Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Plein Air Pointers

Three Trees 5x7 pastel on primed paper
This past weekend was another plein air event and it was so much fun. Well, except when it wasn't.  For the most part it was a great weekend. Met new artists and painted new things. The downfalls were that I slightly melted in the sun and unknowingly set up near a decomposing animal.  When the wind hit just right I was fully aware that it was nearby, it also alerted the turkey vultures. That's the circle of life.
I'm fairly new to plein air painting. I started going out in 2013 and it was very few times. In 2014 I hit the ground running and went out as much as I could and still didn't know what I was doing. By 2015 I figured a few things out and this year I've gone out painting almost every day, even in the snow and rain, but still have a lot to learn. I know some people who would like to get started but feel like they're not ready. If you're one of those people here's your invitation to the plein air party, YOU'RE READY and Mother Nature is patiently waiting for you to come out and paint.  It's much like learning how to ride a bike. Once you learn how to ride and get comfortable you can go further and further each time. If you never feel like you're ready you'll always be stuck riding up and down the driveway. Or worse, just looking at your bike collecting dust.
Here are a few things I've learned that may help you take off your training wheels.

  • Know your equipment-  You're going to need something to paint on while outdoors. It doesn't have to be fancy, expensive or pretty, it just has to work. Get familiar with your easel. Know how to set it up and use it before you take it out. Practice using it inside first, or even set it up in your backyard (if you have one). Do a few paintings with it before you go out, that way you'll learn the layout.  You'll know where you can set your palette, how high to set the legs (although that could change depending on where you're setting up, but you'll get a general idea of how high/low you need to set things) and any modifications you may need to make. 
  • Less is more- I was the queen of carry all. Yes, when I first started I tried to take the whole studio with me. I had (still have, they're in the garage) the "old lady" shopping carts that I tried to cram full with all of my stuff.  That's fine, it's good to be prepared but hauling everything with you really limits you to where you can go.  Carrying fewer things also keeps you better organised. If you take only the necessities you'll spend less time rummaging through your gear which gives you more time to paint. This is another reason to get familiar with your easel. A lot of easels are set up so you can carry your equipment within them. The French easel has a nice long drawer for holding paints and brushes. Set up your easel and see what can fit inside. 
  • Prepare for the elements- Sunscreen, bug spray, a hat and extra socks are what I always keep in my car. Sunscreen and bug spray are self-explanatory. The hat is a necessity because wearing sunglasses distorts the colours. This website has a nice page that demonstrates and explains what happens when you wear different coloured sunglasses. Extra socks are always a good idea, they're multi-functional. If you forgot your gloves you can put them on your hands. If it's flippin' cold out you can double up and they will help keep you warmer. If you happen to get your feet wet you'll have a dry pair of socks to change into. These things take up very little space and can easily be hauled around with you while you're out painting. If you're like me you only like to apply bug spray if it's absolutely necessary and sometimes you won't know that until you decided on a location to set up so carrying it with you is a good habit to get into. After you go out a few times you may discover you're in need of an umbrella. The umbrellas are good for keeping the rain, snow and sun off of you and your painting (when the light changes you can get an awful glare on a wet oil painting which makes it hard to see, same goes with the palette).  Don't put a lot of money into this sort of equipment before you get started. You may buy the wrong umbrella or discover the one you bought doesn't work with your easel. Start with the basics then add on with accessories like umbrellas later on. 
  • Make a check list-  Nobody's perfect, we all forget things. The worst thing is packing up and heading out to paint only to realise you forgot an essential piece of equipment. Planning ahead and being organised helps out a lot but even still there's the possibility you'll forget something.  Whichever medium you're planning on working in make a checklist for the bare minimum that you need to paint. Example, if you're working in pastel you need pastels, paper, tape/clips and a board to put the paper on.  That's the absolute bare minimum to get something done.  It's not a bad idea to add glassine to the list but it's not essential. Another example is watercolour, you need the paper, tape/clips and a board and it's really important to bring your paints and brushes. I've set out many times and forgot to bring water with me but a nearby river or pond supplied that for me. The one thing you should always keep on hand is a sketchbook and a pencil/pen.  There have been times when I got somewhere and forgot a crucial piece of equipment but I had my sketchbook so the trip was not a total loss since I was able to make thumbnail sketches and use them for reference later. 
  • Have fun-  Plein air painting can be absolutely frustrating and absolutely amazing, either way you should keep an open mind, try to learn things and have fun. 
This is my pastel setup for when I paint on location. I've tried several different setups and this one seems to work the best so far. This is the other thing that I think is fun, creating better and easier ways to carry materials.  Last week I had all of this stuff strapped to my bicycle and it worked really well. You never know what is going to work for you until you get out and try it. 
Here are some links to other artists' lists for plein air painting. 
Plein Air Muse-Plein Air Painting Equipment (FYI-Pochade is the French word for pocket, which most people translate to small, compact paint boxes as opposed to a full sized French easel, no artist lingo necessary.)
There are numerous other sites with tips and advice, but the best advice is to just get out there and do it. You can follow someone else's advice all day long but it might not be what works best for you. Get out there and figure out what works best for you, then you can share your own tips and tricks that might be beneficial to the next person. 

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