As a pastel artist living in Western Colorado, I am familiar with taking my easel and going to the Colorado National Monument to paint. I started hearing about painting “en plein air” and thought that it was a new technique – like a loose style similar to Claude Monet. I felt foolish when I went to Wikipedia and read, “En plein air is a French expression which means “in the open air”, and is particularly used to describe the act of painting outdoors”. Wow, the thing we have been doing all along but with a fancy French name.
What are the benefits to painting en plein air?
I can think of many. The lighting is probably the biggest. You can take a picture but it may or may not get the lighting correct. A photograph may not capture the wind blowing on the trees or grass. The way the water is moving. The fresh air – you capture the true essence that a photograph probably won’t capture. (If you do capture it with a photograph – why paint it? It’s already a work of art.) The thing I find interesting about painting this way, you have to get right to it. With the way the sun moves, you can’t get caught up in too much detail. It makes you think in terms of efficiency. I find that when I paint with a photograph, I can get lost in the detail and over work my painting but when painting outdoors with the changing of the sun, you have to work fast. Rough out the painting, squint to get your lights and darks. Block in those areas and then come back to the detail.
Here are some practical tips for painting on location.
Consider scouting locations first. Once you find the location, spend some time looking at all the possibilities around you. The subject matter really depends on you. It doesn’t have to be a mountain scene – it can be a park, a barn – it could be your own yard. Some artists will plan several days working at the same location, at the same time so that the lighting is consistent. Others bring several different canvases, or mounted pastel paper (or whatever medium you are using) and try to capture different paintings throughout the day. They can come back the next day to finish those paintings. It is a good idea to take photographs in case you want to come back and finish in a studio (or if it decides to rain for several days). Remember to not over work your paintings if you do work from a photograph. There are other practical items, like sunscreen, water, an umbrella, layered clothes so you can peel or add when necessary, bug spray, a comfortable chair or cushion, some sort of easel, digital camera, rain jacket or poncho, just to name a few. The more remote you are, consider some sort of pepper spray in case of predators.