Daily Archives: May 3, 2020

Plein Air Painting – Tips and Tricks

Perched on the edge of the Grand Canyon. This was from 2011 but I went back to the same spot last year. Not much had changed.

I have been painting en plein air for many years.  This is just a fancy French term for outdoor painting. The practice has been around for a couple of centuries but the activity has really exploded in the past few decades.  There are magazines and organizations, contests and exhibits of plein air paintings all over the world.  This doesn’t even take into consideration the books, videos, YouTube, and other outlets for this art activity.

Turner, J.M.W.; Travelling watercolour box owned by J.M.W. Turner, R.A This little watercolor box is a couple of hundred years old.
Credit line: (c) Royal Academy of Arts

Over the years I’ve had many people say to me, I wish I could do that.  Well, I’m here to tell you that you can.  You just have to start.  This will be a three part post about helping you get over the hurdles and begin painting outdoors.  Today I’ll cover some of the basics, including equipment, drawing, where to go, etc.  Then the next  post will cover watercolor and the final post will add tips for acrylic or oil painting.

So let’s get started.

What kind of equipment do you need?

This can be as simple or as complicated as you want to make it.  A sketchbook and a pencil or pen is a good place to start.  Just get used to carrying one with you all the time.  One of my favorites is a small hardback sketchbook (ProArt) which is only about 3.5 by 5 inches.  It’s small enough to fit in a purse or pocket.  I’ve used it on beaches and mountains, in museums, restaurants, and theatres.  (Not all plein air painting is done outdoors.)  It’s good practice to just to sketch.  It trains your eye to see.

From a simple sketchbook you can climb up to spending a whole lot of money on fancy easels and other equipment.  But you don’t have to and it won’t necessarily make you a better painter.

My personal philosophy is to keep my equipment portable and lightweight.  I currently keep a backpack or other carrying bag (purchased used at a resale shop) packed for each type of medium I use.  The messenger bag that I use for watercolor was $5 at St. Vincent de Paul.  The bag I use for acrylics or oils is an old backpack.  I even keep a backpack with gear for framing if I should be at a competition where I need to submit a framed painting.

I have a couple of lightweight aluminum easels, one for watercolors (it tilts) and the other for vertical works on canvas or board.  They have extendable legs and even have spikes which are handy for anchoring your easel.  But, you can use your lap, a rock or fence, or other handy surface to support your work.  You can even make your own.  (Check here for instructions from James Gurney.)  I carry my easels in a bag that I made from an old pair of jeans.  You can’t imagine where that bag has traveled.

A stool or portable chair is also handy.  It can get tiring standing for several hours and I’d rather be comfortable.

Painting at Jackson Lake, Wyoming. I was watching for bears but sure don’t know what I would have done if I saw one.

Cathedral Rock, Arizona.

Where should I paint?

Frankly, anywhere you want to.  If I don’t have much time, I’ll just go out in the yard and paint some flowers, or trees, or landscapes.  I’ve dragged my equipment all over the country and even to France.  I’ve even rigged up a way to pack it on my bicycle and travel with it.

I’ve done sketches leaning against a building in Times Square late at night, on the edge of the Grand Canyon, along beaches, in the woods.  One time I was even next to a railroad track when a train hammered through.  A little exciting, for sure.

Using the lift gate as an improvised shelter during a drizzle.

When should I paint?

That is a personal preference but I like early morning or late afternoon because of the dramatic shadows.  But if you only have a little time, then take what you have and find somewhere.  There will never be a perfect place.  But you will make it perfect by selecting the composition.

Weather can be a factor.  I have painted in the rain either under the gate of my car or under an overhanging porch.  If it’s windy, you definitely want to anchor your easel with some bungees and your backpack.  If you’re painting in the snow, take some hand-warmers, scarves, and a hot beverage.  You can even paint in your car and make your steering wheel into a prop for your work.

Painting with my friend Bill Whorrall. It’s interesting how two artists can paint the same subject at the same time but come up with totally different paintings.

Is it better to paint alone or with a group?

This is really personal preference.  I mostly paint alone more for my convenience than anything. But I know two ladies who have been painting together weekly for over forty years!  Some people enjoy the camaraderie of painting with a group or the excitement of a timed contest.  I just like to set my own pace without worrying about another person.  Except for my husband who enjoys fishing so we both get to do what we want together.

There is also the safety issue.  Being aware of your surroundings is always good, whether from beast or human or falling off a cliff.  Don’t do that! I’ve had both good and bad encounters with dogs.  One old guy just lay under my easel for the entire time I was painting.  A couple of others followed my bicycle looking at my leg like a steak.  Hot pepper spray has its uses.

The Saturday before Mother’s Day found me in the gardening department. The staff never bothered me but I did have someone come up and ask if I could help them. I was wearing my paint apron so they thought I worked there.

I’m embarrassed to have other people watch me while I work.  What do I do about gawkers?

People are naturally curious, especially about seeing an artist in the wild.  Most are very polite and won’t even interrupt you but just watch for a bit and move on.  I often use a set of earphones (listening to music or not).  Sometimes I’ll only unplug one ear as I answer their questions, then (while still holding the earpiece) kind of turn around.  They get the message and move on.  Other times, take the opportunity to talk with your audience.  Ask about the scene and what they know of the area.  Educate them on what you’re doing.  Maybe you’ll even sell your painting if the scene holds special meaning for them. Frankly, you’ll quickly become comfortable working in front of people.  Believe me.  Really!

Make lists.

I have lists made for each of the type of medium I plan to use for the day.  Although my bags are packed, invariably I will forget something if I don’t look at the list.  Do I have water for painting acrylic or watercolor …and a container.  One time I forgot my palette.  I improvised by using an extra canvas that I had with me.  Lists are just a nice way to relieve your brain from the last minute frantic packing and getting ready.  I’ll share my lists with you in my next post.

This is a long post but I hope it encourages you to get outdoors and do some artwork.