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: