All pictures painted inside the studio will never be as good as the things done outdoors. –Paul Cezanne
Now that you’ve finished three watercolor 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 painting outside! En plein air is a French expression 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.
Many painters count on a series of watercolor sketches done plein air before developing a final painting (in whichever medium they choose) in their studio. These sketches can include differing views of the same object or landscape or additional sketches and notes on lighting, colors, mood, etc. Mood, color, and atmosphere can never be fully captured in a photograph the same way an artist experiences them by sitting outside really absorbing their environment. So especially for landscape painters, it is highly recommended that you build some time into your painting schedule to paint outdoors.
Sketches can be done in a notebook or journal. If you’re interested in watercolor journaling, this is a great site to get you inspired: http://www.watercolorjournaling.com/
Once paint tubes were invented in the 1800’s (see Art History: Painting 101 for more information), painting outdoors became much easier and became a trend among painters who wanted to capture natural light and outdoor scenes. Winsor & Newton modified their watercolor cake formula to a more liquid form, which could be sold in these new metal tubes.
In the 1930s, a watercolor movement based on painting en plein air grew into what became known as the California Style or California School of Watercolor. This style of painting dealt with scenes from everyday life as well as California landscapes. Completed on site with little or no preparatory work, these works used strong brushstrokes, vivid colors, and bold design. Using the white of the paper as a design element was a unique aspect to this style. Important California Style artists include: Rex Brandt, Dong Kingman, Barse Miller, George Post, Millard Sheets, Robert Wood, and Milford Zornes, as well as others.
Some notable plein air watercolor artists include:
Artists who painted outdoors had a big impact on the world 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 decide to try painting outside, consider your objective:
1) Creating a completed painting done almost entirely outdoors. Most new artists don’t bother trying to achieve this. This will require a more formal set up with easel and table and larger paper. In order to ensure you get the lighting correct, you may be required to return to the location at the same time over several days.
2) Developing watercolor sketches for the purpose of later creating a studio painting. These sketches may be done in a watercolor sketchbook or on watercolor block and may include differing views or additional sketches of interesting details as well as side notes on colors, lighting, mood, or what made you want to paint that scene. Gather as much information on the scene as you can so that when you go to paint it in the studio later, you’re prepared.
3) Creating pages in a journal. This may also lead to subsequent paintings, but the primary objective is to bring back memories of a location. This may include multiple images on one page with paragraph descriptions or at least captions describing specific memory. A great site to learn more about the joy of journaling is http://www.watercolorjournaling.com/. Watercolor journaling is a fun way to capture memories when you’re traveling—who ever looks at the thousands of photos on their smartphone, anyway?
4) Painting for purely the practice (and joy) of painting. It can be very freeing to know that you are just playing and not trying to come up with a result. Sometimes these loose spontaneous paintings are the best!
Supplies You’ll Need
To paint outdoors using watercolor, we recommend the following items, which we will also briefly discuss just below. After that, we’ll go over some non-painting related essentials to make your outdoor painting experience as pleasant as possible. Note that italicized/bold items are those you should already have if you’ve completed the watercolor course!
- Watercolor block or watercolor sketchbook
- Water container and extra water bottle
- Folding palette filled with paints
- Small spray bottle
- Brushes and brush holder
- Pencils/pens, eraser, sketchbook
- Easel (optional)
- Chair or stool (optional)
- Table (optional)
- Bag to carry everything in
You’ll need a surface to paint on while you’re outside. Watercolor blocks are nice because the paper is already stretched, so you don’t have to worry about that when you’re in the field. There’s also many sheets of paper in the block, so you have plenty of chances to start over again! See Watercolor Paper And Other Surfaces for more information.
A squat wide-mouthed water container works best. They even make some that are collapsible for easy packing. But you can get away with a cleaned-out, 16-ounce, plastic sour cream container.
You’ll also want to have a lidded container filled with water. I recommend at least 2-3 times the volume of your squat water container, so you can empty and start with fresh water a few times. I use a cleaned-out 32-ounce Gatorade bottle. Sometimes, the location will allow you to use their water facilities, but it is always good to have a larger container to carry the water.
Folding palettes work best for traveling. See our Watercolor Palettes lesson for an image and ideas for how to make your own travel kit. Before you go out plein air painting, squeeze out the colors you’ll want to paint with into your folding palette and allow it to dry on a flat surface overnight. The paints will dry and stay in position when you fold up the palette. When you wet them with your spray bottle, they will reconstitute and be ready for painting!
You can purchase one of these in just about any store that carries home and garden supplies.
Watercolor is all about understanding the ratio of pigment to water, so if it is hot outside you’ll need to keep adding water and your paper will dry faster than you expect. You might need to use more dry brush techniques for that outing and practice wet-in-wet on a cooler, foggier day.
Realize that temperature, humidity, and wind will all affect your painting. Don’t let it bother you, but instead embrace it! One painter stuck her paper in a freezing river and when she started adding her watercolors, the paints froze in fabulous patterns on her paper. She worked hard to keep her painting in the shade so that as it dried, those crystalline effects were preserved. Another artist designed a special palette that had a reservoir to hold hot water, which kept his paints from freezing so he could paint in the snow. Now that’s what we call extreme painting!
Bring at least two absorbent rags or dish towels. Paper towels also work and are good to have around just in case. I often times put one rag in my lap because I sometimes accidentally use my pants to absorb water from my brush (not recommended).
Brushes And Brush Holder
When you’re traveling, put your brushes inside a brush holder to protect them from damage. This can be a rolled up bamboo or canvas holder. The goal is something that will keep the brushes from getting bent out of shape at the bottom of a backpack.
See our Watercolor Brushes lesson for a tutorial on how to make your own brush carrying case!
Sketchbook, Pencils, And Eraser
Bring a tiny (3”x5” or 5”x7”) sketchbook to try out a few pencil thumbnail sketches. You always want to think through your composition before you start – where’s my horizon going to be, how am I going to move the viewers eyes through the painting, where is my lightest light and darkest dark, what is the overall value pattern I’m working towards? Think about where the path of light is through your painting. Is it an S shape, an L Shape? In your painting, you will want to make sure you emphasize the edges that created that interesting shape and not worry about the details in the mid- to darker values. Does your landscape have some interesting verticals (birch trees lined up)? Play with different compositional setups. This is best done with several scribbles. The point of thumbnail sketches is to force you to do some thinking before you start painting, but don’t spend too long! The light will change and your thoughts will be irrelevant.
Looking at a massive outdoor space can be intimidating when you want to paint. You don’t have to include everything you see. A viewfinder can help you to narrow your focus and concentrate on a good composition.
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. Plus it includes composition guidelines to mark the scene in thirds helping you ensure your focal point is in a good spot. www.pictureperfectviewfinder.com
The scene in front of you will always be more complicated than you can render and different than what you want to communicate. Think about what drew you to that scene initially- an interesting shadow shape, the contrasting color of the mailbox against the orange building, or the fascinating texture of the peeling barn. Emphasize what matters and leave out the telephone pole or the car parked in front of you. To emphasize the height of that cliff in Yosemite, make the trees in front of it shorter. If the design works better by moving the tree to the left, do it!
This is optional, but as you get more comfortable with watercolor you may want to start painting standing up in front of an easel. There are aluminum watercolor easels that can be collapsed down to a portable size. However, unless you spend good money on them, they tend to be somewhat flimsy and don’t last very long, or they are too heavy to carry very far. The best solution I’ve found is to use a regular camera tripod that can collapse down very small and then use an “adapter” that attaches to the tripod to hold your watercolor block. Art stores also sell an “artist shelf” that fits on the tripod and can hold your paints. This “Watercolor Package” is sold by Sun Eden:
Other companies make similar setups. A good video that shows the En Plein Pro Traveler Easel and plein air painting process can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fjxDNPIh_0k
Here’s another version from CheapJoes:
The top part of the easel (where your paper sits) is adjustable so you can paint with the paper vertical or horizontal. These can be purchased online or in art stores, usually for over $100. Try looking on Craigslist, eBay, or garage sales for a better deal!
There is a wide range of plein air watercolor setups you can use. You can easily paint with the watercolor block or sketch book resting on your lap and your palette and water on the ground next to you, or just use a picnic table if available. Likewise, you can spend a lot of money and get a heavy-duty stand up easel with attachable umbrella, and suspended tray to hold your palette and water. I’ve even seen some artists bring a whole folding card table out of their car to setup a workspace. The best thing you can do is have a separate backpack with supplies, just for plein air painting. So when the outdoors call, you can easily grab your pack, your stool, and hit the road.
You may want to have a table to set your things 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: ie, picnic table, beach chair and table, flat rock, beach towel.
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 at 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.
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:
Non-Painting Related Essentials
- Hat with wide brim – this is one of the most important elements. The glare of the sun can diminish the size of your pupils and distort colors, so it is critical that your eyes are shaded.
- Be sure to check the weather report before you go out—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. Avoid bright color (including stark white) clothing, which 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. Try not to raid your studio setup except for your favorite brush or two. Is there an old back pack 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!). 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.
Better yet, join 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.)
Some Tips For Watercolor Painting En Plein Air:
Pay attention to the time. 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, just do several different watercolor sketches that demonstrate the lighting at different times of day. Many plein air painters learn to paint much faster because the light and shadows change so rapidly. The resulting spontaneity can result in a much more exciting painting that is difficult to recreate in the studio.
Even though it’s oil paint and not watercolor, 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.
Watch this video of Eric Michaels painting en plein air with watercolor. He starts with a discussion of his easel and pack, so if you want to skip this part, jump ahead to 2:44 where he starts the actual tutorial.
He begins by sketching out his scene onto his paper. Watercolors work the opposite of other paints. With acrylic or oil, you’ll lay in your dark colors first and get progressively lighter. With watercolors, you’ll want to start off laying in your lighter values and get progressively darker. Notice how loose Eric Michaels is in the very beginning stages of his painting. He’s working quickly and loosely to lay in basic shapes and colors. Keep your wrist loose and hold your paintbrush close to the end to keep from getting too invested in detail work in the beginning.
Also notice that Eric Michaels is leaving white spaces as he’s painting. These will be his highlights later on, since you don’t add white to make highlights with watercolor paints (the white comes from the paper).
Pay attention to the weather. Watercolor is all about understanding the ratio of pigment to water, so if it is hot outside you’ll need to keep adding water and your paper will dry faster than you expect. You might need to use more dry brush techniques for that outing and practice wet-in-wet on a cooler, foggier day. Realize that temperature, humidity, and wind will all affect your painting. Don’t let it bother you, but instead embrace it! One painter stuck her paper in a freezing river. When she started adding her watercolors, the paints froze in fabulous patterns on her paper. She worked hard to keep her painting in the shade so as it dried, those crystalline effects were preserved. Another artist designed a special palette that had a reservoir to hold hot water, which kept his paints from freezing so he could paint in the snow. We call that extreme painting!
Edit, edit, edit. The scene in front of you will always be more complicated than you can render and different than what you want to communicate. Think about what drew you to that scene initially—an interesting shadow shape, the contrasting color of a mailbox against an orange building, or the fascinating texture of the peeling barn. Emphasize what matters and leave out the telephone pole or the car parked in front of you. To emphasize the height of that cliff in Yosemite, make the trees in front of it shorter. If the design works better by moving the tree to the left, do it!
Do several thumbnail sketches first. Bring a tiny (3”x5” or 5”x7”) sketchbook to try out a few pencil thumbnail sketches. You always want to think through your composition before you start. The point of thumbnail sketches is to force you to do some thinking before you start painting, but don’t spend too long because as you know the light will change.
Exercise Two: Find An Artist Organization And Meet Other Artists
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 watercolor societies as well as general art groups. You can be a watercolor painter and still join a group of oil painters. It’s good to make friends with people with similar interests.
Exercise Three: Go Out And Paint!
Gather all the materials you will need and find a place not too far from home where you can paint—a front or back yard would be perfect. 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). Keep in mind that you may not have a fully completed painting at the end of your session. That’s okay, and in fact, most beginners shouldn’t aim for a perfect completed piece anyway. Many times, artists will go back to the same location at the same time over a period of several days in order to finish a painting. Don’t forget to have fun! Don’t feel pressured to make something perfect and finished. Sometimes these loose spontaneous paintings are the best!
When you’ve finished your painting, send us a photo! Use our submission form here.