Plein- Air: just a fancy way of saying you are going outside to paint!
With spring upon us in the northern hemisphere (more or less), it’s time to start thinking about taking the ol’ art supplies for an outing! This is something I don’t get to do as often as I’d like, and when I do, I don’t usually make anything earthshakingly lovely, but I always enjoy it anyway. Here’s some stuff I’ve learned over the years — I hope it inspires you to get out there and bag some landscapes, or at least some photos taken as reference for later studio paintings!
- Travel light! Think through the process of making a painting or drawing, and imagine what you need to do it. Make a list and decide what is essential and what is not. Figure out how you can make the things you need smaller and lighter and more compact. What you can carry will depend how far you plan to walk, and whether or not you need to gather things up if you need to move (for instance, to find a loo). My usual kit these days consists of a set of watercolour pencils, a little pencil case with some regular pencils, maybe some Pigma Micron markers, a pencil sharpener, a good eraser, some pre-separated paper towels in a baggie, and a water-brush (a great tool that holds water in the handle that flows through the brush as you need it). For paper I usually bring some pre-torn-to-size sheets of watercolour paper or Stonehenge paper in a large baggie, and a stiff piece of cardboard or foamcore as a working surface. All this fits into a little case that is made for carrying school supplies inside a three-ring binder (I don’t bring the binder!).
- Rather than just sitting down the first place you see (unless it is absolutely stunning), check around the location for different angles. Imagine the scenes in a painting; frame it with your hands to get an idea of composition. You can even carry a little viewfinder made out of cardboard for this purpose; though I don’t use one, many people find them helpful to edit down the chaos of an entire landscape and help choose a manageable chunk.
- For your comfort: a chair if you need one (there may not always be a park bench where you wish to paint); a small camp stool can serve as a handy table for your supplies. If you are comfy on the ground, bring a waterproof mat to sit on in case the ground is wet. An easel in nice but not necessary if you are not working big. Carrying things: A backpack is most comfortable if you have to walk a ways; this leaves your hands free to carry your chair. Try to fit your supplies into one bag, artbin, or bucket if possible.
- Dress for varying weather, in layers. If it is warm at your house, it is not always warm at the beach, at least where I live! If it is very hot and sunny, you may want a shade umbrella – you can get umbrellas that attach to chairs or easels, or rig up something with your regular rain umbrella. Or find some good solid shade under a tree (dappled shade will drive you crazy!). Besides keeping yourself out of the sun, it will keep the glare on your white paper from blinding you as you paint. A hat with a good brim and sunscreen are also necessities for summer painting. Remember that even on a cloudy day, you can get sunburned. Insect repellant can be useful in some places.
- Another issue to deal with when painting in public is, well, the public. Painting in pairs and groups will help hold off the curious, who can be very distracting (also it’s great fun to go painting with your friends!). Be friendly and say hi to passersby, but don’t feel obligated to strike up long conversations. Most people will respect your privacy, but occasionally you will get the ones who want to tell you all about their 3-year old prodigy of a nephew who can paint better than you can, or want to tell you that you’ve left out that ugly trash can over there. Ignore these.
- Don’t expect masterpieces (as I mentioned, I certainly don’t!) — painting outdoors is much different than painting indoors, where you have total control over the light. Although landscapes hold pretty still, they can look different from moment to moment. Don’t worry about this, and don’t change things to follow the changing conditions. Just look at the scene as closely as you can, and you will remember the parts that catch your eye, and should therefore go into the picture. You can take photos from time to time as the light changes, and when you get back home to your studio (or kitchen table) you can use these and your sketch to create a more detailed painting. Using the information both from your observation and sketching, with support from the photos, you can create a far more dynamic painting than from photos alone.
- Bring snacks or a lunch. You can get surprisingly hungry just sitting outdoors and painting. And don’t forget drinks. If it is hot you will need twice as much liquid as you think you do. And if it is cold, I highly recommend bringing a thermos of hot tea or coffee, all ready with whatever you take in it. Don’t forget your travel mug!
One more thing: One of the most frustrating things for me is when I’m in a beautiful place that I want to sketch, but the folks I’m with aren’t artists, and they get impatient while I’m doing my thing. Sometimes it’s even hard to get as many photos as I want when people are trying to drag me off to the next tourist spot! So if you plan to go with other people, make sure they know that you want to spend time in one place, just grokking and painting. If they are not artists, they may want to bring a good book!