SUCCESSFUL PLEIN AIR (OUTDOOR) PAINTING


The following article is intended for oil painters, but can be useful for acrylic, gouache, watercolor, and pastel painting. If you are using acrylic paints outdoors, use a special acrylic “stay wet” pallet that keeps paints wet. A slow drying medium and slow drying acrylics (like Golden Open Acrylics) is also recommended. Pastel painters can reduce the number of pastel sticks by painting on a colored surface and using a set of sticks for outdoor painting.


Before You Start Painting with Oils Outdoors

Drawing and painting outdoors is a fun and free way to practice for a beginner and offers beautiful scenery for advanced painters.

1. Read up on the following first: Drawing, composition, value, color, linear and atmospheric perspective.

2. Also, if you are serious about being a successful outdoor painter, it does not hurt to learn methods of painting your preferred subjects: creeks, lakes, oceans, clouds, mountains, rocks, trees, bushes, flowers. Learn their unique characteristics and how each season changes them.

3. Starting out with a sketchbook vs. a canvas is advantageous. You can just enjoy the time outside first observing. Take time to make the right decisions at the beginning, and that will enable you to create more acceptable (to you) images and work faster and with fewer revisions in the later stages of the painting.

4. Practice with watercolors first to better grasp composition, value, color, etc.

5. Give yourself a deadline. For instance, schedule every Wednesday for plein air painting.

6. Initially, aim for accuracy…not speed. Take days (several visits to the site) if needed. You will eventually get faster.

7. It is like learning a language and each thing you paint is a word. You must learn how to paint each thing well, then you can paint them fast.

8. Practice mixing and using warm and cool paints; learn the rules regarding how the light source and angle (value planes) effects the color of shadows.

9. Sight-size is a useful method of rendering a scene. I recommend this video by Marc Dalessio explaining the concept: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G0QeUviRgqY.

10. To help identify and isolate your subject, use a viewfinder, or cut a small frame with the same size opening as your final support.

11. Check out articles and videos about what to pack for outdoor/plein air painting. Some helpful equipment will include a metal edge for checking straight lines/horizon lines, palette knife, spatula, and brayers.

12. Before going outdoors to your destination, satellite view the area and find a few reference photos on google. Then do some 5–10-minute quick sketches (4 x 5 inches) of the area to help identify and practice shapes beforehand.

13. Preload your paint into your paintbox at home so you do not waste a lot of time in the field squeezing paint out of tubes.

14. Trust yourself and enter the “zone.” Once you start, keep painting, and looking, and painting. Try not to think about it. Become one with the scene-it is a Zen thing.



The Painting Session

Have a system. Incorporate as many of these tips as possible. Most will eventually become a good habit.

1. Envision the finished painting.

2. Take a pic of the scene and finish the details at home but do not overwork the painting or it will lose its character and freshness.

3. Keep focused on your subject and keep it simple. Start with a “smaller view” not a whole panorama (a tree not a forest). And when you do select your scene, edit out objects that do not work…like a bush, tree, cloud, etc. I strongly advise you to paint the “movable things” first...building do not move, but cars and people do.

4. Start with the most important thing…the area of focus…the subject.

5. Lay in tones, darks and lights first. Here use either monochrome or color. You will know which fits your style and mood best.

6. Squint. It is amazing what you see or take glasses off, same effect! View your painting upside down or through a small mirror to check balance and proportion.

7. Create a value study. Limit your time to 15 minutes. Look at your subject and then arbitrarily assign 3 to 4 major value patterns (make this a monotone) to create a good design. Identify the darkest color, the lightest color, then the brightest color. Next try a small color study.

8. Do not get hung up on "making a painting." Treat these plein air paintings like studies or experimentation.

9. Draw thumbnail sketches (up to 5 sketches) to determine what piece will Look like focusing on what is important and what are the parameter boundaries.

10. There are many approaches to placing your image on the support. Create a sketch on paper then transfer to your support (paper, canvas, panel, etc.). Use vine charcoal or a pencil to draw on the support. Use paint to draw on the support. Or wipe dark paint (for instance, burnt umber) on your support very thinly and pull out the lights with a rag.

11. Simplify shapes capturing the essence of the scene. In doing this, create a center of interest with a detail or two. Then loosely suggest the rest of the scene while working out the composition. Both will make or break your painting.

12. To avoid interference, if you are in a crowed area, wear headphones so people think you are listening to music and leave you alone. They do not necessarily need to be turned on. Some painters suggest fast paced energetic music for painting fast! Painting fast is not absolute, however, you do need to “chase the light.”

13. Set a timer to check your speed.

14. Stand back and paint from the shoulder. Move your arms very quickly!

15. Practice…paint, then paint some more, and paint some more, then paint again, and then again. Nothing like lots and lots and lots of practice. It takes time and miles on your brushes.

16. Keep bright light off your painting or your painting will look dark indoors.

17. Work all over the canvas, working on big shapes and not on meaningless small details; simplify.

18. Regard each painting as a study, rather than a finished painting. Do not panic, it is only a study, not a photograph.



How to Paint Faster

Painting outdoors will force you to paint fast because the light is always moving. You should paint those lights and shadows in fast before they change. If you spend too much time on one aspect of the painting, the light will be completely different before you have finished. Of course, you may have the option of returning several times to the same spot to paint. So, speeding up your painting may not be an issue, but if it is the following provides some helpful tips:

1. Try some exercises to train yourself to paint faster.

a. Set a timer when you start painting and assign decreasing time limits. When you practice, give yourself to a time limit where no matter what you will stop, say in 60 min or even 30 min. Then start a different painting.

b. Master the art of the fast block in. Compose your scene by blocking in the shapes in paint directly on the canvas. Limit yourself to portraying a shape or form with no more than three strokes. This can eliminate the need to transfer a drawing or to draw at all.

c. Practice drawing and painting from life in your studio, yard, or from online services like Zoom. Do thirty-minute warmups on an 8 x 10 inch support every day…even indoors.

d. Do not fuss over your painting.

e. Practice, practice, practice.

2. Layout your oil paints in the pochade box before going out to paint.

3. Before you go to your favorite painting site, if you are using oils or acrylics, underpaint your canvas or panel. This can be just a thin wash of background color in oil or acrylic. This will keep white specks from showing through and make painting smoother. You can paint acrylic under oil if drying time is an issue.

4. Consider learning plein air painting with acrylics before learning oils…to build speed. Acrylics dry faster…this may be frustrating but may increase your overall speed.

5. Using bigger brushes saves time. So, use the largest possible (for your size of canvas and image). Flat and bright type paint brushes are flexible because they can paint thin lines if needed.

6. Consider also using a palette knife. It forces you to focus on big shapes and you can scrape off mistakes quickly to adjust. (Note though that the pallet knives will naturally create a thicker layer of paint.)

7. Its faster to paint on a smooth surface but sometimes the brush drag is welcome when painting subsequent layers. A fast-drying medium mixed with the first layer of paint can achieve this drag for subsequent layers.

8. Paint less detail. It makes for a faster fresher painting with interesting brushwork. Paint from general to specific shapes, i.e., block in shapes.

9. Paint on 11 x 14 inch or smaller supports (paper, canvas, panels, etc.) Painting a little bigger makes it easier to add detail, but it may be better to select subjects with less detail.

10. To increase speed, participate in daily painting challenges…especially drawing from life.­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­

11. Coaching and critiques from professional artists should be helpful.

Note: In this blog, I included an image of my first plein air painting which was part of an invitational competition. It was 2011 in the small City of Davis, California…their first annual sponsored by Natsoulas Gallery. What amazed me was how many interpretations there could be of one scene…four others painted my subject and I thoroughly enjoyed them all. It was a wonderful day! (Except for the gnats that kept attacking me coming from a large potted plant.)

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