Notes from an article originally written for the Northwest Watercolor Society’s June 2020 newsletter with tips that may be useful to others
Most likely you know that plein air means outdoors in French (literally “full air”). It refers to the tradition begun by the Impressionists of going outside to paint from life. It was the invention of small, ready-made, soft-metal, portable paint tubes that made it possible. Peut-être is French for “might be,” or “maybe.”
Little will bring more freshness – and challenge! – to your work quite as much as painting outdoors from life. From Thomas Moran to David Hockney, whenever I see an exhibit that pairs artists’ large studio paintings with their preparatory studies, I always love the studies. They may be smaller, less grandiose and less accurate—but they are so much more direct, personal and free.
I also find that it’s something I have to practice regularly; it’s more like a sport: you can’t expect to score a win if you don’t practice. For many years I have participated in an annual plein air competition in late fall, so I am highly motivated to “train” all summer.
And since this kind of painting is honestly one of the harder things to do, you have to be easy on yourself.
Just as last summer, a group of us are still planning to go outside to paint once a week. Depending on the state and local orders in force at the time, it might have to be 6-feet-apart, masked and gloved. Or separate in our home gardens with a video meeting afterwards.
This year there is so much we can’t assume: the parking lots of some city parks are still off limits to parking. Restrooms may not be open. Restaurants, if open, may be only open for take-out. Besides the painting gear outlined below, add masks, gloves and hand-sanitizer to your kit. We are planning to maintain a sign-in sheet should there be any need for future contact tracing (and will not be used for any other purpose).
Here are some of the tips and practices I have found helpful:
- Lightweight folding easel and several sheets of paper that fit on it. Some people bring lightweight folding chairs and paint on a board in their laps, but I like standing because my arm is freer. Some people work in small sketchbook; my preference is separate quarter-sheets.
- Small closing palette that fits on my easel shelf, with my go-to landscape colors in it (always in the same order so I don’t have to hunt for a pigment)
- Several favorite brushes – I can get away with only a 1-inch flat, two sizes of rounds and a rigger
- A camera – I always take a photo between the end of my pencil sketch and starting to paint. Rarely do I ever refer back to it, but just taking the photo allows me to paint more freely knowing I have a backup if something unforeseen occurs. (Yes, there was that time they turned the sprinklers on me at Gasworks when I was only half-finished : – )
- Water cups that fit on my easel
- A filled water bottle with a carabiner on its handle; I can clip it and/or my backpack the easel for extra stability if it’s breezy.
- A pencil case with pencil, pencil sharpener, white vinyl and kneaded erasers, clips to hold my paper to my easel’s board, a Swiss Army knife, pen, and a few business cards
- A quick snack like some almonds, a piece of fruit or a granola bar. We may go for lunch afterwards if there’s a quorum and a convenient spot, but sometimes I need a boost before well before then.
- Travel mug – that way you can’t stick your brush in your beverage.
- Sun screen
- Hand sanitizer, mask, gloves
- Cathy Gill so rightly says, “First the artist must be comfortable.” Dress in layers you can put on or take off, depending on the weather. I always have a spare lightweight jacket and warm hat with me, as I get cold easily standing still whatever the temperature. Sometimes I’ll wear long underwear if it’s less than 60 degrees and breezy, as well as fingerless wool gloves.
- Sun hat with a big brim that shades your eyes and covers the back of your neck. I don’t like to wear sunglasses because they distort my color perception, so that hat is really important. Picking a location where your board and paper are in the shade and not reflecting glare into your eyes helps too.
- As it gets warmer, one of my layers is a big white long sleeved shirt, so I only have to put the sun-goo on my hands and face.
- I like to walk around a little and review possible subjects before I settle on a particular one. This is one reason it’s nice to have an easy way to carry your stuff: I use a backpack; some folks have rolling carriers.
- If possible, orient your paper and board 90 degrees to the scene you’re painting. That way you’ll be reacting to your painting at least as much as to reality.
- Especially early and late in the shoulder seasons, reverse the usual light-to-dark watercolor practice and paint the shadows first because they’ll be changing the fastest. You can also do a quick value sketch to fix the darks before they’re changed positions.
- I always ask myself, “why is this going to be a painting and not a photograph,” another reminder that I need not be a slave to the reality in front of me. Or, as my colleague Spike Ress once said to me, “you can lie…”
I can’t tell you how much I hope to see you out there, because it means I’ll be able to get out there too!