You Too Can Be A Plein Air Painter!

I love nature, wildlife, photography, being outdoors and of course painting! About two years ago, I discovered the perfect way to combine all of these great things....plein air painting, which is just a fancy, French term for painting outdoors. It’s much less complicated than you think. I thought I would put together a short list of supplies if you want to give it a try. What’s great is that you can go as close to home as your backyard or to a local park or really rough it out in the middle of nowhere. I plein-air paint in both acrylics and watercolors. If you paint in acrylics, your paint will dry much more quickly outside due to wind, sunlight and low humidity. Matte medium or any drying retarder will be your best friend for painting in acrylics. Golden Paints has a line of acrylic paints called “Golden Opens” and those stay open longer than traditional paints. Many plein air artists will paint in oils, which take weeks to dry.  A happy medium (no pun intended, okay, maybe) may be water-soluble or water-mixable oils, which take longer to dry than acrylics. There are no harsh chemicals and brushes clean up with just soap and water.    For acrylics, a folding metal easel is ideal for painting outdoors. It is lightweight, folds down into a small, easy-to-carry size and you can stand or sit at it, thanks to all the height adjustments available. I also have a small Sta-Wet palette, about 5”x 8” that is nice and compact but not too small. Depending on the amount of your “gear”, you can use a backpack or a wheeled canvas cart like I use, that has an attaching folding camp chair. I recommend canvas panels rather than wrapped canvas for plein air painting in acrylics. The brightness of the outdoors will shine through your wrapped canvas and make it harder to paint. Remember that unless you are in your backyard or a park with “facilities”, you will only have what you bring with you. I use two plastic containers (ideally with screw-on lids that hold about 4 cups or so), bring one full of water and one empty. I also bring an empty cottage cheese or sour cream container. I pour some water into that to clean my brush and if my water gets too dirty, I pour it into the empty 4-cup container to take home to dispose of and refill the working container with more water. I also bring a handful of paper towels (rather than a whole roll that takes up more space).  I bring an assortment of brushes in a brush case (always look around before leaving to make sure you didn’t drop one). You may want to bring a small sketchbook and pencil for fast sketches and/or a quick value study. A spray bottle with water is a great idea also. I invested in a “tray” that fits onto almost any metal easel, to rest my palette. It has a hole for my water container and a place for brushes. Painting outdoors in watercolors is even more “compact”. I can easily transport all my gear in a lightweight backpack or canvas bag. I bring less water and don’t need an easel because I paint in a watercolor journal and hold it easily on my lap, so I always bring a chair. Watercolor journals come in all shapes and sizes, so pick one that is not huge and start small until you get more comfortable. I like spiral-bound ones that lay flat. Transporting watercolor paints is easy because there are so many airtight travel palettes available. I use one with about 18 pans and a mixing area with a lid that is airtight. A small set of pan watercolors is also great for Plein air painting.  You can easily paint in watercolors with just one or two brushes, so you don’t need to pack a bunch.   You probably will want to pack some essential personal items as well, including sunscreen, bug spray, a hat, drinking water, snack, apron, folding chair and don’t forget the toilet paper!! I would recommend you pack everything you think you need and start off in your backyard or close to home, in case you forget something. I remember I was only a few miles from home but failed to pack my brushes. Thanks to previously painting with my fingers and sticks, I was still successful in coming up with a nice painting! Create a handy checklist and you can always get ready in a snap. The most important thing is to have fun and enjoy the outdoor experience!!


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