Chair With a View 8"x10" oil on canvas panel
If you’re eager to try painting outside, but don’t have any special plein air gear, don’t worry. You probably can do it with gear that you already have, as long as you don’t try to go too far from your car.
Let’s talk about the most important components: an easel to hold your painting, and a place to put your palette so you can mix your paint. Any lightweight easel will do, even if it’s a table top model. In that case you'll need a table to put it on. A card table or folding camping table works great. Or you can choose a location where there are already picnic tables, like a local park. In fact, there’s no reason not to try painting outside in your own backyard, on your deck or patio, or the lawn, at whatever table you already have out there. Put a piece of plastic on the top if you want to keep it clear of paint spills.
Two easels that are easy to set up anywhere.
You can paint standing or sitting, that’s up to you. Standing has the advantage that you can step back to see what your painting looks like a few feet away, you get more exercise, and you can see farther. Sitting has the advantage that you can use a table for your easel, you have more room to spread out your gear, and it’s not as tiring.
Now for a place to put your palette. If you’re using a table, then you’re all set. You’ll need your palette to be smooth, so tape palette paper to a board that’s a bit bigger. That will keep it from being blown around by the wind. I sometimes use the back of painting panels that are still in their plastic for this.
If you don’t have a table that you can sit at with your legs under it, a folding camping chair and table work well. This is how I paint on our boat. You'll need to lower the painting holder on your easel and to sit, but that’s preferable to using that type of short table with an easel in the standing position. In that case, you would have to lean down too far to reach your mixing surface. Believe me, your back will not be happy with that method!
A backyard table can work with a table top easel, or a folding table with a chair and full sized easel.
So if you’re painting in your backyard, what can you paint? Try something simple at first, an empty flower pot will work well. Your gardening tools might be fun. I’ve even painted a lawn chair. Go for something that won’t move, and place it in an area where it gets good sunlight and makes a nice shadow. That’s a great composition to start with.
Paint what's in your backyard. And change the color if you want to.
Start with something simple, like an empty flower pot, and then move on to more complicated outdoor still life options, like these.
Once you get a feel for painting outside, you can think about gear made specially for that purpose. HERE's a blogpost about the gear that I use.
Rachel Carson Marsh in Kennebunk, Maine,
8"x16" oil on treated paper
A plein air painting is a landscape painted on location out of doors. If you aren’t a painter, you’re probably wondering how that’s different from a painting created indoors, and if it makes a difference to the look of the painting.
Let’s start by talking about how plein air painting is done differently. First, when painting plein air, we “paint from life”. In other words, we aren’t taking a photograph, and using that as our reference to create the painting. One of the fun parts is scouting around looking for places that would make interesting paintings. Once such a place is found, we choose a section of what we see before us, and make a several freehand drawings in a sketchbook to test options. After a few minutes, there are often 3 or 4 sketches to choose from. Once we’ve found an option that we like, we draw it on the canvas. I usually do the drawing on canvas with paint rather than charcoal or a pencil.
One of our family boats, showing a monochrome block-in, or value underpainting,
and the final 8"x8" oil painting
The actual paint application is not very different indoors versus outdoors when painting with oil paint, since it doesn’t dry very quickly. Except for one thing. The scene before us is changing as the sun moves across the sky. So without a photograph to record the scene at a specific time, we have to get the painting done quickly, before the lighting changes. Usually about 2 hours is all we’ve got, unless we come back another day, and that requires the same weather conditions. If we’re at the ocean, then the tide is also changing as time goes by. And most complicated of all, is sunrise or sunset, where things change very fast. And if it’s sunrise on sunset over water, there are actually two scenes that are both changing fast. No wonder plein air paintings are often small!
Two paintings on different days of the same scene at Great Brook State Park in Massachusetts, both 6"x6" oils
Plein air painting requires a good bit of planning and some practice to see what works best for the painter. I don’t know how many times I’ve had to go back to the car to get something I forgot that I can’t paint without, like paper towels, or the tripod that my paint box sits on. A checklist is very helpful.
You might ask, if plein air paintings is that much trouble, why do painters do it? I think there are several reasons. First, it’s a lot of fun. And being outside is always something to be treasured. It’s also a challenge, and many of us love a challenge. And I like the fresh look of a painting done quickly from life. It’s easy to overwork a painting, and when working outside, there’s much less chance of that.
Three paintings done in quick succession as the sun was going down from the top of Mt Agamenticus in York, Maine,
all 5"x7" oils
Is a plein air painting better than one painted indoors? No, I’m not saying that. But it is different. And the experience the artist has while creating the painting is different, and I think that shows in the work. Both kinds of paintings are appealing, and we have many of each kind in our home.
Looking out my studio window, I’m glad to see the leaves on the trees and the nice weather. It’s time to go outside and paint. Yay for plein air season!
Bobbi - Painter. Sketcher. Teacher. Boat and Dog Lover.