Plein Air Painting in Procreate with Mike McCain

On ArtStation Learning, Mike McCain delves into his process for plain air painting and demonstrates how it’s one of the most effective ways for any artist to improve their understanding of light, color, and value. With Procreate and the iPad Pro, digital plein air painting has never been more convenient so get ready to grab yours and join in on the fun.

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You can download Procreate through the App Store here.

Mike McCain (Offline) (@mmccain) | TwitterMike McCain is a creative director, illustrator, and visual development artist, best known for directing the games SHADOWRUN: DRAGONFALL and BATTLETECH by Harebrained Schemes. He is currently based in Los Angeles working in the animation industry. In his spare time, he heads for the nearest open sky to hike, paint, and practice photography.

In this interview, Mike shares his favorite features in Procreate, his biggest learning experiences, and more behind his ArtStation Learning course.

Behind the course:

I started plein air painting more regularly a few years ago.  During that time, I feel like I’ve learned more about color, value, light, and shape interpretation than I have at any other point in my career as an artist. With digital tools like Procreate, it’s never been more convenient to get outside and paint. I hope to get more comfortable using traditional paints someday too, but I have to admit that the ease and “safety” of digital really helped me work up the courage and motivation to get out there and paint in the first place.

I think that’s a really cool thing about Procreate and similar apps, making digital such a viable approach to plein air. (Sidenote – if you don’t have an iPad, you can still do plein air sketches on a smartphone in Procreate surprisingly well with your finger or a 3rd-party stylus.) Anyway, I’m excited to share what I’ve learned so far, and hopefully inspire some more artists to start plein air painting too!

Most memorable learning experience:

In the summer of 2018, I’d just shipped a game that I’d been directing for years. I was feeling pretty burnt out and needed to slow way down and recharge. I was fortunate to be able to take a few months off work to travel and focus on getting back to a healthier headspace to reconnect with my art. It took several weeks to adjust to a less urgency-driven life where I wasn’t in a meeting or checking email every 20 minutes. But once I did, it was liberating. I took a long road trip with no schedule, explored many of our wonderful National Parks, and did lots of plein air paintings and illustrations. I found that for the first time in years, I was really having fun creating art, for its own sake.

The beauty and solitude of the trip helped me stop worrying about how long a piece was taking. It doesn’t matter as long as I’m enjoying and learning from it right? I think slowing way down like this for a time actually made me a faster artist in the long run. This is when I first made a lot of my custom Procreate brushes, studying the nature around me and exploring ways to interpret it more economically. By taking the time to experiment deeper in my work that summer, I think I was able to return with a confidence and voice I’d been missing before. I’ve been trying to build on that foundation since.

1 piece of advice:

Keep an open mind, cultivate a lifelong “growth mindset”, and don’t lose sight of the fun.

Art isn’t a singular path or a linear one – there are many paths up the mountain, and they all twist and turn. Some artists think very “flat”, others much more spatially. There are drawers and painters, storyboard artists and graphic designers, characters, and environments. Early in your art studies, I think it’s important to try a lot of different approaches to art, to try to understand the path(s) that best fit YOUR brain.

I spent years thinking I had to be able to draw a certain way to be successful as an artist. It’s only when I admitted to myself that that kind of drawing didn’t come naturally to me, and that’s OK, that I was able to focus on building a more painterly set of skills. There are no shortcuts on the journey but finding a way to create that resonates with how you think and what interests you most, can help you grow more effectively.

Favorite Procreate feature:

Couch mode! Honestly, being able to paint away from my desk is huge for me. I’ve used both a laptop and tablet PC before, but it’s always been such an awkward workflow experience. The portability of the iPad and tactile fun of interacting with Procreate really helped me find the fun again in my art.  It got me out of a painting rut both physically (getting away from my desk) and mentally (learning a new program).

If I had to choose a specific feature though, it’d be straight-line snapping. I’ve gotten so used to draw-and-hold line drawing that I do it in Photoshop now all the time and just sit there wondering why it’s not working. I also love using Procreate’s brush creation tools, which got even better in Procreate 5! If you’re interested in my brushes, you can check them out on my ArtStation store page.

Try ArtStation Learning courses  – included in all ArtStation premium subscriptions. Find out more >

Download Procreate on the App store here.

See more of Mike’s work here.

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About the author

Sierra is the Editor of ArtStation Magazine.