How To Get Started Plein-Air Painting

Submitted by Ben Rathbone on Wednesday, October 12, 2016 - 04:01 PM

A picture of a Plein-Air painting outdoors. Have you ever wanted try or start landscape painting, also called painting "en plein air" (French for "in the open air"), but you did not know how to get started? Have you ever tried, but had a bad experience? Do you want to know how to have a good time and have more fun making art outdoors? If you’ve never painted outdoors before, or if you want to improve your experience, this article provides a 10-step process for approaching the task. There are plenty of articles out there with tips and pointers for the painting, using colors, painting landscape features like trees, mountains, or waters, but few that cover the the practical and logistical issues involved with having a successful time painting outdoors. This article focuses on the logistics of painting, however the ideas are just applicable to other mediums such as drawing, watercolor, gouache, or any type of plein air art making. 

The most obvious thing you’ve probably heard before is that the best way to have a good experience painting outdoors is to be prepared. But what does that mean exactly? How do you get properly prepared, and how do you know when you are properly prepared? The other obvious place to start is with kit and equipment. It’s true that having or not having the right tools or kit will have a tremendous influence on your painting experience. But again, what is the best equipment for you how do you figure that out? Following these 10 steps will answer that. 

I’ll also reveal the secret to making this work: pay attention to the order of these steps because the value comes from the logic of their order. 

1. Decide on your intention for painting outdoors
I believe the best way to be prepared is to have a solid strategy and a plan, and the best way to develop this plan is to begin with the end in mind. Picture yourself coming home from a day of painting, having put in a lot of effort and energy, and worked your butt off. You found inspiration, and you were able to capture what you wanted to capture. What is the criteria for being really satisfied with your effort? What is your intention and goal, and what do you want to get out of the act of going outdoors and painting? 

There is no right answer to this, and it is completely up to you, but the point is to think this through a bit as it will influence the rest of the chain of decisions. Do you wish to do a quick study? Do you want to do a painting that will be a reference for another piece you might execute and finish in a studio? Do you want to start a painting outdoors and finish it later at home? The answer to these questions will help unravel other questions, so think about it and settle on something, if only for your next trip outdoors. 

It’s also important to keep this in mind so you don’t put too much pressure on yourself. If your answer is to just go outdoors and complete a painting that, to the best of your ability, captures the look and feel of a particular place and particular time, that is great and a wonderful starting point, and leads us to the next question. 

2. Consider your painting process 
With your goal for the whole experience in mind, what is your process? If you are an experienced painter, chances are you already have (conscious or not) a sense of how to start, finish, and bring everything together in the time in between. When painting outdoors, you are inherently dealing with limitations: limited time, materials limited to what you brought on site, etc. Because of this, painting outdoors can be less forgiving than painting in the studio, so the cost of getting sidetracked or sucked into one area or one problem is much higher. The antidote is to have a clear process for how you execute your painting. So my advice is, if you don’t have one, make sure you research a process that works for you.  Practice that process, and work at it until you can bring some comfort and confidence with you and you are not facing these challenges for the first time in front of nature. 

3. Decide on a location
Easily the next most important decision you'll make when it comes to painting outdoors is where exactly to paint. Your goal when getting outdoors is to maximize the time you spend actually putting your brush on canvas and minimize the time it takes to find a spot, set up, get everything ready, and start painting. The act of deciding where exactly to paint can easily burn up large amounts of time, especially if you have not planned where you intend to paint ahead of time. The best advice I can give is to pin down where you want to paint as specifically as possible ahead of time so you avoid burning time on the actual day. 

Plein Air Map was born out of my own frustration with finding and deciding on where to paint. If you’ve never done it, it may seem trivial to find a good painting location...just pick someplace with a nice view, and off you go. If you have done it before, you know that it is not that simple. Not all places with a nice view are good places to actually set up and paint. Even when you find good places, if you intend to keep painting outdoors over weeks, months, and years, you’ll run through your list of obvious places pretty quick. 

Plein Air Map is set up to help with this by being a database of ‘Spots’ to paint. The concept of a Spot in Plein Air Map is a place that you’ve either painted before, or would like to paint. So when you are out and about on non-painting days, either intentionally or unintentionally scouting for painting locations, you can take a photo at the spot (with GPS/locations services turned on.) When you get home, or any time later, upload your spots to the site. On the site, you can add notes and details about each spot to remind yourself about it, and share with others what you’ve learned. 

4. Plan how you will transport your wet painting home
Once you have a painting spot picked out, the next decision I suggest you make is to decide how the heck are you going to get your wet painting home. Unless you are drawing, you'll have a wet oil, watercolor, or gouache painting to transport. Think about how you intend to do this as this may influence your choice of painting location. If you intend to drive to and park near your spot, think about how far you’ll be walking and carrying your wet painting back to the car. Make sure you have some sort of container in your car that can carry and protect the wet painting (and protect your car from the wet paint.) If you are not using a car (or going far from it) you may need some sort of container that you can carry your painting in while carrying the rest of your gear. Make sure this container is reliable and won’t damage your painting during transport. 

5. Pick a target length of time you will spend painting
The next thing I advise is deciding how long to spend painting at your location. I suggest deciding on a target length of time you want to paint, and plan around that. It will make a big difference whether you decide to paint for 5 hours, or 2. Consider your own energy levels, stamina, and ability to stay focused. Are you comfortable with painting sessions that last longer than 3 hours? I have found that about 2 to 2 and half hours is the optimal amount of time for me to work outdoors. Whatever amount of time you pick, be sure to include time for setting up at the beginning, cleaning up at the end, and taking breaks in the middle. Also consider the local weather and environmental conditions. If your location is in a warm climate, on a hot day, with no shade...is your target time really feasible? If your location is a cold day, and even if you can handle a long length of painting, will the conditions allow it? 

6. Pick a target time of day to start your painting
Once you've got a target length in mind, you'll want to reconcile this with the time of day you intend to do your painting. Key to this is the path of the sun in the sky. Remember that the sun always rises in the east and sets in the west. Remember that during sunrise and sunset the light will change rapidly and dramatically. So once you have an idea of where you want to paint, and the amount of time you want to spend painting, you should think about where the path the sun will travel over the course of that time. This will have a big effect on the shadows, color, and light. For example, if you pick a spot looking on some mountains to the west, and you intend to paint those mountains looking west, you may want to avoid attempting this in the afternoon as the sun will be travelling into your point of view. I don’t enjoy painting with the sun shining right into my eyes. 

It’s also a good idea to learn or know when sunset is. If you are out painting in the afternoon, and you know what time sunset will be, and you know the current time, you can eyeball and divide up the space between the sun and the horizon into the number of hours before sunset and roughly know where the sun will be over the course of your painting time. If you want to capture the light at a particular spot at a very specific time, make sure you plan your day so you are out there, set up, and you have your painting started and going so you can capture the light at the right time. 

7. Decide what you want to bring before how you bring it 
Once you have your location, time of day, and amount of time in mind you’ll have a good basis to start thinking about material and gear. The key advice here is to think about what you want to bring (canvas, paints, brushes) before how you want to bring it (pochade box, easels, backpacks, bags). The target amount of time you picked to spend painting will help you decide how big of a canvas you should bring. Make sure that the size of your surface (canvas, canvas board) and your brushes are appropriate. For example, you don’t want to get stuck trying to do a large painting, with small brushes, in a short amount of time. Conversely, if you have a long time, you don’t want to be stuck with big brushes and a small canvas. That being said, it is still a good idea to bring a mix of large and small brushes, and several surfaces of different sizes, in case you change your mind, want to start over, or do a quick painting followed by a longer one. 

Next, consider the color palette and paint colors you want to bring and use. A lot of artists advise using less colors versus more. To minimize space and weight you won't want to bring all your paint colors, so you’ll need to be selective. The colors you expect to encounter at your location and your process will inform this. For example, if you plan to paint near a lake, river, or ocean, you'll want the colors to handle the blues and greens of water. Painting near a forest, trees, or field will require the constituent colors of a variety of greens. Painting mountains or desert will require its own palette of browns and yellows. Again, the point is to know ahead of time what colors, brushes, surfaces, and other equipment you consider essential, so the rest of your planning can accommodate it all. Don’t forget to also plan for supplies at are not art materials. You’ll want to bring snacks, water, sunscreen, maybe an umbrella, a hat, warm clothing (if needed), etc. 

8. Decide how you will bring everything you need.
Thinking through the various issues I’ve outlined above will prepare you to make informed decisions about the rest of your gear and how you transport it. It’s also outside the scope of this post to examine all the different pochade boxes, easels, and other equipment that can be used to contain and transport your materials. The point is when you explore your options, you’ll make the best decision when you work through the issues described above, before deciding on what to pack it all in. For example, if you always intend to paint near your car, you may not need a fancy setup that you can pack into a backpack. 

9. Do a dry run
Once you’ve assembled your gear and your kit, the next thing I recommend is something to do if you've never done outdoor painting before, or if you've had a major change to your kit (such as getting a new pochade box, paints, brushes, or other critical material.) Do a dry run of the whole process. Gather up your kit, and everything you intend to take, and pick a spot at home, studio, or nearby, and go through the entire process of doing a painting. If you do a painting from a photograph of the location you intend to paint, you'll get to test out your palette of colors. The point of the exercise is to make sure you have everything you'll need to paint on site, and you’ll test out everything and see how it goes. Some things will only be revealed by actually doing the painting and going through the process. As you go through this, note if you are missing any key items, or if you want to swap any tools, brushes, colors, or other implements out. This is a good thing to do because nothing ruins a day of painting like realizing you forgot something really important to your process.

10. Have fun
Once you've gone through this thought process and prepared your kit and materials, you’ll be ready to go! It’s a wonderful thing to find a nice place to paint and spend a few hours outdoors deeply studying the beauty the world around us presents. Also remember that every journey to paint outdoors is a learning process. Remember to take a photo of the spot you paint and upload it, and upload a photo of your work. The site has place for you to record notes, observations, and thoughts about your painting experience to share with the world. Most of all, remember to have fun!


1. Clarify your intention for painting outdoors
2. Consider your painting process 
3. Decide on a location
4. Plan how you will transport your wet painting home
5. Pick a target length of time you will spend painting
6. Pick a target time of day to start your painting
7. Decide what you want to bring before how you bring it 
8. Decide how you will bring everything you need.
9. Do a dry run
10. Have fun


 


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