Plein Air Painting – Tips, Techniques, and Hints

Now that Summer is here and cabin fever has sunk in, many of us are just itching for some better weather and a chance to get outdoors to do some location painting. For those of you who usually work in a studio, give plein air painting a try. It creates a spontaneity to your work that’s impossible in a studio as you try to capture the immediacy of the moment. Your work will be looser because you have to work quickly in order to respond to changing light, weather conditions, and deepening shadows.

There are, of course, painters who just can’t stand being tied to a studio and who paint outdoors even in the coldest weather. I chuckled when I read a diary entry by Canadian plein air artist Sylvio Gagnon. It records his experiences this winter painting along the Rideau Canal in Ottawa. His comments about suspicious looks and funny reactions made me smile. I think anyone who has ever painted in a public place, particularly in the wintertime, will appreciate his humor.

Painting outdoors can be overwhelming. There’s so much to see that you may have trouble isolating your “picture”. Grab your sketchbook and make small sketches or thumbnails of your surrounding area. Sketching a variety of scenes, quickly, will help you loosen up and focus on what you really want to paint – remember that your most successful paintings will always be something that you feel connected with so let something “call” to you before you start painting. Explore the environment before you get down to the actual painting.

Starting a painting outdoors puts a whole different light on a sheet of blank paper or canvas. See beyond the subject that you’re painting. Don’t just think of the facts in front of you – the trees, buildings, sky, or water. Instead, think in terms of shape, mass, color, value, size, rhythm, harmony, and repetitive themes. Try squinting. Squinting helps you see the large masses and eliminates the smaller values, colors, and shapes. You’ll see the overall picture, not the details.

Follow this study that I did of the waves off of Rockaway Beach, which proves that you can find “wild” scenes even in Manhattan. It shows the simple steps for isolating the picture. I find the wide expanse of sea disconcerting, so my first step is to add a horizon line, with an indication of waves. I put in a couple of light washes to differentiate the sky from the rest of the picture.

The next step added a blue-black wash to further define the wave line and separate the sky further. A rough pencil sketch defines the line of rocks – the masses of the study were in place.

The next step puts broad washes of color into the pencil sketch and heightens the depth of the waves and portions of the sky. The rocks, the water surrounding them, and the waves further back are defined. At this point, you’re now ready to go in and add the details.

I do several studies in rapid succession, limiting myself to about ten minutes per study. The speed encourages spontaneity and loosens me up. They’re great for overcoming that fear of white paper and you’ll find that after doing several of these, you’ll have found the “picture” that you want to paint.

The other tip I’d like to share is that it’s not necessary to paint exactly what you see. The building that you’re painting might have a roofline with a strange angle to it or an oversized chimney. Recreating the scene, exactly as you saw it, will probably look like a mistake in your finished painting. Correct that angle, downsize the chimney if it looks proportionately large, pull in some extra foliage to cover something distracting, or juxtapose an object into your painting that didn’t exist at the location – taking liberties like this creates art, not simply a picture.

Hints for making your plein air painting experience enjoyable

There’s nothing worse than painting outdoors and having your creativity cramped by the weather conditions. For your comfort for a day-long painting session, make sure you bring along:

Sunblock, including Chapstick and/or sunblock for lips.

Wear layered clothing. As the day warms up you can shed a sweater or jacket. Always make sure you have warmer clothing in case the temperature cools down. Hats with visors, such as baseball caps, not only offer you some protection from the elements but shade the sun from your eyes. Squinting is good but not because of the sun.

Fingerless gloves are great for painting outdoors. They provide warmth but allow full motion of your fingers.

Bug spray.

Water bottle. If you’re using any kind of water-media, this is a necessity but bring along a cup for yourself.

Don’t forget to bring…

A fancy, portable easel or stand, complete with space for paints, palettes and all your equipment, makes life a lot easier if you’re painting outdoors on a frequent basis. If you don’t have one, here are some things that you can do to create a makeshift working area and organize your gear.

Foam core, if painted on both sides with acrylic paint, is waterproof. It makes a sturdy support for painting. Use two boards, painted both sides, for transporting watercolor paper and paintings.

Use a roomy bag, satchel, or knapsack to transport your paints, brushes, pencils, etc. Keep this bag stocked with duplicates of everything you use in your studio.

One of the most important items to keep in this bag is four rust-proof clips. These are great for clipping watercolor paper to your support but all painters will find a use for them in windy weather.

Umbrella, particularly black umbrellas, can be used to shield your painting surface from the sun’s reflection.

If you buying new supplies think about buying things that, while suited for studio use, would also be really handy for outdoor painting. Palettes and paint trays with covers are an obvious choice or plastic storage bottles for extra paint mixtures. There are all kinds of supplies designed for plein air painting.

Take advantage of the upcoming good weather. Get outside and paint.