All pictures painted inside the studio will never be as good as the things done outdoors. –Paul Cezanne
Now that you’ve finished three acrylic painting exercises, you may want to try painting en plein air.
Here are the topics we’ll be discussing:
Intro To Plein Air
This means you’re outside! En plein air is a French term that means “in the open air.” A lot of artists will paint landscapes outside from observation (looking at the real thing, not using a photograph as a reference). Plein air painting and drawing can be done in a variety of media—oil, acrylic, pastel, watercolor, pen and ink, etc., but in this lesson, we’ll focus on plein air painting with acrylic paints.
The biggest difficulty with painting outdoors with acrylic paints is the fact that they dry so quickly. There are some ways around this and some ways to use it to your advantage that we will discuss in this lesson. But first—a little history!
Once paint tubes were invented in the 1800’s (see further discussion in Art History: Painting 101), painting outdoors became much easier and became a trend among painters who wanted to capture natural light and outdoor scenes.
This technique is particularly important to The Barbizon School (French, c. 1830-1870, realistic landscape paintings) and the Impressionists (late 1800’s, looser, more focused on capturing the light than the landscape itself). Some notable plein air artists include:
Artists who painted outdoors had a big impact as well. Thomas Moran (1837-1926) was part of the survey team exploring the Yellowstone region in 1871, visually documenting over 30 different sites with watercolor sketches that would later serve as the basis for numerous paintings. These field sketches were the first color images of Yellowstone ever seen in the East. Moran’s paintings were instrumental in convincing Congress to preserve this incredible area and establish Yellowstone as the first national park.
Here’s a photo of some people painting en plein air:
If you’re interested, you can watch a condensed four minute landscape video of Brad Teare, an acrylic plein air painter, working here:
Supplies You’ll Need
To paint outdoors using acrylic paints, we recommend the following. Note that italicized/bold items are those you should already have if you’ve completed the acrylic course!
- A folding easel
- Clamps (optional)
- Small, folding table (optional)
- A stool
- Spray bottle
- Water container
- A viewfinder
- A bag to carry it all in
- A few paints
- Retarder gel
- 2-3 rags
- Brushes in a roll up brush holder
- Pencils, eraser, and a sketchbook (to try out a few thumbnail sketches before you start painting)
If you’re going to be painting outside, you may want an easel with a top frame to hold your canvas in place in case it gets windy. This is a very typical plein air easel:
All of your paints and supplies fit in the little box behind where the painting goes and when you’re on the go looking for a good spot to paint, the whole thing folds up like a briefcase! Most plein air easels come with palettes that fit perfectly inside, but if you’re working with acrylic paints, you should donate this nice wooden palette to an oil painter friend. Dried acrylic paint will never come off of the wooden palette. We’ll discuss alternatives below.
If you plan on painting outdoors a lot, you may want to invest in this sort of easel. The one caveat is that they typically don’t hold very large canvases—usually somewhere around 34” in height is the max. That’s okay though, you don’t want to be carrying around several large canvases as you paint outdoors. 16” x 20” (or somewhere around there) is typically a good size. These easels can run anywhere from about $45-$350 new. Try looking on eBay, Amazon, or Craigslist too.
The part of the easel that folds into what resembles a wooden briefcase is called a pochade, which is French for a type of sketch, usually done with oil paints outdoors. The pochade may come attached to an easel or may require a separate tripod to mount on. It’s an all-in-one box that folds out to reveal a drawer for your paints, a flat surface for your palette, cup holders for water, brush holders, and sometimes flat areas to store your canvases. Features will vary based on brand and amount of money you’re willing to shell out.
At AllaPrimaPochade.com, Ben Haggett custom builds pochade boxes for the dedicated plein air painter. This is his Bitterroot 10 x 12 pochade box:
You can see all the convenient features included that will make your plein air painting experience more pleasant.
If you’re not ready to spend $300+ dollars on a plein air easel but still want to try this method of painting, you can make your own using a cigar box and some wood scraps or wine corks. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vR2P8ymJ0cg
If you’re really handy, you can make your own following the plans here: http://muddycolors.blogspot.com/2014/03/pochade-box-plans.html
A plein air easel works best, but if you don’t have one, you can use any portable easel. If your easel doesn’t have a top bar (a repositionable bar that holds the top edge of your canvas), you’ll want to make sure you have some clamps to hold your canvas in place. If you don’t do this, a gust of wind can take your canvas to new heights, ruining all your hard work. Something like this will work as long as you clamp it to the wooden frame of your canvas and not just the canvas (it will dent your painting).
Have a few clamps in your arsenal for other things like attaching your rag to your easel so you don’t have to hold it while you paint.
As we mentioned above, wooden palettes are no good for acrylic painting en plein air. Many acrylic plein air painters use a Sta-Wet palette to help keep their paints moist as they work.
Palette paper is nice for plein air painting because at the end of your session, you can just fold up the paper and throw it away, but beware that if it’s windy, your paper could fold over on itself.
If you’re using a regular easel, you’ll also want to have a portable table to set your paints and mediums on.
This folding camping table would work well. You can also make double use of a milk crate or box—use it to hold all your supplies until you get to your location then flip it over and use it as a small table.
Chair or Stool
If you’re going to sit, you’ll also need a folding chair or stool.
I have seen a lot of plein air painters using a folding stool like this one. A three-legged stool is fine for short stints, however if you are going to be painting for a few hours, I recommend a straight back folding camp chair. Make sure you don’t buy the ones that are for slumping back with a cold beer. You’ll need to have a slightly straighter back, (although the drink holder can be handy to hold your water container). Depending on where you are painting, you may be able to take advantage of the resources available: e.g. a picnic table, beach chair and table, flat rock, beach towel.
A spray bottle is essential for painting outdoors with acrylic paints. You’ll use it to occasionally mist your palette to keep your paints from drying out.
Have at least one water container to keep your brushes clean so that paint doesn’t dry on the bristles.
This can be as simple as your thumb and forefinger in an L shape or a piece of cardboard with a rectangle cut out in the center to help you frame your composition. If you haven’t yet read our lesson on composition, check it out now: Composition For Beginners.
There is also a very handy “3 in 1 Plus” viewfinder by Picture Perfect that has little windows that you look through proportioned to match standard size frames. www.pictureperfectviewfinder.com Plus it includes composition guidelines to mark the scene in thirds helping you ensure your focal point is at the “Golden Mean”–see Composition for Beginners for more info on composition.
You’ll also want a bag of some sort to carry all your supplies—backpacks work well since you can wear them comfortably while you’re walking. Wheeled shopping bags are a great option if you don’t want to carry everything.
This one is available from an office supply store for about $20:
You can also make a version of this by using a furniture dolly, a milk crate, and a few bungee cords.
Don’t forget your paints! You don’t need to bring every tube of paint you own (unless, of course, you only own a few). Try to keep your palette limited to just a few select colors. This will help harmonize your painting as well as giving you less to carry to your location. If you think you’ll be doing a lot of plein air painting, you can invest in Golden Open Acrylic which have a slower drying rate than regular acrylic paints.
This will also help keep your paints moist as you work outdoors. Some artists lay a small blob of retarder gel on top of each paint pile before they start working so that it slowly melts into the paint and keeps it from drying out. Other artists lay down a layer of retarder gel onto their canvas after they’ve created their sketch to help the paint move better.
Brushes, Brush Holder, And Rags
A paintbrush holder like this works well and keeps your brushes from being damaged when you transport them:
Or like this one that rolls up:
Bring a few more rags than you think you need. You never know when you’ll need to clean up a spill or wipe away unwanted paint on your canvas or palette.
Sketchbook, Pencils, And Eraser
Bring these items along to make thumbnail sketches of your composition before you start painting. It might seem like an extra step and I know you’re excited to get started painting, but this will save you some heartache in the end (running out of room is a really common problem when you just start winging it).
Can’t paint if you don’t have something to paint on! Don’t forget this essential item. If you have a plein air easel, check the maximum size for your canvas. Many don’t hold canvases over 36”. Small canvases are best for plein air painting so you can carry several around with you easily. 16” x 20” or less is best. Take 2-3 canvases in case you want to capture changing light or a different scene!
A cell phone camera will work fine. You probably want to record the scene in case you want to either redo the painting at home, or make some final touches a later date. Most importantly, if you love the scene because of some dramatic shadows, make sure you grab a picture of them before they change.
Non-Painting Related Essentials
- Be sure to check the weather report before you go out—you don’t want to get stuck in the rain!
- Make sure you dress the part. You may want to consider dressing in layers to account for any changes in weather. Fingerless gloves help keep your hands warm but still allow you to hold your paintbrush. A hat with a wide brim is a good idea. Since the glare of the sun can diminish the size of your pupils and distort colors, it’s critical that your eyes are shaded but sunglasses can also distort colors.
- Bright colors (including stark white) clothing can reflect colors onto your canvas. Wear neutral beige or cream colors to avoid unwanted reflections.
- Sunscreen/insect repellant
- Water (don’t want to get dehydrated)
- Tea or coffee in a thermos (if it’s cold outside); packed lunch or other snack
- A bag for your trash
Exercise One: Gather Up Your Own Plein Air Pack.
See what you have already in the house that will make up your plein air pack. Is there an old backpack everything will fit in? Will that old camp chair do the trick?
Where And How To Paint En Plein Air
Don’t think you need to trek to some exotic location in order to make a decent plein air painting. You can go to a local park, beach, or anywhere you like the scenery (don’t trespass on private property, though!). It’s best for acrylic paints if you can set up somewhere in the shade on a day when it’s not too windy (wind will speed up the drying time of your paints). One thing you may want to consider is that people are very curious when they see plein air painters. They may want to stand and watch or talk to you while you’re working. If you’re fine with this, then set up anywhere! If you’d rather not deal with interactions with strangers watching you paint, set yourself up so that your back is covered, for instance against a wall, a closed doorway, or something else that will obstruct the path of any looky-loos. If you have a back or front yard, try that first! It’s nice to try it out for the first time somewhere close to home in case you run into any issues.
Look into joining a plein air group in your community and go out with other artists! This is a great way to get inspired, discover new locations, and make new friends. Most art associations have a plein air group where informal outings are organized once a week or once a month. These people usually know excellent places to paint and sometimes make special arrangements that allow artists access to areas they wouldn’t normally be allowed to paint (private gardens, etc.)
Watch this quick (<4 minutes) video of artist Gregg Russell painting en plein air:
He’s using oil paints, but the technique will still be the same. Only the paints and mediums will change.
First, he’s toning his canvas with what looks like a little Yellow Ochre + Burnt Sienna mix and a bit of water. Just rub that onto your canvas then wipe it all off with a rag to tone your canvas so it’s not so stark white. After that, he sketches in the scene with some thinned down dark paint (use your Burnt Sienna or Burnt Umber mixed with water). When he begins painting, the darkest darks go in first and only at the very end does he add the lightest colors. That’s because it’s easier to make something lighter but making something darker after you’ve already added white is nearly impossible. When you’re painting outside, you’ll probably be using a lot of green. Remember that if your green is just too green, you can add a touch of red to tone it down.
Retarder gel is really helpful when using acrylic paints for plein air painting. I recently went out and did a plein air painting on the San Francisco Bay ferry and forgot my retarder gel at home. Even though conditions were wet and the day was overcast, the paint still dried incredibly quickly. Luckily I had my little spray bottle of water so that helped a little, but if you plan on plein air painting, I really recommend getting a retardant for your paints.
Exercise Two: Find An Artist Organization Then Go Out And Paint!
Research art associations in your area to find which ones offer plein air paint outings. Most organizations will let you join them a time or two before officially joining their group. Check to see what type of medium most of their members use. There are dedicated acrylic painting societies as well as general art groups. You can be an acrylic painter and still join a group of watercolorists. Artists are a friendly bunch!
Gather all the materials you will need and find a place not too far from home where you can paint. Choose a simple scene (distant hills, middle ground trees, foreground meadow) or a small piece of a more complicated view (a bloom on a cherry blossom tree against a blue sky). Remember, you don’t have to paint everything you see. Keep it simple. Don’t overthink your painting—right now, your job is to be alert and notice the things around you. You can overthink it once you get back into your studio.
Set up somewhere in the shade if you can. It will keep your paints from drying out (and keep you from getting sunburned). You don’t have to finish the entire painting outside. Try to get the gist of things. You can always complete it back in your studio.
Keep in mind that the light will change the longer you are outside. Shadows will be different at 10 am than that 6 pm. Work quickly, blocking in major shapes first then only getting into details at the very end. If you plan on being out for a while, you can take several canvases to work on at different times to capture the light as it is in the morning, afternoon, and evening. Claude Monet’s Haystack series is an excellent example of this. He worked on several canvases at one time, switching them as the light changed. It was also an ongoing project of his, so he captured the haystacks through seasonal changes as well.
When you’ve finished your painting, send us a photo using our submission form!
BONUS Exercise: Make Your Own Pochade Box!
You will need:
- Cigar box
- Hot glue gun/wood glue/super glue
- Scrap wood or wine corks
- Masking tape
- Thin piece of wood or plexiglass to act as your palette (if you use wood, you’ll need to give it a few coats of linseed oil to keep the paint from soaking right into the porous surface)
- Knife hinges
- Small hinges
Follow the instructions in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vR2P8ymJ0cg
or in this written tutorial: http://www.ellieclemens.com/pochade.html
Congrats, you have completed the Acrylic Course. Explore the SRC to find acrylic painting videos in your area of interest (landscapes, still life, portraits, etc.) to grow your new found skill. Continue painting the world around you!