john macarthur


A small guide to plein air painting


  So, you've decided that the weather is nice and you would like to venture out and paint. En plein air is a phrase used to describe painting outdoors. The very thought of standing out there, attempting to create a masterpiece ( or at least something that will not bring laughter), quite "naked" can be intimidating. I know that I was lucky. I began plein air painting at a very young age. I used berries and tea. Nothing created lasted long enough to hang on a refrigerator door much less be framed and hung. I painted because it was wonderful to be outside and attempt to replicate the world around me. 

   The practice of plein air didn't really take off until tin paint tubes were created. It made it easier for an artist to take his tools outside. The world of plein air started with the Barbizon School and then exploded with the Impressionists and the Post-Impressionists. Art aficionados are familiar with Constable, Bonnington and Turner. The world knows Monet, Manet and Renoir. Almost everyone has seen a replication of a VanGogh or Cezanne. Plein Air forever changed the landscape of the art world. 

   Your experience will be greatly enhanced if you show up prepared to paint. Sure, you need canvas, paint and brushes but what else will make your day smoother? I have some suggestions, things I have learned through years of experience. I have painted in all types of weather and dealt with all the perils of being in the elements. I have realized there is a happy medium between bringing all you need and bringing everything you can carry. Pack it all but pack light.

   What do you need? First, you will need pochade box or plein air easel, paints, a drying box to keep your paintings from touching each other while they are still wet, an umbrella for protection from the sun. Sounds like a lot and it could be if you just blindly began assembling supplies. In the beginning, you may wish to use a "French Easel". It is a pochade box, easel and place for paints and brushes all in one. You can go to Amazon and find one or you can go to Jerrys Artarama and review what they have. (I am a big Jerrys Artarama fan) There are several products you can purchase to carry wet easels. Now this is only an issue if you are painting with oil. Acrylic and Watercolor dry quickly and they are easier to transport back to your home/studio. I have found that the best wet paint carrying device is a used pizza box. I prefer Ledos because they still use the old sturdy pizza boxes. The flimsy cardboard boxes just don't work as well.

   It is important to understand that you will be outside, possibly for a few hours. Choose your location with a few things in mind. One, who will paint with me? It is a good practice to always have a "plein air partner". If you have to leave your spot, you really don't want to have to pack everything then return and unpack everything. It is a sad commentary, but being alone in a secluded area is just is not safe anymore. 

Two and more, where is the nearest public restroom? How much foot traffic or motorized traffic is close by? Is there parking? Do I have permission?

   Know the weather!!! How cold or hot will it be when you are outside? As Clint Eastwood famously shared, "A man's got to know his limitations." In the sun, you need a hat and if possible a stationary umbrella. It will keep you cool and the umbrella will reduce glare on your canvas. Sunscreen and bug spray are an absolute necessity. You can get so lost in the process, you won't realize you are baking or that maybe a mosquito is feasting on your leg. Protection is called for! Free heads up - cold and warm, wet and dry are all manageable. Wind is not your friend. If winds are forecast to be 20 mph or greater, it may be a better day for yard work or watching a movie. Wind is not your friend. Over the years, I have had many easels blow over, paintings go sailing or entire palettes splash to the ground. Avoid the pain. Wind is not your friend.

So there is the first "talk". Next time, I will go into a bit about the process.

As always, Art on!!!