Wednesday, June 29, 2016

What to Paint While Painting on Location

5x7 watercolour sketch
"But what do I paint?" 
I've heard this question a lot lately from people who are wanting to try plein air painting. It's not a dumb question either, it shows that the person is interested yet possibly overwhelmed. Believe me, I'm still overwhelmed every time I go out to paint. It's called the great outdoors for a reason!  The subject matter is infinite. The trick is to narrow it down. Sometimes it's smart to do a little research before you leave the house. Look up your location and see if there is anything of particular interest, that way you're not spending all of your time exploring. Then again exploring is pretty fun and I always tell myself if my painting ends up bad at least I had fun looking around. 
This top sketch is from the local farmer's market. Before I went I knew what I was going to see, people buying fresh produce. That told me to be prepared to paint people, as prepared as I could be.  It was stinkin' hot out and I was waiting for my food at the food truck when this woman came along and made the perfect subject while I waited. Why her? She caught my eye. I liked the contrast between the sun on her back and the shade on the front. Her pose was nice and I liked her shadow. To me this is the easiest way to decide a subject while out painting. DOES IT CATCH MY EYE?  Chances are if you notice it there's something about it that you find interesting. (I find while in public it's either something interesting or completely repulsive that catches my eye. At times both can work for good subject matter.) Think about it, if you're forcing yourself to look at something in order to paint it it probably won't turn out that great. Surely at some point in your life you were forced to go to a party you didn't want to attend and you were completely miserable. Why do the same thing to yourself and force yourself to paint something you don't want to paint? So one of the easiest ways to decide what to paint is to ask yourself, does it catch my eye? After the subject has caught your eye you need to decide if you can paint it or not. This is a tough one for beginners because so many times we all just want to say, no it's too hard. Don't set yourself up to fail while plein air painting. If your draftsman skills are a little rusty then don't decide to go downtown and paint buildings.  If your anatomy skills are lacking don't go to a crowded place and try to paint people. Start with what you know then build your way up to those hard things you've always wanted to try. Plein air painting is hard enough as it is. You have to lug your gear around and fight the weather, bugs and whatever other critters are around. Don't make your outing tougher by trying to paint something you don't like or are unsure of. 
And absolutely do as I say and not as I do because I still try to force myself to paint stuff I don't like and it still never works out. 

5x7 watercolour sketch
This guy caught my eye, not because of his oh so hot Superman physique but because his cowboy/fishing hat was lit up like a light bulb. The sun was at his back and the off-white hat was glowing as if he were some sort of major award that had just been plugged in and put on display in a windowsill. FRAGILE! Unfortunately he didn't make a perfect subject so I had to do some rearranging. His fishing pole was actually to the side of him and it looked like it was coming up out of his armpit and going through his nose.  In my sketch I moved it to form a more pleasing shape, the all mighty triangle. Finding or making these shapes is another piece to the plein air puzzle. I'll try to explain the shape finding thing in my next post. If anyone has anything to add, a helpful analogy or more questions leave them in the comments or message me and I'll try to cover them in the next post.


  1. Great post! Cathryn found it helpful this morning. Like both images but especially the girl at the food truck - a common enough sight but not something you see painted. You had your eyes on and it paid off.

    1. So glad she found it helpful. Going prepared and knowing I'd mostly be dealing with people for subject matter helped me out a lot. It sounds silly because duh, what else would be there. It still worked to get psyched up for it. It's probably similar to athletes at a pep rally getting ryled up for a game.