Painting ‘En Plein Air’

In Australia where I live, we’re currently in Summer, when many more artists may be thinking about heading outdoors to paint. It can be a little daunting at times, especially if you’ve never done it before, but that’s usually because too much gear is brought, or you don’t know how to zone in on a subject or how best to start. How I start can vary, especially if on an overcast day and the light flits in and out.

Whether for a day or on a painting holiday, let me put your mind at ease and hopefully provide you with the motivation to go painting ‘En Plein Air’ with a list of tips to make your painting experience as enjoyable as possible. Much of what is written here applies to all mediums, with the exception of bringing some different materials to work with.

  1. Bring with you only what you feel you’ll need and leave excess paper and materials back in your car, or at your accommodation if travelling.
  2. Make sure if using an easel, that it’s sturdy and if you haven’t used it in a while, practice setting it up a couple of times before leaving home. The same applies if using a painting or umbrella. Avoid attaching it to your easel if you can, or only use it on very calm days as the wind can suddenly blow everything over. It’s happened to me once… in long grass!!
  3. A small collapsible stool may come in handy if not using an easel. Doubles as a table too.
  4. Have all your pastels in one field box, preferably sorted in their colours from light to dark.
  5. Bring a small container with a lid to hold the pastels you’re using, with your field box laid on the ground if necessary. If time is short, you can then close the lid and clean and return the pastels to the main box at home.
  6. If your pastel box rests under your board whilst painting, rest or attach a V-shaped paper sleeve to sit under the length of your board to catch pastel dust, thereby avoiding all your pastels from getting dusty.
  7. I use a lightweight gator board and a final protective foam core board on top (for travel purposes). Glassine paper I consider to be optional.
  8. Work smaller than in your studio. I recommend your board and paper should be no larger than 1/4 or 1/2 sheet size. I always clip my next sheet over the last one I just painted and continue this way. I’ve never had an issue doing this.
  9. Avoid being overwhelmed – decide to paint the first subject that captures your attention, then move on to the next. You’ll otherwise lose the good light having spent too much time deciding what to paint.
  10. Use a VIEWER at each location to determine your painting subject. It allows you to hone in on what makes for a better composition.
  11. Ask yourself what you want to say about your subject and instinctively the rest will fall into place in order of importance.
  12. It often makes it easier to start by putting in your horizon line or another dominant line first.
  13. SIMPLIFY, SIMPLIFY, SIMPLIFY your subject shapes. Keep detail to a minimum and don’t forget that much of the detail is lost in the distance.
  14. By keeping your paintings simple and small you’ll gain confidence over time to eventually tackle painting something more complicated.  
  15. Try and paint your subject within 1 – 2 hours as the light and shadows will have changed too much if you continue longer. If you do, you’ll find yourself chasing the light and making constant changes to your work – not recommended.
  16. If the light is constantly flitting in and out, I usually indicate a couple of light areas early on and note the direction and angle of the sun.
  17. Often your first painting of the day may not be up to your expectation. If things aren’t working, try zoning in and simplifying a subject even more and paint smaller if possible. With time and practice you’ll eventually feel more comfortable painting outdoors. Being well prepared with minimal gear is the key. Except perhaps for your easel and board, your gear should all fit in one over-the-shoulder carry bag or backpack.
  18. Bring a small sketchbook and pencil for a quick Notan if necessary.
  19. Take a PHOTO FIRST of the subject you’re about to paint. It may allow you to finish it in the studio, or otherwise be guided by your intuition without one.
  20. Occasionally you’ll paint a real gem, but generally, I recommend you treat each painting as a ‘colour note’ or sketch – like the old masters did.  These can then be used for larger studio works. Avoid putting pressure on yourself to paint as well as you do in the studio – have fun with it. My Plein Air works are generally looser as I stop before the light changes too much.
  21. If possible, avoid sunlight or patchy light on your paper whilst painting. Turn your easel and look over your shoulder if necessary. Otherwise, tonal values may be harder to judge. The bright light reflected off your paper, especially if white, could also give you a headache.  An umbrella is useful not only for shade and protection but also for consistent light on your work.
  22. If wanting to paint a subject looking into the sunlight, it’s easier if you’re wearing a cap or hat that shields the strong light from your eyes.
  23. SQUINT OFTEN to judge your shapes and tonal values or use red perspex/cellophane to help block out colour so you can see values more easily. Checking using a compact mirror is also helpful.
  24. Step back regularly to view a painting’s progress. You pick up errors sooner.
  25. Always come prepared with sunscreen, a protective hat and clothing so that you’re not as restricted in choosing your painting spot. Insect repellant applied or left in your car might also come in handy sometimes. Artists often suffer for their art, and I personally opt to stand in full sun — with protective gear, to get the subject and composition I’m after. It’s usually worth it if it’s not a super hot day!
  26. Have a plastic bag with you to take home any rubbish. It can double as a weight on windy days to hook onto your easel by filling it with rocks or sand on location – include an S hook to attach it. Hanging your backpack off your easel can do the same thing.
  27. An apron is useful to keep clean, plus I have an old tea towel to use as a bench or table cover if needed.
  28. Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water, especially if it’s a hot day. Nothing drains your energy more than when you’re dehydrated, even if participating in a workshop.
  29. Get up early to travel and capture the best light or go later in the afternoon avoiding the midday light that is usually flat.

I’ve attached an image of my current field box and easel setup, which is what works well for me, plus one that shows the other gear I take when venturing outdoors or on a painting holiday. I’m happy to answer any emails if you have questions about what I’ve talked about here – [email protected]. I’m always happy to help.

Remember, the little painting gems you do are often the ones that are simple and not overworked.  Above all, enjoy the experience and don’t worry too much about the result. You want to enjoy yourself and have fun with the work you do, enjoying the surprises of nature and the environment you’re in. Soak up the atmosphere as it usually shows up in your work, something a photo worked on in the studio can’t give. If an artist friend can join you, all the better, provided it doesn’t just become a social event.

To your painting success!

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