imperfectly – is to be part of the land in a way like no other. “

Jan Blencowe

The idea of leading a drawing class outside first occurred to me during the lockdown of 2022. All my classes were suddenly online and my students bemoaned the lack of contact with other people. Some of them mentioned how lovely it would be to draw outside – and so the seed was planted… Shortly after, I started working at the Voorlinden museum which has the most stunning gardens, designed by the internationally-renowned Dutch landscape designer, Piet Oudolf. And the seed really started to germinate. The first class took place in the gardens in June 2022 and it gave me a few surprises…

Leading a plein air drawing class was fun but it was also full of surprises!

I obviously knew that drawing outside wasn’t going to be the same experience as an art class inside but trying it out made me appreciate some big differences:

  • The distractions and noises
  • The wind – moving both utensils and subject!
  • The visual noise around the subject – a simple flower in a vase is much easier to draw than when it’s surrounded by greenery

Use a viewfinder to pin-point the exact image you want to capture for your plein air painting

The main goal of the workshop was to make lots of quick sketches and take photos of the details. When you’re outside, not only is time a limitation but it’s often hard to get close to your subject to add the detail. That’s why it makes sense to draw the outline, the proportions, the scale and add detail from the comfort of the indoors. I gave my 11 students all the materials they needed plus a clip board and the all-important viewfinder. This is a cardboard frame that you use to choose what you’re going to draw. It’s a crucial tool that enables you to remember what exactly you’re drawing, where it starts and where it finishes.

To have sparked an interest in learning and creativity in my students was really rewarding

The class was really enjoyable, with a relaxed, happy vibe. Many of my students want to continue learning from me and I got the lovely feedback of: “The way you teach is really non-judgemental.” And it’s true that I never force people to sketch the way I like to draw, I always adapt my teaching methods to my students’ personal preferences and style.  

And now I want to inspire you to put pencil to paper. I want you to unleash your creativity. And I want to see the results! Send me your photos or tag me in social media and I promise to share your work on my platforms.


So let’s get started! The first step is to obviously choose a location for your drawing. I’d recommend somewhere with trees as they can be drawn in a simplified way. And by learning to add texture and tonal values, they will look like trees, no matter how simple the sketch.

plein air, trees
Trees are a great subject to start with as they can be sketched in a simple way

Use your view finder to pinpoint the exact scene you wish to draw, noting the start and end as well as the amount of sky and grass you wish to fit in.

Make sure the proportions and shape are right before moving on to the next stage

The most important message is: don’t draw too many details. Sketch the main shapes as blocks and look for angles and directions. Look at all trees together. Capture the distinction between the sky and trees. I like to draw geometric shapes as I find it easier to go from geometric to round rather than vice versa and build your picture that way.

It’s easy to move from geometric shapes to round ones than vice versa

Keep cross-referencing your drawing with your viewfinder scene and make sure all the proportions, size, shapes and angles are right until you move on to the next stage.

Once you’re happy that the outline is finished, you can start adding curved lines and texture. Texture can be created by hatching (criss-crossing lines or dashes for example).

Start adding texture and more rounded shapes once the proportions are to your liking

The next important stage is adding light and shadow to your drawing. It’s crucial to make sure that some white is left in your artwork. Identify the bits that should remain white and then colour the rest in light grey with an HB pencil. Then with a softer, 2B pencil, you can start adding shadows. You can use two tonal values or just one. The drawing will soon start to become more two-dimensional. A handy tip is to squint your eyes to really exaggerate light and dark, to help you convey that in your drawing.

Adding tonal values will help guide the adding of colour

Now let’s really bring the plein air picture to life by adding some colour. Watercolour is a great medium to use for this purpose as it’s relatively quick. And by having the pencil outline and tonal values, you’ll know where to add the layers of colour.

Use a 2B pencil to shade the darker parts of the drawing

STEP ONE : add one layer of water colour in a not too light or dark wash. So a blueish wash for sky, light green trees and olive green for the grass was my personal choice. (Make sure you have enough colour before you start – you don’t want to run out half way through!) This first layer gives a transparent effect – you’ll see bright colour where there isn’t a pencil shading but where there is pencil you’ll see a bit of colour but also depth and shadow. Now let it dry.

STEP TWO : Once completely dry add another layer of the same colours. Since you have already drawn tonal values you can use them as a guide. And this is an interesting process in itself, by seeing how many washes you need, you’ll learn about tonal values and how you should apply watercolour to drawings. In my drawing, the trees are not just light grey but have two more tonal values. So add another layer on the parts where it’s darker than light grey. The same goes for grass – add more colour where it’s darker than just light grey. Let it dry.

STEP THREE : Add only water with your brush. Blot with paper to absorb water and the colour from steps one and two. This helps to lighten up parts that have become too dark. It’s also a great way of correcting any mistakes that have been made. 

STEP FOUR : Add another layer in the same way but only in the darkest bits. Continue like that until you have all the depth and shadows needed to make your artwork really captivating.

My general advice would be to work with layers that you let dry in between adding new ones. This gives you more control and you can create a uniform effect. It’s important to work with enough water – otherwise you could be left with vertical or horizontal marks on paper, depending on which way you’re painting.  Also, don’t follow the contours of your drawing with your brush but, instead, work in a horizontal way. Do contour and filling at same time as if your drawing was flooded with colour from the top. If you follow contours you’ll leave the lines and those lines will remain visible once your artwork is completed.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this plein air tutorial and are inspired to try it out for yourself. If you have any questions or feedback please leave a comment below. I’d be delighted to see your artwork and will share it on my social media channels – so please tag me @manuela_bianco or contact me via my website. It’s time to unleash your creativity!

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