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How to Paint En Plein Air (Outdoors)

Updated on May 19, 2009

Waves on Rocks

I didn't paint this En Plein Air. But if I lived near the ocean, I would have. "Waves on Rocks" by Robert A. Sloan
I didn't paint this En Plein Air. But if I lived near the ocean, I would have. "Waves on Rocks" by Robert A. Sloan

Painting Outdoors is Fun!

 Especially if you are the kind of person who gets bored with exercise for its own sake, painting outdoors or "en plein air" as the fine art world calls it, can be a wonderful alternative for the artistic intellectual who hates sports and needs to become less sedentary. How many times in your life have you met artists and noticed they are skinny, wiry, tanned people bursting with health?

This is because instead of pumping iron at a gym or walking on a treadmill (though a few also get into that too) many of them put together a kit that weighs 25 to 40 pounds and hike through one or several miles of wilderness every weekend to paint whatever scenery is in their locality. If they live in the Southwest, they're likely to have deep tans and wide-brim hats and this air of Desert Survival about them even when they come inside. Painting outdoors will keep you healthy -- and also stimulate your mind, your creativity and your observational skills.

I've read hundreds of articles on painting En Plein Air in various mediums and always wanted to do it. Unfortunately, I also have severe mobility limitations, so I'll probably never be going more than thirty or forty paces away from a car to do it. But even that is good exercise for me that I'm seriously looking forward to when we get to Arkansas, where a warmer climate may help me achieve a bit more body energy -- enough to get out the door and set up in front of a nice shady tree, or get out of the car on Sunset Point and do some grand sunsets after being driven there.

Plein air painting combines the health benefits of hiking with the intellectual stimulation of learning to paint and draw realistically. It does a lot to motivate some of the unmotivated, because instead of just walking for the grim purpose of avoiding a heart attack, you have an actual goal and something to look forward to. Every step of the way, you're looking at the terrain judging where to set up and whether that angle would make a good painting. With practice, skills at composition will improve dramatically.

One simple little tool to make and bring with you for this, even on your first trip, is a view finder. Cut it to the same exact proportions as the canvas board or canvas or pad you're bringing. If you have 8" x 10" canvas boards, cut the view finder hole in a piece of cardboard to be 4" x 5" or 2" x 2 1/2" -- just scale it mathematically to the same proportions. Then don't just look at the landscape.

Hold up the cardboard viewfinder and move it around. Bring it closer, move it out to the end of your arm, turn a little -- you will rapidly find that some views are picture perfect and look like they'd make gorgeous paintings. Others do not. The tree gets cut right down the middle and looks bad that way if you get the stream in too, so it takes stepping a couple of feet to the side to push more of the tree out of the picture and make the white part in the stream a focal point.

A very cool widget on that order is the QuicKomp viewfinder, which is a bit larger -- it's clear plastic with a black border and two lines running vertical, two horizontal. Looking through it, the lines show me exactly where the four Rule of Three uber-great focal points are. I bought it as a composition aid from Dick Blick, but you can make one just by taping or gluing black threads across a homemade one cut from a bit of mat board.

To start with, remember that you are going outdoors. Sunscreen is a necessity, bring the tube because if you sweat it'll come off. So is bug repellent. It's a good idea to wear long pants and stuff them into your socks or hiking boots so that bugs do not crawl up inside your jeans to sting you, and to wear long sleeves. Also wear a wide/-brimmed hat to shade your eyes, because a white canvas can be blinding in full sun.

My first go at plein air was with a table easel in my back yard. I spread out a picnic basket and opened the neat Winsor & Newton Winton Oils wooden sketchbox easel, settled on the blanket with a friend and we painted some black eyed susans growing in my yard. I didn't have to hike too far to get there and we did this four times over that summer to finish the paintings, because I did not have sense enough to do them Alla Prima. I did them layered like it was going to be a studio painting, with a monochrome underpainting and then many glazing layers over that till it was finished.

The paintings came out nice, both hers and mine did.

I got about 4,000 mosquito bites in those four sections because I did not think about the bug repellent. The only reason I didn't burn was that I had the wide-brimmed hat and am Italian with an olive skin -- I wasn't out so long that I burned  but I did turn a nice spotted olive tan with bright red mosquito bites spotting every exposed inch of my skin. Thankfully I had worn long sleeves but I hadn't tucked my pants into my boots and well, they got up my pants legs all up and down my legs. So definitely tuck your pants into socks or hiking boots.

There is a health reason why white socks are athletic wear, they can be bleached after your feet sweat a lot in them. Wear comfortable shoes for hiking or walking if you're going any distance. Sneakers are okay, but if you start going long distances get tips on shoes from people who hike long distances regularly -- and build up to it. A healthy abled person can cripple themselves by hiking in bad shoes and going too far. It's worth the money not to get cheap ones -- someone I know got a medical discharge from the Air Force for foot damage caused by a ten-mile hike in cheap sneakers.

You may not want to walk ten miles to get to your setup spot. But the farther you can hike comfortably, the better chance you'll have of discovering the really beautiful spots that are hard to get to by car or other means.

Plein air artists tend to fall along a range between two extremes. The strong packrat who wants to carry everything in his studo out to the site, and the minimalist who sticks three tubes of watercolor, one pocket brush and a Moleskine watercolor journal into his vest and just walks with hands free till something looks good.

Oil painting is traditional for plein air. "Alla Prima" is a style of oil painting where you do not layer and do monochrome underpaintings and glaze over them to mix colors, but start painting things the color they are on the canvas directly with no more than maybe a few charcoal lines to tell you where they are, really fast. Most of the Impressionists painted alla prima. It has the advantage that you can paint fast and be done before the light changes.

Be sure with any medium to sketch in where the shadows are when you first look, because even if you only spend ten minutes getting it, they will move and that can confuse you. Especially if you change some of them but not others it can break the plausibility of the scene. The angle of the light changes too, the color of the light changes a bit more slowly and you can count on half an hour of fairly similar light, maybe an hour if you push it -- before you need to start painting half from memory and half from what you see.

So any type of plein air art has to be able to be done quickly, the faster the better. This means bold. This means big brushes if you use a wet medium. Big pointed rounds if you want to add some key details, but you won't be adding that many small details overall. Working smaller also helps. Many artists will do small format art (under 14" on a side) out in the field, then come back to the studio and do another painting based on the small one that might be two feet by three feet or larger.

Definitely bring a good camera, digital or film or both. It helps to snap good photos of the place you're painting, when you start and whenever you see something cool you'd like to paint later. It is also insurance in case you started the best painting of your life and five minutes after you realized that, the clouds came in and it started to rain.

Getting that series of photos before you start will let you finish it in the studio, or at least work from it and the photos for a studio version. It's well worth it. You don't need your whole laptop unless you're a Strong Pack Rat, even then it's probably better to carry a little bitty netbook to dump your camera's images into so that you have more room for colors and brushes and mediums and canvases.

Wet canvas carriers come in wood or cardboard, sized for specific standard sizes of stretched canvas and boards. These are great. You can do more than one painting, turn them facing inward between the grooves and stash them in the wet canvas carrier till they're dry. If you use linseed oil in your oil painting, you may be looking at weeks and months for drying so the cardboard Wet Canvas Carriers are a very good investment -- they come in packs of three, so open a new one for the next trip while the oils from the last one are  drying in the other one safe from pet hair, dust and prying children.

Acrylic painting is another good medium for plein air, almost better. You only need water and gel mediums rather than thinners, and unless you use retarding gel, acrylics dry hard very fast. Acrylic painting alla prima is very dramatic and seems to work best with less expensive synthetic or bristle brushes anyway. So this is another good choice.

Pastels are another favorite plein air medium. Pastelists usually mount good sanded pastel paper to foam board to make panels, or buy boards and panels that are stiff. Many will buy or build wooden pastel cases designed for plein air, with foam-lined lids that snap own over the area the pastels are in, like the Heilmann Box. Dakota Pastels has a number of good portable pastels boxes, so do some independent manufacturers.

ASW has one that's sized like the drawer of a French Easel to fit into standard full width French Easels, and holds up to nine foam-lined cardboard boxes to hold pastels. This one looks pretty safe and would allow a quick switch of mediums between oils and pastels. Just change the drawer.

You will need some kind of easel or drawing board to hold what you're doing. Easels are better unless you're working quite small or only sketching, because they hold up what you're painting on and you can sometimes put the palette onto a rack that folds out. French Easels are traditional, sturdy and heavy. They may weigh up to 18lb completely empty, up to 30 or 35 when you load the drawer up with all your painting supplies.

A French Easel is a wooden sketchbox with adjustable legs, a lid that flips up to become the mast, and a sectioned drawer inside (usually metal lined) to hold your supplies. They come full width and half width, the half width ones are only 9lb if I recall right but obviously won't hold as much sltuff. Some French Easels have ground spikes you can attach to the feet so that it won't blow over in a high wind.

On the other end of the extreme, the lightweight aluminum field easel may only weigh two or three pounds. I have a two and a half pound one that's pretty darn stable and sturdy. Some of these also come with a rocks bag -- a cloth that loops through all the legs that you put rocks in so that it won't blow over.

An umbrella to shade the canvas so you can see what you're doing is a good thing. It should be plain black or plain white so that it doesn't shift the colors when you're painting. I bought a white one on sale and it's got its own tall ground spike like a beach umbrella, so I will not be trying to clip it to a two pound field easel where it'd get carried away like Dorothy to Oz in the first breeze. Nothing like putting a sail on something that weighs less than my coffeecup when it's full. (Okay, I have a large coffee cup. I like the stuff.)

Somewhere between a French Easel and my ultra light aluminum field easel is a Pochade Box like the Guerrilla Painter ThumBox. These originated as cigar boxes adapted by artists to hold a small canvas board in the lid and a few supplies in the box. Some of them can be had custom made. They're smaller, they weigh less and they encourage painting in sizes like 8" x 10" or 5" x 7" or 9" x 12" because all the good ones get set up to handle those sizes and may have space for one or two boards inside even after they're wet.

Tripods are common for use with pochade boxes. They get built with a tripod assembly on the bottom that fits into the same sort used for cameras, which have the same stability and the advantage that you can  bring one tripod, set it up on the spot, get your good pictures, unscrew the camera, then screw the pochade box on and start painting.

Some artists stand at their easels. Nature decreed by my crooked bones that I don't, so a folding chair is essential for me and preferred by many. Most field easels, either sketchbox or not, can adjust in height for either standing or sitting.

Watercolor easels are different. Most watercolor easels, including many lightweight field easels like the Winsor & Newton aluminum ones, can adjust a bracket to hold a watercolor block flat or at your chosen adjustable tilt. Watercolorists do not necessarily work as small, though it can help. Watercolor blocks are extremely handy for outdoor painting.

I like using multiple quite small blocks like 4" x 6" or 5" x 7" because one article I read suggested that you can do multiple paintings on site at the same time and let one of them dry while you're doing something to the next. He usually carried four, so I got four. This proved handy in the studio too and it can be fun doing multiple paintings with the same palette.

Limit your palette unless you like working small and using pan watercolors. Pan sets like my wonderful Lukas 1862 watercolors pan set with 48 colors are pretty small, even the ones designed for studio use will carry pretty well like that one or the 24 color Yarka Professional set which has bigger pans. Many outdoor painters get used to using a favorite trio of primaries, or just a handful of preferred colors.

If you live in a moist area with lots of green vegetation, you may want to have a strong green like Phthalo Green or Sap Green in your setup, just because there's a limit to how vivid mixed greens can get and you get more mixes using some actual green into it. Earth tones are also handy. My favorites are yellow ochre or raw sienna, burnt umber or another dark brown, and an earth red like Burnt Sienna or Venetian Red or Light Red, I like to have those three earth tones handy if I'm doing anything with people, animals or dirt in it.

Other than that, a lemon yellow and a warm orangy yellow, a warm orangy red and a purplish cold red, a warm blue like Ultramarine that leans toward purple and a cold blue like Phthalo Blue Green Shade are good. I also like having both a bluish green and a yellowish green, like Phthalo and Sap Green, but that's me, I'm really into landscapes in luslh areas -- if anything I like tropical foliage the best. If you're in the desert those greens may be a lot less necessary.

I also like to have a good bright purple and a strong magenta like Quinacridone Rose, maybe a good bright orange too, because I like doing flowers outside. Mixed purples are not very vivid most of the time, unless you use a bright purplish red like magenta or Opera Rose or something with Ultramarine. So if you like doing florals, you may also want dioxazine violet or some other good purple, to have all three secondaries pure. If not, big deal.

It's also a matter of being consistent within the painting -- if your mixed purple is grayish but it's right next to a yellow stand of hay, it will look bright and vivid.

Oil pastels rock for plein air.

They are usually compact, the sets are lightweight and easily organized, or you can carry a lot of artist grade ones the same way you would soft pastels in a pastels box. If you're just sketching to develop them later, a box of 50 Pentels is about $5 and weighs practically nothing. Fill a Niji or Derwent or Sakura waterbrush with odorless turpentine or your choice of thinner, and you can get wet effects and washes too. These work on canvas boards, any pastel grounds or sketchbook paper. Taping your sheets of paper to foam board supports will allow you to use them on an easel, or you can just carry a clip style drawing board and switch paper when one sketch is finished. Or a pad that has a heavy cardboard backing.

Watercolor blocks are bound on all four sides, so that when they are painted on, they don't curl up and bubble and cockle. They might do that a little but the binding holds them down to dry flat. This makes them good for pasteling too if you like preparing your own pastel surfaces by painting them with a sanded pastel ground like Golden pumice gel or Art Spectrum Colourfix primer. Again, multiple smaller blocks can let you work on more than one fast piece.

Pan Pastels are very suited to plein air because they are so compact. Some pastelists like to make custom trays for them to hold all the pans open and just put a foam board lid over the lot when they're done painting. This can be set up on a folding stool or folding table next to your easel.

For a chair, any lawn chair will do, really. However, if you want ease of carrying stuff, some stools and chairs are made with a storage bag or zippered pockets built in. I bought the Sahara Chair, a folding chair with two big 12" square pockets under the seat and some other loose pockets for brush cases and narrow stuff on one side. There is another version that ASW has which has a folding chair on wheels with a big sack behind it, sized to hold a French Easel. This would work well unless you're going out on rough ground where you can't maneuver something wheeled.

Pack stools reduce the number of things you have to carry, and in the case of this not-so-strong pack rat, limit how much I can shove into it to something I can lift. I'll probably be most likely to use watercolors, Pan Pastels or oil pastels when I get out to do some plein air painting this summer... unless I can learn to ride and years down the road, get a horse.

This could close the hiking gap in a serious way because I would not have to carry the French Easel. The horse can carry me and the easel and the oils and all the goodies, all I have to be able to do is lift it off the horse and get it back onto the saddle again when I'm ready to leave. It's within possibility if I keep building on my health. It would also let me get a couple of miles off road with the full-mobility skinny tanned artists and see the wonders that are beyond Sunset Point. I hope to do that someday.

For brushes, accessories and so on -- use your favorites. Always stick to what you'll use most, except the teeny detail brushes unless one happens to be in your kit. For all that I dream of getting out on a horse and buying and using a French Easel, I am much more likely to grab my Winsor & Newton Artist's Field Box and a few 4" x 6" pads, stick those in the bag of my Sahara Chair and hike a few feet away from the car to settle down and paint.

It'll still be fun and it's great exercise.

Oh yeah. Do not forget water! Dehydration and loss of electrolytes can cause some serious health problems with outdoor activity especially in hot summers. So pack along some healthy snacks like granola bars or trail mix, bring enough water and also bring some Gatorade either liquid or powdered, or its generic equivalents. You can tell when you are getting dehydrated and that headache isn't frustration because Gatorade tastes good. It's wretched because it's got a salty taste -- unless you need it.

A cell phone is also important in case you hike three miles, break your leg and are laying out in the middle of the Sonoma Valley where no one else even knows where you are. It also helps if it's got a GPS on it if you're way out in wilderness. Or just to tell your friends when you're coming back or how cool the sunset was.

Enjoy. I hope you try it. Plein air painting may do wonders for your health if you're a sports-hater.

#26 of 100

#26 of 100 -- I am on a roll here!
#26 of 100 -- I am on a roll here!


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    • profile image


      11 months ago

      Very good article, great interesting details, and it's nice that you've included health or disability considerations, this encourages others like myself who have to deal with that too. Thank you!

    • Georgina_writes profile image

      Georgina Crawford 

      6 years ago from Dartmoor

      Superb article. I'll take your tips on board. I'm toying with the idea of painting en plein air, BUT as I use pastels I have yet to overcome the fact that they are sooooo bulky to transport and the finished pieces are so fragile. Thanks for the well written article anyway.

    • jamiesweeney profile image


      7 years ago from Philadelphia, PA

      Excellent work!Thanks for the wonderful tips here. I'll utilize them.

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 

      8 years ago from East Coast, United States

      Robert - I love this hub! I am sure that you will find a nice spot to paint out in the air without moving far from your car. The idea of creating a painting outside in the fresh air looking at the actual subject (instead of a picture) is wonderful!

    • robertsloan2 profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      Thank you both! You're lucky, Filarecki -- you must have so many ideas and it's so handy!

    • filarecki profile image


      9 years ago from United States

      Thanks for all the info on plein air. My backyard is the woods so I have plenty of subjects to choose from

    • scheinandras profile image


      9 years ago from UK

      Outdoor painting is a great exercise!:) To have first hand information to work with is essential for all artists! Great article! Keep up the good work!

    • robertsloan2 profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      I'll definitely be doing more art Hubs in future, so I'm glad this inspired you! You should try plein air sometime. I've found it helps me break away from getting distracted by details or overdetailng background elements. My realism sometimes still looks as detailed as it used to -- but the details are more chosen to be the important ones now and mostly go on the focal point.

      One thing that helps is to do a quick study of the main subject, say the entire view, then look at some detail of it and fill a page with that detail. Draw the details big. Use them as notes and then when you bring it back, you can develop a painting that has more detail all over and the key details you want are there to copy again. Of course take pictures. But color notes are essential compared to photos, because unless you have one of these thousand dollar cameras and a lot of skill, the colors never come out what they were really like. They might look good but your eye sees more colors than the camera does.

      Detail is also relative. So using pastels or Conte crayons or a watercolor set that has a waterbrush can really help to get down the important stuff fast -- including whole separate drawings of details. Also the smaller the notebook or pad you bring, the more detailed you can get in what you're doing. I wouldn't even try doing oils in plein air till you got to the point where you're comfortable sketching with charcoal or Conte.

      Color Conte sticks are great for it because they mix well with each other. They smudge easy with fingers too -- another important speed trick instead of the slower kinds of shading I get with say, colored pencils. I stopped being afraid to scribble once I found out I could smudge and that a smidge of red dot could turn into just a slightly more orangy patch finger painted onto a big yellow petal. This is not how you're supposed to do it but who cares, it works well. lol

      Enjoy, and I hope you do try plein air sometime. Plein air in the back yard is also good for getting the practice needed to get the right details down fast enough.

    • filarecki profile image


      9 years ago from United States

      Wonderful article. So complete, that I almost want to give plein aire a try. I have always stayed away from it because I am such a detail person and don't paint very fast because of it. i never go any place without my camera so I capture what ever attracts me at th4e very moment of the attraction. I'd love to do the 100 challenge, but I'm all ready so busy with so much that my painting time is suffering. Looking forward to following your hubs. good luck with the challenge.  Judy


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