Painting in Plein Air with Soft Pastels

Have you ever wanted to try to paint with soft pastels outdoors?

There is something magical about being painting while feeling the wind on your skin and hearing the nature around you.

It can sound intimidating though: Painting outside requires you to be fast enough, and to have an efficient set up (being able to safely transport the materials as well as being comfortable while painting on the spot).

To me, it is a way of learning how to loosen up my style, because I was so used to painting from photographs in a very detailed manner.

You don’t have to be a very experimented artist to paint outdoors! With the tips I am going to share, you will be able to start your first plein air paintings, and to improve your skills quickly.

Photo of Cindy painting by a river.

Tip n°1 : Actually paint in plein air

“Before painting in plein air I have to practice painting loose landscapes at home for a while” it is what I consider a very common mistake. It might work for some people, but usually, it is the kind of mistake that makes you lose so much time.

If you don’t already know how to work loosely, working from a photograph under your nose is not going to help you nearly as much as working outside directly. In the comfort of your studio, with a picture that is not likely to change at any minute, you are free to spend as much time as you want on your painting. Hours. Days. Weeks. Your reference picture will be always here, always exactly the same, allowing you to work every. Single. Detail. you might think that is important – or you don’t really know if it’s important, so you put it in anyway, just in case.

This might be comfortable. Even relaxing.

But it’s not helping you to loosen up your style at all.

Now imagine, you are painting outside. Your reference is constantly changing, moving in front of you. You have no idea what it will look like in the next hour, so you don’t even think of coming back the next day – assuming that you won’t have other obligations, what if the weather is completely different from today?

The sunlight is turning, the shadows are never the same, the flowers are blooming, and you better hurry to capture whatever catches your attention before it changes too much.

This might seem stressful.

But this pressure from your environment will coerce you into simplifying, much more efficiently than working from home. Maybe you will struggle with a few paintings, but hey – it’s still fun, and it’s only paper and pigments. And besides, you can be sure that you will learn much faster!

Cindy's painting on an easel in a field on a bright sunny day.

Tip n°2 : Find your spots in advance

Sure, you can improvise a plein air session on an impulse. You can prepare all your materials, jump in your car, drive wherever you think you could find something nice to paint… Step out of your car with all your gear, and walk until you find the inspiration.

You will notice that painting gear can be quite heavy though, especially if you are carrying an easel. And that inspiration is not always easy to find.

So, in order to save you painting time and energy, I highly recommend noticing the good painting spots before your session.

I always find my best places to paint while walking my dog Sherlock every morning. He is always very happy to assist me in that task, and always keen to change itineraries to find different references. Be aware of the time of the day when you notice a good place to paint, as the shadows won’t be the same if you come back earlier or later.

Tip n°3 : Don’t go very far away from home

For your first plein air paintings, you don’t want to spend too much time on the road to get to your spot.

If you do, well, that means you will have less time to paint. And chances are you will want to make an astonishing piece of art to compensate the effort of going to this distant spot… While your main goals should be only to practice and to make progress at this point.

If you have a garden, this is a perfect place to start! This is where I started my own plein air practice, with my pets around me for the support.

Tip n°4 : Find a shady location

You probably don’t want to deal with the sun on your painting – it can be really difficult to handle! Sun creates strong light on your paper, and also a very sharp shadow beneath your hand. It is much easier to paint under the shadow of a big tree for example.

Be mindful that the sun is moving pretty fast – do not choose a very thin shady spot, as it will turn sunny too soon. 

You can also use an umbrella, but it’s not always so easy to set up and to transport. Or, you could move to the North of France and never have to deal with the sun ever again.

Cindy painting in a field.

Tip n°5 : Pick up a simple subject

You will find many kinds of landscape, and while any practice is always good, you might not want to start with overloaded references.

I think that a tree or a little group of trees make great subjects for beginning. They can be done very quickly, but you can also decide to spend more time working at the lights and shadows, finding interesting marks to suggest leaves, work the sky above them, the grass at their feet…

Meadows are great subjects too, and you can easily suggest wildflowers with little dots of colours.

Cindy's painting on an easel in a field.

Tip n°6 Pick up a quiet place

Having the public near me was the last thing I wanted when I was painting outside for the first time. I didn’t want to feel judged or distracted, and I wanted to enjoy my session on my own.

Therefore, for a while I always chose places in nature, away from the well-known or touristy locations.

Today I know that in most cases, people who see someone painting are very respectful and friendly, so I don’t mind at all being interrupted for a few minutes if they want to chat.

And tell me about their sister-in-law who enjoys watercolours and just bought a new well-located apartment for a really good price. Why this is so hard to find a good hairdresser in town now. And besides, the weather is way too warm for this time of the year.

Yes, it is very rare in nature (but it happens a lot in cities, as I like urban sketching too) but sometimes the conversation might be a little bit too long for me. In that case I would just nod and go back to painting (I have zero issue with me seeming rude while painting).

Sometimes I feel confident enough to paint in places where families or even tourists go by, and sometimes I prefer being alone. In any case, I am always mindful of the quietness of the location I chose.

Cindy holding her painting of a seascape scene by the cliffs.

Tip n°7 : Secure your pastels for the transportation and the painting session.

Soft pastels are fragile little tools, and I don’t want them to turn into crumbs when I transport them. This is an important issue, and several solutions exist. As for me, I prefer carrying a box of pastels that provides individual cases. Each half-stick is perfectly maintained and will not bump as I walk. When I paint, I can see all the colours at a glance.

My box is the Starter 120 half-sticks set from Unison Colour. It is a wonderful range of colours that allows me to paint anything. I love the fact they are half-sticks, as it allows me to transport twice as many colours than a classical sticks box. They are so well arranged in their box I can find the right colour very easily.

You can also find smaller sets to match your budget like the Starter 63, 30 or 16 half sticks boxes.

I use the Art Satchel from Etchr to transport my materials (my box of pastels, my paper and a few tissue papers). My box of pastels is slightly too big to allow the complete closing of the bag, but I don’t mind – I can still transport it with a little aperture at the top of the bag.  My paper is a pad of Pastelmat. I just let the sheets inside the pad, which comes with a hard carton board to avoid folding them, and sheets of crystal paper to separate the paintings.

The Art satchel is a bag that turns into an easel when attached to a tripod, with one vertical part (for my painting) and one flat part (I put my set of pastels on it).

Cindy painting the same seascape but from down on the beech.

Tip n°8 : Forget the pastel pencils

You don’t have to follow this tip, but I find it very interesting. Pastel pencils are wonderful tools to add tiny details to a painting. However, looking for a looser style, my goal is to avoid details as much as I can.

So, if I don’t have any pencil with me, it forces me to focus on the biggest shapes. It’s just another trick to try to make faster progress.

Cindy's painting on the banks of a river.

Tip n°9 : Go with the flow

A painting that has been done outdoors is not the representation of a single instant. It’s a collection of moments. The landscape in front of you is not the same when you begin and when you finish, and that is ok. You can change the shadows. Or leave them as they were if you think they looked better.

There is no point in trying to capture an instant when you can capture a whole morning on a single painting, so just pick up the light effects that please your eyes whenever you see them.

Tip n°10  : Keep tracks of your sessions

If you are like me, you have so many thoughts that cross your mind every day. So many, that it can be hard to remember everything, even the important things.

I always keep a notebook with me (I know I could use my smartphone, but what can I say, I love paper too much). On this notebook, I write down any thoughts that can be useful:

  • I missed a grey-green for the distant trees (this allow me to spot useful colours I could add to my pastels).
  • I had difficulties to suggest grass (Before my next session, I will do my research in order to find cool techniques to paint grass).
  • I started by the trees, I should have started by the sky (It will be much easier to remember that next time now that I have verbalized it, and even wrote it down).
Cindy holding her painting in a rapeseed field.

I hope you will have fun painting in plein air. Don’t forget to bring tissue papers to clean your hands (baby wipes are the most efficient if you want to have them really spotless) ; water to stay hydrated, and a hat if needed. 

Please feel free to add in the comments below your own tips for painting in plein air if you are already used to this delightful practice!

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13 Responses

  1. Great tips, thank you. As someone who puffs up at the slightest insect bite, I’d say thin leggings are essential for me. Also, I have a foldable hat with a brim that is waterproof and shades my eyes so that I don’t have to wear sunglasses.

  2. Very nice article, another plein air soldier in the field! With all the fearless artists on the streets and on cliff edges I’m with you, I like quiet simple scenes, with little distraction. Your art satchel sounds intriguing ! Paint on my friend!

  3. (Translated)Beautiful job!
    Full of freedom!
    Greetings from Santiago de Chile.

    (Original)Hermoso trabajo!
    Llenos de libertad!
    Un saludo desde Santiago de Chile.

  4. Thank you Cindy, Lots of good hints. I join a group that meets once a month at a park for two hours. It’s free we buy a coffee from Donna’s husband moblie coffee van. ( how great is that ) The first time was people and a trees ( what a mess ) all on one page 2mins . standing , sitting, leaning against the tree we all took turns. Then another time we painted shadows and a tree, Painting with sticks, It has help to start painting outside. What I should be doing is practice what the lesson was. I take drawing paper and 8b pencil , charcoal sticks a few other things. Just been outside and having ago is the way to go.

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