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Art How to paint En Plein Air (painting outdoors)

Updated on January 16, 2016

'En Plein Air'

© frangipanni 2013. All rights reserved.

'En Plein Air' or in the open air is a French expression used to explain painting outdoors. There are many benefits and a few drawbacks to painting 'En Plein Air' but read on for a few tips and tricks to overcome the drawbacks and seize the benefits.

How to En Plein Air

Try to paint outdoors in the mornings or afternoons. The shadows are longer and will give your paintings more depth and interest. At noon when the sun is overhead, paintings will look flat because of the lack of shadows.

One of the main distractions in painting outdoors is interested onlookers.

An artist is a magnet and meeting an 'artist' is a memorable event for non-artists. Sometimes it's fun but it can be annoying when you want to get on with your painting. You don't want to give offense as they may be future buyers, but here are some tips to keep your cool.

  • Keep doing what you are doing and don't make eye contact. Eye contact indicates that you are willing to continue a conversation.
  • Say 'I'm only here for a little while and want to capture this (mountain, river etc) before the light changes Would you mind if I keep going?"
  • Prevent people from getting behind you and looking over your shoulder by sitting up against a rock, tree or hill. People think if you can't see them, they're not disturbing you. Wrong!
  • If you're asked how long you have been painting say, 'Oh, ages. I can't remember when I started'. This is the truth. Most of us pick up our first pencils and paint brushes when we are about 2 years of age. If you say you are just beginning, people will see your work as a beginners work and give it less value.
  • If you're painting is just not working say ,'I'm just getting the main shapes and an idea of the tones and colours and then will start painting.' If you tell people you are frustrated and making a mess they will remember it and give less value to future successful paintings.
  • The first time you are referred to as an 'artist' it will feel strange and pretentious but learn to live with it. Yes, you are an artist if you are putting marks on paper or canvas. If you rebuff the title or apologize for your work, even if it's your first time out, people will remember it and give you and your work less value.
  • Keep your eye on your paintings, even unfinished paintings. My friend was painting en plein air, went to the car for coffee while it dried and when she came back a couple of minutes later, the unfinished paintings had gone. I have had 5 stolen.

Other tips

  • It was Monet that declared "There is no black in nature" and we have mixed dark colours instead, ever since. Steer clear of black unless you think you really must use it. Black can be used for mixing, but used straight can look like a bullet hole in an otherwise soft watercolor painting.
  • Better mixes are:

Alizarin Crimson + Burnt Umber or Sepia

Ultramarine Blue + Burnt Umber or Sepia

Alizarin Crimson + Viridian

Ultramarine Blue + Burnt Sienna

  • Double-load the brush ( a different color on each side of a flat, or one-color and another color on the tip of a round brush) for interesting effects, particularly on wet paper. Excellent for bushes, tree foliage, water reflections etc.
  • Copyright. You can copy anything you like for practice but cannot sign your name to it or use it as yours. You cannot find a photo in a magazine or anywhere else and copy it without the photographer's written permission. But you can collect photos and images and use small parts of them (10%) as reference material. If you ask the question, 'I wonder if I should use this?' then the answer is always no, or the question wouldn't need to be asked. With so much terrific subject matter around, why would you want to copy anyway? If you use photos you have taken yourself and of places you have visited, your paintings will always be more lively as you will paint your memories into them rather than just a flat copy of something you have never seen.
  • Signature. This usually goes at the bottom either right or left side, wherever it fits best. A small signature that is hard to find or no signature at all tells the world you are not confident about your work - so why would they be? Make your signature big enough to read easily and in a spot that's easy to find. People who enjoy your work want to know who you are and it may lead to a sale or even further commissions. When you are beginning, write your full name. You want to get it out there.
  • Framing. Watercolors need to be framed behind glass and well sealed because they can't be cleaned. They also expand and contract with the weather so you want to keep as much humidity (and dust) out as you can and insects are attracted to the paper and either eat it or leave unsightly stains. You need mattboard between the painting and the glass so they don't touch and if you 'float' you painting (no mattboard) you need spacers under the glass so it still doesn't touch your painting.
    A good idea is to put velcro dots on the bottom at the back of the frame so when its hanging on the wall dust can pass through the gap rather than accumulate along the bottom edge of the frame and stain the wall.

Do you prefer painting 'En plein air' or indoors?

See results

Pack up your painting bag, make yourself some coffee and lunch and seize the day utilizing the glorious outdoors for your inspiration and pleasure of painting 'En Plein Air' .

Some great online art supply directories are: (I am in no way affiliated with or receive any type of payment from these companies)

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Some other great hubs to read are:

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If you enjoyed my hub please check out my other hubs, comment, share and email the link to friends and checkout the items printed in blue for my recommendations and links


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    • Frangipanni profile image

      Frangipanni 4 years ago

      Hi BlossomSB. Thanks for dropping by. Have a great day.

    • BlossomSB profile image

      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 4 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      Interesting and useful advice. Thank you - and keep enjoying it (when the weather is good!).