Plein Air

9 Tips for Painting Plein Air

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Painting plein air (outdoors) is an invigorating experience. Whether you are using oil, acrylic, pastel, watercolour, charcoal, or any other medium for that matter, the concept is the same. To capture the light of a scene, before it changes and gets dark.

The atmosphere you can achieve in a painting by observing the landscape in front of you is incomparable. You’ll soak up the elements of the scene and your instantaneous reactions to what is there will translate onto your canvas. Not just the sight of it, but the feel you get from it—like how the breeze moves the grass, the luminosity of the sky, or the smell of wildflowers. These elements can lead you to make different artistic choices than you normally might in the studio.

The extra sensory input can help you to transport your viewer with your painting, so that they too can experience the scene you have painted. Once you try it a few times you’ll realise that painting from a photograph won’t give you the same results.

Tip 1: Adapt your techniques for painting outdoors

If you already paint quickly and alla prima (wet on wet) you should have no problem laying down the paint to capture it effectively.

However, most artists paint more slowly, spending days at a time on one painting. Unless you are planning on taking your field easel and setting up at the same time each day, with the same weather conditions, you need to work quickly to capture the scene.

Of course, some artists do set up their easel day after day until their piece is finished—but there is a problem with doing that—even if you are looking at the same landmarks and subjects, the scene will look totally different every day. The sky will change, the light will be playing on different areas of the land and the weather will be doing different things.

Many artists instead work more quickly than they usually do, painting wet-on-wet and with more spontaneous strokes. 

In the 18th century, painters such as Monet began painting in an impressionistic style, which allowed them to cover ground on their canvas fast, before their scene changed.

Of course, many artists will maintain their painting style despite the location they paint in. You can always start an artwork outside and finish it at home later.

Tip 2: Get the right tools for the job

Viewfinder

One of the biggest challenges if you’re new to plein air painting, is looking at a scene and isolating the area that you want to paint.

If you are more used to using a photo as a reference, the scene you’re taking reference from is enclosed and the relationship between each subject and object is much clearer.

From a visuospatial perspective, unless you have immense focussing skills, it’s hard to block out all the other elements that feed into your vision in the periphery. It takes a well-practised eye to tune it all out. If you’ve not yet trained your eyes to do this, get a viewfinder to help.

Field easel

This beautifully made pochade box is fully transportable, has a tempered glass palette insert and a removable brush tray. Attach to a tripod and take on your next painting adventure. The maximum canvas size it can hold is 17″.

Durable and lightweight, this field easel contains all the hardware you should need for your plein air painting trip. It has fold out legs, storage for paints, a palette and an adjustable back strap.

Tip 3: Limit your colours

Paint tubes can make the load you have to carry much heavier. Every artist’s palette is personal to them, but if you haven’t tried it yet, consider looking in to using a limited palette.

This essentially involves using a form of yellow, red and blue (the primaries) to give you the greatest chromatic range suitable for painting your subject. With the primaries, you will be able to mix secondary, tertiary colours and most tonal variations. 

Depending which type of red, yellow and blue you choose, there will be some tonal variations that will be omitted from your palette, that you won’t be able to achieve just by mixing the three primary colour variations you have chosen.

In paint form, the closest colours to true primaries, that allow you to achieve the widest chromatic range with the fewest colours are:

  •  Magenta (It’s cool in its purest form, but mixes with yellow to make vibrant oranges).
  •  Cyan (this is primary cyan, the pigment is phthalocyanine. In mixes it can make vibrant greens).
  • Transparent Yellow (A primary yellow: use this for clean bright mixes.)

To create tints and shades:

  • Titanium White (this is the most opaque of all whites and therefore has a great covering power). 
  • Burnt Umber (natural dark brown earth pigment that can be used to create shadows).

For a fuller palette, consider getting a warm or cool version of each colour:

Of course, the colours you choose will depend upon your style of painting and also the landscapes, flora and fauna of where you plan to paint. For example, if you want to paint a spring bloom of cherry blossoms, you might take magenta, titanium white and burnt umber with you.

If you want to paint the red rocks of Moab, Utah, you might pack Burnt Sienna or Red Ochre.

Tip 4: Prepare your surface

It seems obvious, but make sure your canvas has been primed and is ready to work on. If you like to work on a toned ground, paint that first and wait for it to dry. Prepare as much as you can first to make yourself feel comfortable in the field.

Alternatively, you could get some pre-primed surfaces to save yourself some time, like Ampersand’s Gessobord.

Tip 5: Prepare yourself

There are tools you can get to shield you from the elements while you’re working. 

I live in the UK, so it rains most of the year. Whenever I go out painting for hours on end, I pack a rain jacket just in case and put all my supplies in a waterproof backpack.

You can also get special easel umbrellas to shield you from rain and intense sunshine. They work by clamping to your easel and are big enough to protect you, your painting and supplies.

Painting in direct sunlight is actually really tricky. You could encounter problems like surface glare from a white canvas and oil, or not being able to see the landscape in front of you without squinting from the sun. I don’t advise wearing sunglasses to paint if you want to represent the colours realistically as they can distort the light. An umbrella will shield your eyes from the sun so you can clearly see your subject, it will also keep your flammable substances such as solvent out of the heat. Another way to combat surface glare from your canvas is to paint an imprimatura first.

Tip 6: Block in colours when the light is perfect

If you want to establish a composition to represent your scene when the light is just right, you could try the technique of blocking in.

You can do this quickly and roughly, painting the basic shapes and colours in the first paint layer. That way, it makes it easier to determine the position and colour of details later on, even if the light changes. 

Tip 7: Photograph your scene to work from it later

This isn’t cheating, by the way. If you’re an artist who won’t get a painting finished over the course of one session, take a photo when the light is just right. Then if you don’t finish it plein air, you can take it back to the studio to perfect the details.

The most important thing is that you experience working outdoors, getting a feel for the scene and translating the light and depth that you see from a landscape when you’re standing in front of it, rather than working from a photograph the whole way through. I can assure you, the resulting painting will look much different to scenes where you’ve only used a photograph as a reference.

Tip 8: Stay clean in the field

If you’re a neat freak like me, you probably want to know what the logistics are about transporting things like solvent and paint waste. Take some ziplock bags with you, so you can wipe your unused paint in tissue paper and keep airtight before disposing of. Get a container for your solvent and separate containers for other mediums. 

I don’t take solvent with me when I paint plein air. I take a small jar of safflower oil to remove paint from the brush when I’m changing colours and I wait until I get home to clean brushes properly.

As I mentioned in tip one, you may if you use a lot of different mediums in your painting process, you may want to think about adapting your techniques slightly. By limiting your mediums and materials the whole process will feel a lot more spontaneous, just like the changing light!

Tip 9: How to travel with a wet canvas or panel

If you’re painting with a fast drying medium, packing your painting for travel won’t be a problem. You can find various folders or plastic wallets to store your artwork in. If your medium of choice is oil, however, the painting will be wet when you transport it and you want to make sure it doesn’t smudge en route.

Of course, there are various specially made boxes you can buy to safely get your wet painting from A to B, like this one made by Guerrilla. Some field easels will have sections that you can store paintings in too.

The first time I went plein air painting, it was on the spur of the moment, so I had to find an impromptu solution to packing a wet painting. Here’s what I did:

I found a cardboard box (it was actually the box that the panel I was taking out with me was delivered in). If you don’t have a cardboard box, you could find a sheet of cardboard and make your own. The panel slotted into the box perfectly, but I had to make sure it was secured to one side so that it didn’t move around, so the paint wouldn’t smudge when transporting it back. I used some double sided medium strength tape to secure the back side of the panel to one of the inner sides of the box. 

This hasn’t failed me yet and I haven’t yet invested in a painting carrier. If you’re more resourceful than me and you can find a better solution to the transportation conundrum, let me know in the comments!

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