8 Plein Air Painting Tips

Painting on site, a water colorist has to overcome many obstacles beyond mosquitoes, dirt, sun and wind. We went straight to the pros to glean the joys and pains of plein air painting, and received expert tips no artist should do without.

1. Know what to Paint

“If you can’t find anything that inspires you, zoom in and paint a detail of the scene. It’s usually easier, and it gets you going with painting. As for editing, ask yourself: If I put this object in, will it improve the painting in any way? When in doubt, leave it out.

2. Watch Your Time

“Use time constraints, such as plein air workshops or painting events, to your advantage by making quick decisions; don’t overthink your technique. Choose a size format that will allow you to complete the work within the allotted time frame. I use standard size formats such as ¼ sheet, ½ sheet and 12×18 inches.”

3. Expect the Unexpected

“Things will go wrong. When they do, it’s best to work with them. Many times these accidents are of the happy variety, and people will marvel at your virtuosity.”

4. Evaluate Your Materials

“I stretch my paper the way some artists stretch their canvases for oil painting. This keeps the paper tight and flat, and prevents it from warping. I also carry an all-weather umbrella. It not only shelters me from rain, but also provides shade and protects my painting from the glare of the sunlight.”

5. Plan for the Weather

“Living in Minnesota, I face a number of weather-related painting challenges. We get both extremes here, from hot, humid and 100 degrees to blowing snow and 30 degrees below zero. I travel to warmer climes a few weeks every winter, and I’ve also painted from inside my car, but I’m typically relegated to the studio from November until March. When the temperature is below 45 degrees, I can put a little isopropyl alcohol into my water container to keep my washes from freezing on the palette.”

6. Simplify Your Supplies

“When it comes to equipment, always simplify. If you think you need 12 brushes to paint a painting, bring six. Chances are, you’ll only use four. If you’re spending the same amount of time setting up your gear as you are painting, then something’s wrong.”

7. Keep a Journal

“I love experimenting, and a journal is a perfect place to do that. I make my own because the quality of the paper is important to me—no less than 140-lb. sheets. This weight will work not only for watercolor and pen and ink, but also acrylic, texture gels and collage. I also insert different types of paper.”

8. Choose Your Location Wisely

“When I arrive on location, the first thing I do is walk around for five to 15 minutes to get a sense of the place. When I find something that really excites me, such as the light, shadows, color or a particular view, I’ve found my subject.”