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A Beginners’ Guide to Plein Air Painting

Heather Martin

Have you always wanted to go plein-air painting, but are overwhelmed by all of the things you need or maybe are shy about painting in public? You’re not alone! Today I'll address some of the most common concerns and help make those initial paintings a little less scary and a little more enjoyable.

What if I Don’t Finish in Time? 

  • Start Small - Leave that giant canvas and ego at home. I suggest a postcard sized canvas or smaller. Working on these little pieces will allow you to finish more than one, and is also lighter to pack.
  • Use Big Brushes - Do yourself a favor and forgo those tiny detail brushes too! Using bigger brushes will force you to simplify into shapes, and will be much more efficient at covering the canvas quicker. 
  • Keep it Simple - Instead of painting the wide landscape with that house, tree, mountain, and pond, zoom in on a simple subject like a single tree or umbrella. Preferably something with consistent light that won’t be moving around much.
  • Take a Photo - Don’t be afraid of taking photos. You aren’t cheating, the camera is a tool! I always take a photo to get a good composition, and also to serve as a reminder of how the light and shadows were. Just don’t use the photo as a crutch, try to get as much done from life and memory as possible.
  • Do Multiple Sessions - You can always do more than one session! I’ve been doing larger pieces with multiple sessions and really love it. It takes off a little bit of stress of needing to get it done in one go, and lets you add the level of detail that you want. Just make note of the time of day and conditions so you replicate that moment as much as possible.

  • I Don’t Want People to Look! 

    While there’s certainly people that thrive on being the center of attention, not everyone loves that aspect of plein-air. Some artists want to simply be left alone or perhaps lean on the shy side, so I’ve gathered a handful of handy tips for you.

  • Go sans-Easel - I find that one of the most effective ways to keep people from noticing you is to just be a little more discreet in your setup. Painting without an easel on a bench or on the ground, with a simple sketchbook in hand is way less attention grabbing than a full easel setup.
  • Over-the-ear Headphones - It’s hard to paint if you’re constantly torn out of your flow state, so having over-the-ear headphones has been a good way to cut down on the unnecessary chatter. Some people still will find a way to talk, but it’s easier to pretend to not notice them with these on. Note: Be aware of your environment and don’t use any noise cancelling features if it’s unsafe.
  • Find a Group - Plein-air painting can feel like you’re wearing a giant hot dog costume in public. While it’s really embarrassing and hard to go out alone, if you’re with 10 other people wearing hot dog costumes it isn’t SO bad. There’s a growing number of great plein-air groups out there, and I highly recommend venturing out with some to start out. While it might not attract LESS attention, it can be easier to handle if you’re not the only one.
  • Car Painting - Car painting is a great stepping stone to plein-air. It’s private, quiet, and you can paint in all sorts of weather conditions. You can make quite the fancy setup with steering wheel tables, easels, and other accessories. James Gurney has a great post about it HERE.

  • But The Changing Weather and Light is Intimidating!

  • Weather Obstacles 
    • Wind - Windy conditions are tricky! High winds can tip over unsteady easels, and dry out your gouache or watercolor paints. Look for locations with a little more wind protection (going on top of an exposed hilltop isn’t the best idea), and if you’re using a tripod easel, be sure to weigh it down and extend the middle leg out more for more support. Some easels have a hook in the middle that you can hang your pack on for stability.
    • Rain - Gouache and watercolor artists are a bit out of luck on this one, but I have painted in light rains with gouache. An umbrella is key, as well as a flexible attitude. Oils are great for rainy day paintings.
    • Heat - The heat is one of the more difficult types of weather to paint in, personally. Shade is ESSENTIAL, and I swear by my bestbrella. The metallic one is good for those super hot days to reflect the sun away, but I like the white umbrella so I can see my painting a little better. Gouache painters, be sure to have your spray bottle on hand because your gouache will dry up quick.
    • Cold - Cold weather makes gouache dry slowly, so prepare for that and use a little less water in your mixes. I carry around little hand warmers since my hands are always quick to freeze up. Be sure to bundle up, when you’re standing still for hours the cold gets intolerable pretty quick.
  • Changing Light - The best times for beginner plein-air painters is (in my opinion) between 11am and 3pm. The sun is high in the sky and the light changes aren’t as drastic. Morning and evening light is the most beautiful and dramatic, but changes very quickly and can be frustrating. Also, be sure to check for which way the sun is moving so you can predict the shadow directions and if your subject’s light will change unfavorably.
  • Lighting on Your Painting - Light on your subject is important but don’t forget about the light on your painting. If you are standing in dark shade, your painting might look lighter than you expected when you stand in normal lighting. If your canvas is in full sunlight, your work might end up darker and higher contrast than intended. It’s good to occasionally check your work under both shadow and light.

  • Be Prepared

  • Create a Checklist - I tried to come up with a clever acronym to remember all of my gouache painting supplies, but ended up with way too many “P”’s (Paint, Palette, Paper towels, Paper). It is far too common to go all the way out to a painting destination and realize you forgot a crucial supply, so make a list and double check it!
  • Pack Essentials - Other than art supplies, I have some essentials that make being out all day a little more tolerable and safe. Sunscreen, snack bars, phone chargers, business cards (people will ask!), hand wipes, artists tape and maybe even a first aid kit if you’re going on a long hike.
  • Check the Weather - Knowing your weather conditions is so important. Make a habit of checking it before you head out so you can find a comfortable place to be.
  • Safety First - Bring a buddy when you can, especially to unfamiliar places. If you’re going alone, it’s good to tell friends or family where you will be. Also be prepared to have some run-ins with local wildlife, and learn what to do when you encounter them. 

  • With all that said, remember, practice and persistence is the most important key, and over time you will learn things that work best for you. So get on out there, enjoy the smells, sounds and sights of the great outdoors, and HAVE FUN!!!




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    1 comment

    • These are super-useful tips, especially the time of day/lighting ones. Something I’ve found good to take with me is a piece of bubble wrap. I can use it when sitting on a damp wall or wet grass when taking a break, or for spreading extra supplies on. I also often take a camping stool because I get tired and need to know I can sit, but it is an extra weight unfortunately.

      Caroline Greene

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