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Artist Talk Plein Air

Beginner Plein Air Tips to Help Get You Painting Outdoors

I’m still a relative beginner to the challenge of ‘plein air’ or open-air painting. However, I’ve learned a lot from taking my pastels outdoors over the past couple of years. I want to share my beginner plein air tips with you to encourage you to have a go too.

My video on Beginner Plein Air Painting Tips with a river landscape demo

1. Plan

First of all, before you go out, plan where you will set up and what you’d like to paint. This is especially important if you have limited time to paint. I wasted too much time on my first few trips deliberating over where to stop exploring and set up.

2. Choose your subject

Once you have decided where you want to stop and paint, there are still choices to make. Outdoors you are faced with an overwhelming quantity of visual information. You need to decide what small portion of that you want to capture and how to compose it.

Start off with a simple little scene. Create a few thumbnail sketches to try out different options for how to compose it.

I’m drawn to the big impressive vistas but it is difficult to condense down a panoramic view into a small painting.

As a beginner, I find it all too easy to lose focus in a large scene. I fall in love with each bit of the scene as I’m working on it – the sky, the hills, the river, the bridge, the trees, the puddles on the ground. Each element demands my attention. If I’m not careful the final image can end up a squash of competing subjects.

If you create a strong design at the planning stage or even when you do the underpainting, it is good to have a record of it to refer back to if you get lost in the details later.

Therefore, when I am faced with this kind of scene now:

  • I take lots of photos of the different elements of the scene

    These references could be used for a larger studio painting with the scope for more details or for other small pieces where that element is the focus.

    I don’t have to squeeze everything into this painting. Photos give me the opportunity to try out different compositions.

  • I pay particular attention to my thumbnail value sketches.

    Create a strong design and keep it handy. If I get lost in the details and mid-range values later it helps to have a plan that I can refer back to.

3. Bring Essentials

Don’t forget the tools you need to create your artwork and be comfortable outdoors.

Just as important, resist the temptation to drag the whole studio out with you. Overloading with a bulky, heavy kit quickly becomes a burden and stops you from exploring as far or often.

It can take a while to refine your plein air kit down to your essentials. I now store my pastels in a couple of light cases. I found the wooden case too bulky.

If you aren’t sure what you need to bring, experiment close to home in your garden or a park. That way, you can return for any forgotten essentials easily.

Once you know what you need, it would be handy to keep a plein air sketching bag with dedicated supplies ready to go. Or if you use your supplies at home too, create a checklist to help you pack your bag.

4. Changing Light

Next, if you are outside for any length of time, you’ll notice that the conditions change a lot (especially in Scotland!). It’s easy to fall into the trap of reworking the same area as the conditions change.

I need to be a bit more decisive about choosing the moment I’m capturing and holding onto that vision. I can always take more reference for a later painting.

5. Interruptions

It can be intimidating to paint in public because we can worry about what other people will think. However, what I’ve learned is that it wasn’t as bad as I feared.

Not everyone stops to speak and those who do are usually polite. Be aware of where you sit your supplies and packed lunch and watch out for curious dogs!

However, if the thought of it really puts you off, pick somewhere private or quiet to begin with. Build up to those tourist hot spots.

6. Challenge

If you are used to working indoors then working outdoors from life can take a lot of getting used to. It’s a bit of a leap from a controlled, comfortable environment where you can work at your leisure from a still photograph. For instance, you have the weather, the changing light and shadows, interruptions and usually a time limit.

River North Esk – a plein air study

It can be frustrating. As a result, I have to stare down my perfectionism and tell myself that it is a study to learn from. It’s not about creating a perfect piece of art (as if that was possible).

It is a great way to practice courage which is good for me. The challenge of plein air painting can be a fun and satisfying way to grow as an artist once you push back that beginner frustration.

I hope you’ll keep these beginner plein air painting tips in mind and take your art supplies outside, even just to your garden or nearest park. Give it a go!