If you’ve never done it, I’m here to tell you that plein air painting (painting outside) is hard! The toughest I’ve done. If you’ve tried it, you know what I’m talking about already. Let us count the ways: Bugs. People passing by who feel the need to go on for 30 minutes about their aunt in Virginia who paints the prettiest butterflies, but they themselves can’t draw a stick figure. Sunburn. Sudden rain. The perfect scene in a perfectly inaccessible spot. The sun moving incredibly quickly across the sky, changing the entire scene. The clouds moving even faster! Did I say bugs already? The sun in your eyes. Glare on your painting. Oh, and hauling all that heavy gear around. Ugh.
I’ve been painting outside for over ten years, but by no means consistently. I am embarrassed to say there have been years in a row when I didn’t get out even once. I justified this by calling myself a still life painter, but still griped when I didn’t see any improvement in my landscapes. Crazy, I know.
Lately I have been getting outside to paint more often. In Oregon, where I live, there is a wet season and a dry season. Right now is the dry season, and I am trying to take advantage of the good weather, and learning a ton about painting outside! Bear with me, as I still consider myself a “newb,” as my son says. But maybe some of what I’ve learned will help you too:
ONE. I don’t ever expect (anymore) to do good ones outside. I consider them studies to take home and either rework or do over with a few photos to help. I actually think that this practice (of working on them both outside AND at home, rather than only one OR the other) is the best way to get better.
TWO. I expect to improve only gradually. For some reason I thought at first that since I was proficient with other subjects, landscapes would be an easy transition. Although knowing the basics of design and paint application have helped, landscape painting is a whole different animal.
THREE. Minimize my gear. I see a lot of painters who bring every brush they own, every tube of paint, 20 panels, and every other “just in case” they can imagine. And that’s fine if you only want to paint by your car. I love that I can hike anywhere with no more than 15 pounds on my back.
I have tried just about every kind of outdoor easel and settled on one that is lightweight and easy to set up and take down (for me that’s the Art Box). I would also recommend the Open Box M. I bring only a few brushes in a PVC tube, and small tubes of the seven colors in my limited palette (titanium white, cad yellow, cad red, alizarin crimson, ult blue, phthalo blue and burnt umber). You can mix every color you need outside with these colors, IMHO.
FOUR. A good umbrella has greatly improved my experience. I’ve tried several of them, and I highly recommend the Best Brella. It will attach to any easel, and adjusts to shade wherever you need it. Ideally you want to shade your painting AND palette. Unfortunately umbrellas don’t work well in high wind. In that situation you should try to find natural shade.
FIVE. Speaking of wind, I have learned to always weigh down my easel so it won’t tip over. Even if the wind seems minimal – a small gust is all it takes sometimes to dump your gear over. To do this I put everything I don’t need immediately back into my backpack and then attach it to the underside of my tripod so it weighs it down. If my pack isn’t heavy enough I collect rocks from the area and put them in my pack too.
SIX. I always bring water with me, and more than I think I’ll need. Yes, it’s heavy, but if I don’t bring it with me I will get dehydrated. And that is no fun.
SEVEN. Wet wipes are a life-saver. I use them to get paint off my hands and easel. I prefer the baby wipes from Costco because they are unscented and strong (don’t tear easily).
EIGHT. Check out the parks first. For years I only went out with friends to paint. When I started exploring on my own I found that if I just drove down random roads, I rarely found good scenes that were also accessible. For some strange reason they weren’t thinking about artists when they designed road shoulders. Pah! So now I regularly go out and explore parks within driving distance. City parks, state parks, whatever. First I drive around and then I get out and hike down various trails.
NINE. That said, dirt or gravel roads can also be good, if you can find them. These roads are usually far less traveled, and if a car does come along, they can pull around you if you’re parked along the side.
TEN. A good hat will protect you. Even though you’ve already got your umbrella, a hat will save your eyes and the back of your neck from the blasting sun.
ELEVEN. Wet panel carriers are a must if you’re painting on panels, which I recommend. You can get some great ones from Raymar, or you can make your own.
TWELVE. Don’t wear light or bright colors. They will reflect back onto your painting and make it harder to see what you’re painting. It’s best to wear a black, gray or neutral colored shirt. And use sunscreen.
THIRTEEN. My tips have been mostly about gear, but my last one’s about painting. There is no right way to do it. If you take workshops about landscape painting you will hear all the ways it’s supposed to be. Be inspired by what you see. Don’t let yourself be crushed by the rules. You also don’t have to accurately record what you see. Think of it as a poem. You are painting a poem about what you see. Have fun with it. Let what you paint be unique!
To learn more about Carol and her work, visit her website.