Beginner Oil: Setting up for Plein Air painting

7 May 2008

0708pleinair2_600x400_2The joy and excitement of plein air painting is worth the extra effort required to paint comfortably outside. Here, we address common problems and experiences artists face when first working outdoors.

by Naomi Ekperigin

Since the 19th century, artists have enjoyed the freedom of painting en plein air, and for many it is a staple of their creative process. Some artists complete a piece outdoors, while others will use the sketches and studies created on site as the basis for larger or more detailed pieces created in their studios. The popularity of painting en plein air has been facilitated by the creation of new products that are specifically designed with the plein air painter in mind. From collapsible easels to portable umbrellas, there is little an artist can do in a studio that can’t be done outdoors. However, even the most well prepared artist faces problems when he or she leaves the controlled confines of the studio.

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Two artists paint on a beach
in the height of the midday sun.

Plein air painting requires knowledge of not only one’s subject matter but the environment in which one paints. Just as an artist must know the direction in which light hits an image, and the complimentary and contrasting colors, a plein air painter must also know about the landscape in which he or she works, and develop a relationship with it. “Don’t use large canvases outdoors, as the wind blows them like a sail,” cautions artist Ken Auster, who has considerable experience painting on beaches. “And don’t wear flip flops when carrying the canvas-- they kick sand up at the paintings as you walk.” Auster’s advice comes from having experienced the pitfalls of plein air painting first hand, and his work can inspire those who may be wary of venturing into unknown territory. He has come to learn not only how to paint on beaches, but how his very movements and wardrobe affect his work.

Braving the Elements

The elements are probably one of the greatest challenges the plein air artists faces. Luckily, advances in equipment for outdoor painting have made it possible to persevere against harsh sun, wind, and rain. The most popular tool is a plein air umbrella, which can be purchased in a variety of sizes. These umbrellas are portable and attach to easels to offer shade and protection. Additionally, many artists drive to their destinations, and use their vehicles not only as a mobile storage unit, but as shelter during bouts of inclement weather.

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Many artists attach umbrellas to their
easels to protect from glare and heat.

As with any trip outdoors, knowing the weather and dressing appropriately can help ensure a comfortable experience. Keeping in mind that one could paint outdoors for hours, wearing layers is advisable, as you will be comfortable as weather conditions change. Fingerless gloves allow one to maintain dexterity and grip on a brush without sacrificing warmth.

Water, insect repellant, and a hat can lessen the discomfort of summer heat. While wearing light-colored clothing is advised (as it reflects light and heat), wearing bright whites can reflect onto a painting and alter the perception of colors. For comfort, bringing a portable chair or stool can allow for quick breaks to relax and rest one’s feet. A sturdy folding chair is less likely to get knocked around by wind, and wood or plastic will dry easily (and repel paint spills if they are quickly mopped up).

While painting outdoors, the direction and strength of natural light can change rapidly as the sun moves over the clouds, which affects the positioning of one’s easel. The sun should not hit the painting surface or palette, as this will make it difficult to judge values and everything will appear too light. If an umbrella is too cumbersome, position the easel in such a way that the sun does not hit the canvas directly.

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Artist David C. Gallup captures a
scene in Tennessee with a student.

The changing sunlight can also make it difficult to capture a scene quickly. For this reason, many plein air painters work on a canvas that is smaller than what they would use in the studio. Working on a small scale prevents a plein air artist from getting stuck on too many details while still laying down the particulars of a scene. Many artists overcome the challenge of changing light by doing a quick sketch or value study of a chosen scene on site and later using it as a reference for the finished piece. Some artists take several photos of a scene over the course of a day so that they can better remember details and colors. Others prefer to work with just a sketch and rely on memory and intuition as they continue. Any method is appropriate depending on an artist’s preference.

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Artist-instructor Timothy Thies
teaches students en plein air.

Once a piece is completed, transporting the wet canvas can be tricky. Watercolor pieces may dry quickly, while oil will remain wet even if a fast-drying agent is applied; pastel will always be a bit fragile. If there is space in your vehicle to place the canvas flat, this is ideal. A pochade box is a compact, portable box that can hold several panels in the lid and paint in the bottom portion. They are made by several manufacturers in a variety of sizes and can accommodate different canvases.

When searching for materials for plein air painting, there are several manufacturers to choose from. Here we list a few.

Blick Art Materials:www.dickblick.com/
This art supplier offers a wide array of materials for all kinds of artists.

Cheap Joe's: www.cheapjoes.com/
Here one can find a diverse assortment of supplies for painting outdoors.

Guerilla Painter: www.guerillapainter.com/
This manufacturer specializes in materials for plein air painting.

Jerry's Artarama:www.jerrysartarama.com/
Artists can find materials and supplies at discounted prices.


Naomi Ekperigin is the editorial assistant for American Artist.


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