5 Tips on Plein Air Painting from AMC’s Archivist

August 27, 2018
Plein-air-painting-tips
Dennis Gray/AMC Photo ContestPlein air painting doesn’t have to mean you start with Mount Washington, above. Find tips for first timers, below.

I wake up before sunrise because I’m so excited. Looking out the window, the line of trees and the hills beyond are still shrouded in Payne’s Gray, Pewter, Burnt Umber, and Prussian Blue. The sky is lit with the palest Cerulean. It’s not yet 6 a.m., and I’m already mixing colors in my head.

Up until a few years ago, I was primarily a studio painter, working indoors from reference photos and sketches, seated squarely at a fixed easel in a cocoon of controlled lighting and temperature, within easy proximity of indoor plumbing and plenty of snacks in the kitchen. Throughout my undergrad program in studio art and my later training, painting “en plein air” (meaning “in the plain air” or simply “outdoors”) had been a rarity. I almost always carried a sketchbook on my outdoor adventures—hiking, backpacking, and flatwater paddling—but art usually took a backseat to my athletic pursuits. It was only on days when my plans included a long lunch stop or a lazy morning in camp that I would sit down to make a detailed sketch of the scenery.

These days, things are different. I block out excursions with the sole purpose of capturing the elusive essence of New England’s landscapes, in both oil paints and watercolors. Whether I’m driving to a location with a full oil kit and an easel or I’m hiking to a remote spot with a miniature watercolor kit in my pack, I learn something new each time I paint outside.

Plein air painting opens up a whole new world of challenges and thrills, as I’ve discovered. A day in the field rarely lines up with some romantic vision of an artist magically bringing a picturesque scene to life.  But it is an extraordinary way to lavish in a gorgeous day and occasionally return home with a really nice little painting or two. Painting sessions may become more about enjoying the landscape, as you notice subtle details in the color values of the receding hills. Maybe a deer wanders through your field of vision, or you stop to assess your work as you soak your feet in a cold stream. Sometimes painting or sketching can serve as a catalyst for spending contemplative time in the woods on your own. The process of sketching, journaling, and letting your thoughts wander should be considered a good day, no finished masterpiece necessary.

But before you set out on a solo painting expedition, here’s a tip: One of the best ways to get into plein air painting, to learn techniques, and to stay inspired is to paint with others. There are lots of single-day and multiday workshops taught by experienced artists, and many regions have informal meetups and “paint-outs,” where artists working in every style and at every level stand easel-to-easel. We’re generally a very sharing lot, and we love to trade tips on the best equipment, color recipes, and clever ways of putting together the perfect kit. (Turns out pizza boxes are a great way to transport a wet painting home without smudging it.)

To polish my own skills and to compare notes, I attended a three-day workshop on plein air painting in the White Mountains last fall. AMC hosts this workshop at the Highland Center in Crawford Notch every year, and it’s open to everyone, no experience required. The days are filled with demonstrations by instructors, time painting alongside new friends, receiving and sharing critiques and advice on approach and technique, and evening lectures on artists who painted in these same mountains more than a century ago. I found the instant camaraderie of a group motivated to squeeze every last drop out of the weekend especially inspiring.

Want to try painting en plein air? Whether you’re diving back into the practice after a hiatus or giving it a go for the first time, here are a few pointers:

  1. Keep your kit simple. All you really need is a surface, a tool, and a medium. My basic watercolor kit consists of: a box of 10 tiny watercolor pans, with a lid that flips open for use as a mixing tray; one natural-bristle round brush that can hold a fine point; a cup for rinse water; and a few pieces of watercolor paper in various sizes, up to 6 inches by 9 inches. I carry the paper sandwiched between two pieces of foam-core held closed by rubber bands. When I’m ready to paint, I fix a piece of paper to one of the foam-core panels with masking tape at the corners. When I pack up for the day, the foam-core sandwich protects dry, finished pieces in transit. My oil painting kit is slightly more elaborate, but I still carry only the bare minimum, especially if I’m venturing far from the road.
  2. Take your time when choosing a scene and planning out a composition. I carry an old 35mm slide mount (minus the film) to use as a viewfinder. When I get to a potential painting spot, I’ll stroll around, peering through the viewfinder in search of an appealing scene. By framing just a small part of the landscape, you can avoid the pitfall of trying to put everything under the sun into your painting. Try blocking out what you want to capture with a few small, quick drawings in a sketchbook. Loosely draw the big shapes you see before filling in areas that appear shaded or darker. Now you’ve got a tiny plan to map out your painting.
  3. Be prepared for the elements. Setting yourself up for a good day in the field has less to do with what art supplies you bring than with your personal comfort. Aside from forgetting to bring a single brush, the easiest way to ruin your day is to neglect your own basic needs. Will it be hot? Bring plenty of water. Will the temperature plummet later? Have layers on hand to adjust for the weather. Making art is surprisingly tiring. Stay fueled with the snacks you’d typically bring on a day hike. Carry sunscreen, a broad-brimmed hat, bug repellent, and any other items that will keep nature from driving you away from your work.
  4. I’ll say it again: Be prepared for the elements. They will get involved with your art. Even a slight breeze can send your perfectly composed painting face-down in the dust. You will lose small items in tall grass. Your water will tip over without warning. Rags and paper towels will skip away on the breeze. Errant insects will dive into your paint, medium, brush-cleaning jar, etc. Stake down your easel to prevent it from capsizing. Be ready to break down your “studio” quickly if the clouds roll in and rain starts—especially if your medium is water-based. You can always pick the bugs out of your painting later and touch it up indoors.
  5. Don’t expect too much on your first ventures out. Not every painting will be a winner right from the start. Fortunately, with oil paints, you can scrape and wipe down your surface to start anew. With watercolors, you can always flip your paper over. That said, you may want to save a couple of duds to look back on as you progress. Returning to the same spot numerous times is a great way to see how your observational and painting skills evolve. With practice, your paintings will gain clarity and personal style, as you learn what works and what doesn’t.

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Rebecca M. Fullerton

Rebecca M. Fullerton is AMC’s archivist and de-facto historian. When not documenting club history, she can be found painting, hiking, running, and flatwater paddling New England’s wild places.