Small Format Outdoor Painting

Outdoor painting, or “plein air” painting, has long been celebrated for capturing the essence of the landscape in natural light. One artist’s approach highlights the beauty and practicality of creating small format works as a means to cultivate inspiration and develop larger pieces.

Small Format Painting

For Jonathan MacAdam, small studies serve as a starting point, a sort of ideation phase where creativity is uninhibited. These small sketches, often of Skyscapes or vast Landscapes, are usually done outdoors, directly in the presence of the scenery that inspires them. The artist appreciates the “looseness” that painting outdoors affords, suggesting that working on a small scale allows for experimentation without significant investment.

MacAdam’s Selection of Colors

The artist’s palette is limited and carefully selected, comprising essential colors like Titanium White, Cobalt Blue, Ultramarine Blue, Burnt Sienna, Burnt Umber, Ivory Black, Yellow Ochre and Lemon Yellow. This arrangement of colors is close to something called “Brunaille” — painting in brown monochrome or in muted colors — to establish the values before introducing vibrant colors.

The method involves painting on a toned panel, often gray or mid-toned, to allow the colors, especially the lights to stand out quickly. This preparation stage results in a composition that might evolve into a larger work, often for MacAdam a piece with panoramic dimensions.

Equipped with the Pochade Palette, a phone for capturing images, and occasionally a higher-quality camera, MacAdam emphasizes the value of mobility. The small format oil sketches are often 5×7 or 4×6 inches, sizes that are ideal for plein air work without the burden of carrying heavy equipment.

The preference for painting directly in nature rather than from photographs is clear; the latter only serves as inspiration when it triggers a vivid memory of the site and its particular conditions. Painting from life, allows for a deeper engagement with the environment and an intimate recollection of the experience while back in the studio.

Keep it Simple

The portability of the Pochade Palette is a key part of the process. The small, lightweight apparatus is conducive for long hikes scouting out the perfect location, a practice that would be encumbered by a heavier setup.

Once back in the studio, these plein air sketches inform the larger canvases, with MacAdam adding just enough color to bring the painting to life without overwhelming it. This approach to working enhances the final piece, ensuring it remains true to his original vision.


What emerges from this artistic practice is the conviction that personal interpretation is at the heart of original artwork. The small format plein air paintings are not mere reproductions of the landscape but are infused with perception, brushwork, and design elements.

These small panels, while not final pieces, are foundational, rich with subtle notes and nuances of a particular moment and place. They are the underpainting of a larger vision, capturing fleeting light and color. In the journey from plein air to studio, from small format to expansive canvas, MacAdam finds a balance between fidelity to the natural world and the unique expression that defines his work.