Category Archives: plein air

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.

Back to the River

It’s still too early to do much planting although I have onions, snow peas, lettuce and kale growing. The garden is tilled but we have to wait another couple of weeks before planting the whole thing.  We’ve done some trimming and tidying of the flowerbeds.  The spring flowering shrubs are next.

Plein air painting along the Blue River in Southern Indiana. As you can see, my easel is actually sitting in the water. What we artists won’t do for our work!

Monday was beautiful and balmy.  A perfect day to return to the Blue River for some more adventures.  This time my husband brought his fishing gear and I brought my painting kit.  It was so peaceful and quiet.  A week since our last visit but I noticed changes.  The redbuds are waning and the dogwoods are coming out.

Blue River, plein air painting. Acrylic, 11 x 14. That spring green will only last for a few weeks.

Bridge over the Blue River. Watercolor / pen and ink. Kit Miracle Created from photos taken on our previous visit last week.

As you can see, I had to set my easel in the water to get the view that I wanted.  I nearly tipped in myself but this is the price an artist pays for the adventure of plein air painting.  My husband got his line wet but not much luck until right at the end when he caught a nice bass.  (He returned it to the river, of course.)

Fishing on the Blue River. My husband actually caught a nice bass but he released it. We peeled off our sweatshirts as the temps warmed up quickly. Spring is here!

Another wandering drive on the way home took us past a little greenhouse.  Of course we stopped.  Although we have some tomatoes and peppers started, I had to buy a few more.  Hey, it’s that time of year.  All you gardeners understand what I mean.  (BTW, I was the only one at the greenhouse wearing a mask!) Later in the week the mice in the greenhouse started nibbling the plants.  Dirty rottens!  I wouldn’t have thought they would like nightshade plants but now I know they do.

So, that’s pretty much my week.  Finished the plein air painting in the studio and did a watercolor/pen and ink of the bridge over the Blue.  Some gardening.  Reading.  Oh, and cleaning the attic of my studio but that’s another story.

Alley View, Plein Air Painting, Jasper, Indiana

Alley View, Plein Air Painting, final, 16 x 20, acrylic, Kit Miracle. This shows the final view of the scene. I might tweak it sometime later after I live with it for awhile, but so far, I’m satisfied.

Although I do a fair amount of plein air painting, I don’t do too many competitions.  Today I participated in a local event which is always fun.  I’m familiar with the area so it’s always a challenge to find new and interesting things to paint.  Yesterday I scouted out a few locations. I don’t like to do what everyone else is doing but seek to highlight a vista that might make people see their own space in a new way.

Alley view, initial scene, very early in the morning.

So this morning found me sitting in an alley. I was drawn to this blue garage and the alternating light and shadows as I looked up the alley.  It was very peaceful on a Saturday morning at daybreak.

Alley View, 1st step. Using a red-toned canvas, I painted in the basic shadows and main shapes.

Alley View, second level. Here you can see more added colors. This is the point in a painting that everything looks like a real mess. But I’ve learned to just keep pressing on and it will come together.

As you can see, I started with a red-toned canvas, 16 x 20.  First I blocked in the main shapes and the darks.  Then I started to lay in the markers for the greens.  The last colors to go in were the lightest colors – whites, off whites, and the sky.  I don’t always work in this order but usually.

Alley View after two hours. Notice how the shadows have changed. Usually 2 – 3 hours is the most time I have for a plein air painting.

Despite the heat and humidity, my acrylic paints kept drying out quickly.  I didn’t bring a retarder with me so I kept having to spray the paint and add layer after layer.

But I enjoyed the peace of the scene.  A few dog walkers, a couple of interested passersby, the occasional bunny rabbit, and inevitably, the Saturday morning lawn mowers all created the peaceful atmosphere.

I might review the painting later to see if I need to tighten it up, but actually, I like the feel of a warm summer morning. How about you?

Alley View, Plein Air Painting, final, 16 x 20, acrylic, Kit Miracle. This shows the final view of the scene. I might tweak it sometime later after I live with it for awhile, but so far, I’m satisfied.

Part II, Western vacation

10 States, 4,435 miles, 4 National Parks, 16 days 

Grand Canyon Vista, plein air sketch, acrylic, 12 x 16, Kit Miracle

Grand Canyon Vista, plein air sketch, acrylic 12 x 16, Kit Miracle

After spending several days at the canyon – with elk roaming right outside our window – we were ready to head on down the road for the next park.  I will say right now that I could actually stay at the Grand Canyon for a year and still not run out of things to paint, but it was, after all, a family vacation.

Early Morning at the Canyon, plein air sketch, acrylic, 12 x 16, Kit Miracle

Early Morning at the Canyon, plein air sketch, acrylic 12 x 16, Kit Miracle

We headed back out the east entrance and north on 89 towards Zion national park.  Saw some amazing scenery that actually reminded us of the Badlands in South Dakota.  Crossed the tip of Lake Powell and entered Utah.

This was very different scenery.  The valleys were so lush and surrounded with red cliffs.  We picked up Utah 9 at Mt. Carmel which took us into Zion national park on our way to Springdale.  Spectacular scenery, even with a lot of traffic due to some road work.

Zion National Park, sketch, Kit Miracle

Zion National Park, sketch, Miracle

The town of Springdale reminded me a lot of Sedona, Arizona, as you’re looking up at the red rocks instead of down into a big hole as at the Grand Canyon.  Luckily, they have free buses (like the GC) which take you up and down the main road and back to the park.  There you get out, go into the park, and get on the free park buses.  All so organized.

The Virgin River runs right through the park and behind our hotel.  Pretty fast river and wouldn’t want to hang around during monsoon season.  The ride through the park was informative with many stops to get off and on.  The first day we just rode through but the second day we got off and did some hiking.  The dry air and lower altitude made for a very pleasant visit.

Utah scenery, sketch, Kit Miracle

Utah scenery, sketch, Kit Miracle

After a few days, we headed up the road towards Moab and our last stop at Arches National Park.  On the way, we had a huge breakfast in Hurricane, Utah at The Stagecoach Inn.  Then a little more shopping at the favorite big box store.

The scenery along the way was once again beautiful with many landscape features.  I kept running down the battery in my camera and phone.

I must say that we were not impressed with Moab.  It just seemed another tourist town with overpriced everything.  The motel we stayed at which touted scenic view rooms was rustic to be kind.  The view was of a chain link fence three feet from our window and the room was minuscule.  Just goes to show you not to believe everything you read on the internet when you’re making reservations.  In fact, we decided to leave a day early (they, of course, never refunded the second night).

After a quick breakfast the next morning, we left to auto-tour Arches.  Again, fantastic scenery. However, the granddaughter by that time was getting restless.  When we urged her to look at the views, she complained, “ just more rocks.”  Ha ha.  So glad that we got a very early start for the park that day as by the time we left, the line of cars to get into it was very long.

Snow Covered Rockies in Colorado, sketch, Kit Miracle

Snow covered Rockies in Colorado, sketch, Kit Miracle

Then home again, home again.  A long ride home on I-70.  Left Utah and started climbing the Rockies in Colorado.  Still snow in Vail and beyond.  The temperature dropped to 45 degrees.  Bumper to bumper traffic for miles.  Just people who had gone to the mountains for the weekend and were heading home on Sunday afternoon.  Our hotel room never felt so good.

Wind farm, Kansas, sketch, Kit Miracle

Wind farm, Kansas, sketch, Kit Miracle

Left early the next morning and ended up in Lawrence, Kansas.  Miles and miles of giant wind farms.  And the final day home where we caught I-64 in St. Louis. Crossed the swollen Missouri and Mississippi Rivers.

Interestingly enough, we had no rain at all until we reached the Indiana border.

It’s great to be home but we haven’t caught up with things on the farm.  Taming the garden, the lawn and weeds.  Repairing the drive which was in danger of washing away due to the torrential rains while we were gone. But we are left with many great memories to last a lifetime.

These are the stats.

Books read:

  • Colin Fletcher The Man Who Walked Through Time
  • John Steinbeck Travels with Charlie. I read this years ago so it was wonderful to revisit.
  • Edward Abbey Desert Solitare: A Season in the Wilderness. This gave me a different perspective on the national park, especially Arches.
  • Plus a few Kindle downloads for good measure.
  • Granddaughter read at least a dozen books. And husband was into westerns.

Best roads:  Utah and eastern Colorado.

Worst roads:  Oil fields of Texas and New Mexico

Best food:  just about everywhere but especially Sprindale, Utah.

Best parks:  ALL of them!  So great to see this wonderful country and what belongs to the American people.

Photos taken:  1500+, two phones and a camera

That’s it for now.  I may take a short break from my beach series of paintings and work on some Western paintings, while the scenery is still fresh.

Trees at Alton, Indiana, on the Ohio River

Trees at Alton, Indiana, on the Ohio River. Plein air, 12 x 16, Kit Miracle

Yesterday I drove up to Indianapolis to drop off a couple of paintings at the Indiana Plein Art Painters Association annual member exhibit.  I haven’t entered this before, mostly because of the three hour drive.  But the day was a beautiful fall day, starting off with some fog in low-lying areas. The fall colors were breathtaking.  For those of you who think Indiana is represented by flat cornfields, nothing could be further from the truth.  The southern part consists of beautiful hills, rivers, and streams covered mostly by deciduous forests.  This time of year, the landscape is a panorama of golds and reds.  It was just a glorious day for a drive.

One of the two paintings I entered is Trees at Alton, Indiana, on the Ohio River.  I just painted this back in late September.  As you can see, the tall trees on the left are just beginning to show some color.  Alton is a tiny little collection of houses and has been flooded many times over the years. But the people who live here are passionate about living on the Ohio River so they always come back.  There is something mesmerizing about the big river with its barges and other river traffic.  I can just sit and watch the river for hours.

This scene is pretty classic.  Just some trees, a path leading into the picture, a river and some hills.  A very peaceful vista.

If you’re interested in seeing the whole exhibit, it is at the Hoosier Salon Gallery in Carmel, just north of Indianapolis.  The exhibit runs from November 10th  through  December 14th.  The reception is Saturday,, November 10th 5-9 pm.  There are many beautiful paintings of all parts of Indiana and most of the work is for sale. Take a gander at this exhibit and visit lovely downtown Carmel with its many arty and eclectic shops and eateries.  A great time for some holiday shopping.

Painting close to home

Garden in August, acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20, Kit Miracle

Visiting new places is always fun and inspiring for artists, but many of the best paintings have been made close to home.  One of my favorites is one that Renoir painted of Monet in his garden.  It’s just a homey painting of a backyard with other houses in the distance.

Renoir painting of Monet in garden

Today I decided paint a scene that I see every day from my breakfast table. It is of my garden this month with the tall sunflowers and multi-color zinnias and other flowers.  The rest of the garden is still producing but is beginning to look a little straggly this time of year.  We’re still getting plenty of tomatoes, eggplants, beans, and peppers.  But it’s the flowers that I really love. The birds and butterflies love them, too.

Garden in August. The sunflowers and zinnias are in full bloom. The vegies are still producing heavily. Lots of tomatoes, eggplants, beans and peppers.

I got out early to take advantage of the cool morning and the shade.  The canvas is primed with a beige color and painted black on the border.

Garden in August, step 1. Here I have generally covered most of the canvas. Notice that I’ve edited the trees in the background to provide more interest.

The first step as usual for me is to lay in the general composition and the dark colors.  As you can see, I did some editing, removing the line of trees in the background and just including a few big trees.  I also squashed things together a bit for the composition.

Garden in August, step 2. More blocking in plus I’ve added the sky and most of the foreground.

Next I laid in more darks and some brighter greens as well as the sky.  I wanted a rosy early morning sky….so I made one.

Actually the most difficult part was painting the flowers.  It is so hard to get them bright without being gaudy.  I ended up painting a light wash of pale green over some of them to tone down their brightness.

The entire painting took about three hours minus some time for a phone call to a friend while I was waiting for paint to dry. The point here is that you don’t have to travel a great distance to find something worthy to paint.  A good subject might be just outside your window.

Plein air painting at the Parklands

Bridge at Parklands, plein air, acrylic, 16 x 20, Kit Miracle

I attended a plein air painting event today at the Parklands.  This is a new park in the area which just opened last month.  Already, it has become a popular destination for dog walkers, bicyclists, moms pushing strollers, just about anyone of any age.  Created from a former golf course, it features three lakes/ponds, several water features, an outdoor musical instruments area, exercise equipment activities, a pavilion for special events, a splash park for kids, and many other features.

Although the day was promising to be exceedingly hot with temperatures in the 90s, I elected my first painting should be of a new bridge over a waterfall.  Usually one only has about two hours to make a plein air painting before the sun and the shadows move too much.

I always start with a small black and white Notan sketch before I begin to paint. Then on a toned canvas, I lay in the darks.  Since I was working in acrylic, it didn’t take long for the paint to dry.  In fact, I had to use an acrylic retarder to slow down the  drying.

This is the view I selected. I liked the shape of the new bridge and the contre jour light (backlight). As you can see, I began painting in the darks on a red-toned canvas.

I start with a one inch brush which will get 85% of the painting done.  The bigger the brush, the less fussy I am.  Sometimes I begin laying in the sky.  In this case, I laid in some of the other darks and midtones and just kept working away.  The bridge was critical as any mistakes could really make the painting ….well, not good.

About 85% finished. Leaving the bridge for last, I concentrated on the landscape first.

The final touches are to add the lightest colors, the highlights, the sky holes in the trees, most with smaller brushes.  I really like the peeps of red showing through the painting.  I think it adds a little bit of liveliness.

A friendly little butterfly who kept me company quite a while. I think it’s a Painted Lady butterfly. Very appropriate.

One interesting thing happened to me while I was painting.  I had a little butterfly who just kept hanging around.  She walked along the top of the painting, then the sides, not even moving as I painted closer to her.  If I shooed her away, she quickly came back.  If my identification is correct, this was a Painted Lady butterfly. How appropriate.

After I finished this painting, I moved to the shade where I completed another one of a different scene.  Fortunately, there was a nice breeze all day but it was still pretty dang hot.

To my surprise at final judging, I was awarded first prize.  So it was worth the melting conditions.  Maybe the Painted Lady brought me a little luck.

Plein air painting on a lovely spring day

I went plein air painting with my friend Bill Whorrall this week up in beautiful Martin County, Indiana.  There is just a small window between the dreariest of winter and the veredant summer.  This time of year the landscape sports so many different shades of greens, as well as the beautiful red-bud, dogwood and other spring flowers. I wanted to capture the scene before it was gone.

Plein air painting in Martin County, Indiana. The Overlook in Shoals.

This day we painted at The Overlook in Shoals, Indiana.  The scenery is gorgeous any time of year but especially now with the freshly tilled fields.  The river you see there is the White River which can sometimes be pretty angry.  Now you can see it as the peaceful water highway it once was.

The painting is acrylic on hardwood which has been gessoed and sanded.  I chose the longer format as it seemed to fit the landscape.

I only had a couple of hours to get most of the painting down before the sun had moved.  A few final tweaks were done in the studio.  Unfortunately, I accidentally deleted all of my photos for the day so this is the only one available from my Facebook page.

Yes, the painting is for sale on my Etsy shop, KitMiracleArt.

The Overlook in Shoals, Indiana. Martin County. Acrylic on wood panel,12 x 24, Kit Miracle, Spring landscape.

A Week of Painting

A question that I often receive is, “Are you still painting?”  This puzzles me.  Do we ask musicians if they still make music?  Or writers if they still write?

The answer is, Yes, I paint nearly every day for several hours.  This is what I do.  I can’t seem to help myself.  I often do some inside work or gardening in the early part of the day, then head out to the studio and paint. And paint. And paint.

These are three paintings that I completed last week.

Chinese Bridge at Missouri Botanical Gardens, St. Louis, acrylic on canvas, 24 x 30, Kit Miracle

This large one is acrylic on canvas 24 x 30 inches. The scene is from the Missouri Botanical Gardens in St. Louis.  As it’s only a few hours away, my husband and I like to visit for a quick trip.  The gardens are beautiful in nearly any season.  The scene depicted here is from the Chinese garden area.  I was attracted to the bridge, of course, but also the back lighting.  It has some echoes of Monet but is pure American impressionism.

Windy Day at the Lake, acrylic on canvas board, 12 x 16, Kit Miracle

The next painting is called Windy Day at the Lake.  I painted this en plein air on Friday. My husband and I went over to the Lake (Patoka); him to fish, me to paint.  We found a nice sheltered  area and had a wonderful morning at the lake.  The acrylic sketch is 12 x 16 on canvas board.

Japanese Bridge at Missouri Botanical Gardens, acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20, Kit Miracle

The final painting that I completed last week is of the bridge in the Japanese area of the Missouri Botanical Gardens in St. Louis.  I was attracted to the early autumn colors, the shape of the bridge, and the reflections in the lake.  Painted in acrylic on canvas, it has the edges painted black so it wouldn’t necessarily need a frame but could be hung as is.  It just gives such a feeling of peace.

So, as an artist, this is what I do.

Urban sketchers

Urban sketchers is a group of people from all over the world who sketch their local areas and post them online at Urban Sketchers.

This is a little different from plein air painters but in the same vein. Sometimes they get together at various locales, but their different styles are inspiring.  It is also great fun to view the different parts of the world that they sketch.  Many of the paintings are pretty complete while others are really just “sketches.”  Check them out!