5 Things...About Painting Plein Air

Ah, to paint “en plein air” or “in the open air”! One might imagine the artist surrounded by the tranquility of nature whilst facing a blank canvas, paints in hand. In this comfortable 72-degree-weather, soft breezes brush across the environment as well as the hand guiding paint deftly across the textured surface. A beautiful painting emerges, perfectly capturing what the artist envisioned, and all is well with the world.

Ah, well, if only.

While this scenario isn’t necessarily untrue, I’ve personally come across and learned to deal with a couple of conflicting issues that cropped up from time to time. I don’t profess to know all things plein air, but I hope what I share from personal experience is somewhat helpful.

1. Mother Nature is as kind as she is cruel. Prepare to sacrifice your ego to the elements.

It’s autumn, so I want to capture some color. I see the perfect shot and set up my equipment…in an area that’s permanently shaded by a friendly hill. “No problem,” my confident self considers, “It’s only 50 degrees with a little gusty wind. I can handle it”. An hour later, I’m shaking so much I can barely control my brush. After thawing in the car and coming back to paint, I quickly realize I’ll have to eat some humble pie and sacrifice physical comforts if I want to finish what I started. Next time, I’ll be sure to pay attention to the elements and layer if needed. Note: 50 degrees in shade with constant wind gusts feels more like 30 degrees. I didn’t have a coat or gloves and, unfortunately, thought a sweatshirt and jacket to be sufficient. Ha. 

2.  When the “fight or flight” instinct rears its ugly head, fight!

Granted, I’m using this phrase more in the mental sense to problem-solve issues. On another recent outing, I came across a difficulty that could’ve sent me home, blank canvas in tow. I find a great scene and open up my bags, only to realize I forgot my trusty palette! There’s no way I can paint now! All this time has been wasted. Yet…after experiencing these negative emotions, a little fire sparks to resist the circumstances. I find myself not willing to accept this paltry excuse. From the several boards I’ve been carrying, I realize I can convert one into a decent palette-substitute. I brought my paints, so I squirt those colors on there and now I’m good to go. Resourcefulness is a great way to overcome difficulties. Don’t give up!

3. Keep some business cards handy. People are everywhere.  

Yes, even in the wilderness. Explorers haven’t gone extinct, so it’s nice to interact with those who share my affinity for experiencing nature on both her good and bad days. While on their treks, curious observers would pass by, often pausing to see what I was doing. Some even struck up conversation! When that happens, be ready to explain what you do, why you enjoy it, and offer them something that gives more information. It’s really cool to meet new people in these situations. While strange to say as a natural introvert, I enjoy every encounter.

4. Bring a viewfinder. It will become your best friend.

Here’s the poor man’s version.

And the fancy version. (You can get it here).

I cut a standard rectangle out of a piece of gray paper and that works fine for me. A viewfinder puts borders around the area you want to paint so your eye isn’t overwhelmed by the surrounding scenery. It’s easier to frame something far off than extremely close up, that way, you can focus on the big shapes of the composition and save the details for later. Passionate painting with a poor composition is a waste of time. A viewfinder will save you a ton of grief.

5. Paint to learn, not to perfect.

I painted a bubbling brook recently. It turned out horribly, but I was glad I did it. Now I know more about painting water! It’s a funny thing, expectations. Toss those out the window and you’re suddenly having a more positive day. That kind of mentality is especially helpful when plein air painting. The sun is constantly moving, the shadows never stay in one place, and scenery can look cheery the first moment and spooky the next. Add spotty cloud cover to the mix and I could be dashing madly back to the comfort of my studio, fuming and frustrated. Coming outside to learn and not expecting a beautiful, perfect painting improves me as a painter and person. If I should happen to get a good painting out of it, that’s super. Note: For a stellar example of handling nature’s potentially frustrating issues, check out Jeremy Lipking’s plein air experience here. The guy is a champ.

As always, I hope these tidbits of experience are useful. Please feel free to like, comment, and share if you know someone who could benefit.