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What Is Plein Air Painting? – All You Need To Know

"'Plein Air', a French term meaning 'outdoors', signifies a transformative shift in art dating back to the 19th century. This innovative approach was enabled by the advent of tube paints, portable easels, and canvases, allowing artists to step beyond the confines of their studios. In Plein Air painting, artists fully engage with the dynamic interplay of movement, color, and natural light in their chosen setting to capture the subject's intrinsic nature.

woman painting outdoors En Plein Air watercolor painting23 2148014106

Originating from the French expression en plein air, plein air painting refers to creating artwork outdoors.

Too often, plein air painting style is confused with sketches made outside; however, that’s not what it is. In en plein air painting, painters capture the essence and spirit of landscapes in real-time.

Regardless of whether you’re a professional artist or a weekend warrior, this guide will help you get started with plein air painting.

What Is Plein Air Painting?

Plein Air, from the French for 'outdoors', marked a pivotal moment in the 19th-century art world. With the invention of tube paints and portable easels, artists left studio confines to capture the world's raw, dynamic beauty.

In Plein Air painting, artists fully engage with the dynamic interplay of movement, color, and natural light in their chosen setting to capture the subject's intrinsic nature. All that's required is an inspiring outdoor location, a sturdy easel, a quality portable watercolor set, brushes, and premium watercolor paper.

This method offers a uniquely intimate perspective, embedding the artist in the scene they seek to portray and infusing their work with a vibrant, natural authenticity."

Many painters sketched out a few plein air drawings before they made their finished painting in a painting studio. Looking at the real thing with so much space helped give the painting much more inspiration and realism than just sitting in an art studio. 

En Plein Air Brief History

Diving into the depths of history, plein-air paintings originated from the historical practice of artists sketching outdoors. This indicates that painting outdoors has been a common practice for centuries.

In art history, the concept of painting en plein air is credited to a well-known French painter Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes. In the Reflections and Advice to a Student on Painting, Particularly on Landscape, he introduced the idea of landscape portrait– painters paint straight onto the canvas while being in the landscape.

Further, the introduction of pigments in tubes in the late 19th Century contributed to the popularity of en plein air painting. Earlier on, artists had to undertake the messy and laborious task of making their own pigments by crushing and mixing dry pigment particles with a pale yellow oil (linseed). And that is why they were fascinated with modern-day toothpaste-like paint tubes.

Slowly and steadily, the art world was revolutionized by paint in a tube, which made plein-air painting techniques widely accessible.

Why Watercolors Are A Great Medium For Plein Air Painting?

Watercolor paints are the first art mediums that come to anyone’s mind when thinking about plein air painting. This is because the characteristic watercolor effects are able to imitate the picturesque beauty of a variety of landscapes. Whether it’s a sunset or a serene lake, watercolors offer the best techniques to create outdoor scenes. 

Other artists have also tried plein air acrylic or oil painting. 

Plein Air Painting Experience Tips and Tricks

  1. Mastering Your Subject: A Deep Dive

The first thing that you have to do when beginning your En Plein Air artwork is to understand the subject of your painting. Knowing what exactly to paint is the first step to creating a masterpiece.

Start out by taking a single detail and putting it onto your canvas. Zoom in for understanding the features of an escape. One thing that you should do is give yourself the time to study and analyze these features. You can even take an entire day to do this, as then, you will have a clearer idea about how the elements of shifting shadows and lights work in relation to colors and textures. These will change every hour of the day, hence making it necessary for you to perceive the free play of these effects that compose the scene for the casual eye.

Doing this will make it easier for you to start out. This will also provide you with a foundation for your art so that you know how exactly to calculate the intricacies of shapes and patterns for your art.

For making edits to the form, think about what would work best and about adding further details to the painting. Do not put anything to the picture if you’re in doubt as you can’t reverse the changes.

  1. Decoding the Trifecta: Lighting, Time, and Texture

Time is of utmost importance when it comes to painting en plein air. Also, do track how and when the lights change for you to ascertain the fundamental features of exposures and shades. It is crucial for you to first identify and locate the light source to analyze shadows and determine a “value pattern.”

These are vital elements that lay the foundation upon which you’ll be creating your art. Values and shapes are essential elements for any kind of painting work.

Segregate and categorize the basic elements of your subject into three major areas of gray values: light, medium, and dark. Each will have its individual effects. But what is the most important thing for you to understand is that these will work in close relation with each other to actually give the painting its overall individual identity.

Every color and tonal valuation that you might want to achieve in your art, especially while sitting outdoors will depend on how you manipulate these three dominant values to your favor.

Concentrate on the subject and decode the patterns of its shapes into these three values. Squint if you have to, for eliminating any extra detail. Carry out a brief value study using the white tone of the canvas to establish a fourth value if you want.

  1. The Art of Time Management in Creative Processes

Time is an essential aspect of any artwork. And when it comes to painting en plein, it will become doubly important for you to practice tracking the time for your session.

The shifting time will have a drastic impact on the tonal integrity of your outdoor scene. Shadows and lights will get affected changing your visual perception of the surroundings.

The changing hours of mornings, evenings, and nights will morph these scenes into different vistas. This could make you lose track of your tonal and textural consistency if you failed to capture the desired effects before the shift in time causing them to change.

Utilize the benefits of time constraints such as that offered by painting events, contests, and plein air workshops. These help you develop your skills by helping you to take quick decisions. These could also help you develop your very own signature techniques which will further help you complete in an even shorter time frame.

You could begin using a timer-controlled painting set to a specific time frame. Start off with larger time spans and narrow it down as you increase your speed and your strokes.

Avoid overthinking your strategies and techniques. Opt for the kind of size dimension and format that will help you finish your work within the allotted time limit.

  1. Materials Matter: Comprehensive Analysis

Develop your personal techniques when it comes to managing your painting materials and supplies for an outdoor painting spree. A few artists may stretch their canvases for oil paintings which keeps it flat and tightly spread. This also prevents warps of any sort.

A real problem with watercolors is that they can get all dried up before you know it and if you haven’t checked up on them well before taking them out on an outdoor painting session, then you might just be in for an annoying and disappointing discovery.

Always check on your supplies before packing them up. Also, you should always ensure that your brushes are in working condition. These should be absolutely clean, and dry and the bristles should be intact in every way.

Think about what could make your work easier. A blotting material such as tissues, color blotting papers or cotton papers, or a self-cleaning brush pen would be a pretty efficient and handy tool while painting outdoors. Do not forget the pencils and erasers, as they’re the absolute basic and essential tools for any artwork.

And some may also carry an “all-weather” umbrella for sheltering their work from the rain. This can also protect the painting from the extreme glare of sunlight.

  1. Weather Forecasts: An Artist's Unexpected Ally or Foe

This is one thing that you cannot just afford to miss out on! Do check the weather conditions before you go for an outdoor painting session. Apart from getting absolutely destroyed by rain, it can get visibly affected by extremely hot, cold, humidity, or snowy situations.

Although you can’t control inclement weather conditions, you do get the option of safeguarding your painting from it, such as using an isopropyl alcohol solution for keeping the washes from freezing on your palette if it’s very cold. You could also carry canvas and color guards to protect your materials from melting in extremely hot situations.

Also, fluctuating weather situations can impair the visual perception of the shapes and patterns that constitute the scene. An open scape that may have previously seemed to possess different tonal qualities due to a certain balance of lights and shadows may appear oddly drained off of its natural colors due to weather fluctuations.

This is especially noticed when there is an upcoming spell of rain or thunder in the distance that cast long shadows over a significant area. You have to be alert of all such situations before you set out to paint.

Or, best, you could simply cancel your plans if there’s rain or a storm on the bulletin. 

  1. Crafting Composition: Merging Shapes, Patterns, and Textures

Try connecting and linking various forms and shapes together to create beautiful complex patterns. Start by selecting a center or focal point of interest. After that, try to develop a strategy to direct the viewer’s eye through the entire painting by accentuating and developing the intricacies of the overall work.

A complex network of shapes and patterns can create a balanced composition in art. Do not hesitate or be scared to eliminate any detail to achieve the desired effect. Always remember that every painting no matter how similar it might look to another piece will always differ in its composition of shape patterns and texture. This is because such a formation in every painting is unique and no two pieces of art can ever be the same.

The fundamental point of studying your compositions is to develop your techniques to create these intricacies. These will undoubtedly be one of a kind in every way and reflect the special and unique skills of the painter.

In order to find the center point of interest, do refer to the ways that you could employ to detect and identify complementary shapes in work to begin linking these with one another determining their relations with each other.

  1. Streamlining Your Artistic Toolbox: Assort, Simplify, Organize

Always try to simplify and organize your art supplies to maintain a clean kit and working area. You actually don’t need all your watercolor supplies and supplies even if you think you do. So, instead of carrying a whole stash of different types of colors or brushes, narrow it down to a lesser quantity, because the chances are that you’ll require even less than what you might want to carry.

We often tend to go overboard with our supplies when going on an outdoor painting venture. This is understandable as it’s quite psychological to be anxious about what you may be forgetting behind at your place that could be really important for your painting.

Well, this may not always be the case, and it can simply be that you’re piling on a lot of things that you may not need.

Do schedule in advance to avoid any last-minute last rush or indecision. Also, decide what kind of media you’d be working with as soon as you conceive a plan. Do not overthink your techniques, procedures, or subject for that matter.

A neat and clean arrangement will help you work faster and more importantly, better. Whereas, a cluttered scenario will stifle creativity and end up reflecting in your work of art. 

  1. Color Planning: The Rainbow Roadmap

Handling a color scheme, especially with water-paints media is undeniably one of the most difficult feats to achieve in art. This is because apart from being incredibly finicky to put on paper, watercolors have a shifting tonal feature that makes it incredibly tough for the user to figure out the exact effect that particular shade might have.

So while getting down to work with watercolors en plein air, you have to be exceptionally careful about what and how a certain hue would behave in the natural lights (compared to indoor situations) and what kind of tonal characteristic it will yield there.

Creating a color study can go a long way in creating complex shape patterns with regard to the color scheme. When it comes to assigning colors to these shape patterns, do stick to the value structure that you have established.

Your choice of colors or color scheme can be accurate and authentic to the scene that’s before you, or you could easily choose to interpret them as freely and creatively as you want.

Always remember that warm colors have the tendency to come ahead and forward, while cooler tones and colors tend to recede.

Also, warm lights will always create cool shadows, unlike cool lights that may give you warmer shadows. 

  1. Documenting Your Journey: Journaling Art Techniques and Experiments

Try and maintain a journal for all your methods and experiments regarding your artwork. Not only will this help you to go back to your signature strokes and techniques easily, but this is also a great way of boosting creativity. As you keep entering your techniques, you come up with newer ones.

This is even a good way of keeping track of your creations and exercising artistic control. A journal will let you know what to and what not to go for or do when creating a watercolor piece. It also reminds you of the effects and reactions that a particular stroke or technique might have had in the past.

An art journal is especially necessary for en plein air painting as this helps you complete your work within a limited period of time. An outdoor painting session will demand incredible control over all of your techniques and strategies while handling watercolors. A journal will be the ultimate guide that will continuously keep you on the right track with managing your moves on paper.

Also, a journal is a good way even to help others if they’re starting out with en plein air watercolor art, as you yourself would be experienced enough with your watercolor ways to help others develop their own skills.  

  1. Location, Location, Location: Becoming a Savvy Spotter

This is one of the vital aspects of painting en plein air. Choose the location for your painting session wisely and carefully.

The location for your outdoor watercolor paintwork should make you fall in love with the sights and scenes and then further inspire you to capture what you’re loving, onto the canvas.

If you’re not inspired by what you see, then it is probably not what you should be painting, to begin with. Heighten your senses to take in the impact of the beautiful natural surrounding that you’re in at the moment and feel what it inspires in you. Take your time to know it better. Do not rush. Study the details carefully. Form a mental picture in watercolors that you’d be pursuing. Then begin your work in a calm and relaxed state of mind.

A smart way of doing this is to walk around a bit in order to get accustomed to the location. Take in the sights and scenes and try to feel the sensations each of them produce to connect to the surroundings better.

Try and analyze the different aspects of the place and know what these make you feel. All of the different elements of the natural locations such as the light, shadows, views, and colors should come together in stunning form to you which should inspire you to begin your work without delay.

Here are a few factors to help you choose the best location for plein air painting. 

  1. Crowd/Number Of People

A beach or a park might seem like a good idea for plein air painting until you actually get there. With children running around and people making awkward small talk, you might find it quite distracting to begin painting. If that is something that would really hinder you, try finding a quiet and peaceful location to start painting en plein air. 

  1. Weather Conditions

Painting outdoors is an exciting idea, but you also need to think about the weather conditions. A sun hat and sunscreen might save you from the sun but what about rain? What about wind? That could possibly ruin your painting. Try choosing a day with dry weather and no wind for a pleasant plein-air painting experience. 

Additionally, try finding a sheltered spot away from direct sunlight despite the sunscreen.

  1. Accessibility 

You will rarely finish a painting in the same sitting. So, you will definitely have to visit the same location multiple times to complete your painting. Additionally, you will have to visit the location around the same time every day to get similar light conditions. So, make sure the location you choose is accessible on a daily basis. After all, you must complete your painting!  

Examples Of Good Locations For Plein Air Painting

Some examples of good locations for plein-air painting are local parks, hills, lakes, national parks, beaches, forests, etc. If you can’t think of any good outdoor painting spot near you, you should try joining a plein air painting community group. The group will help you discover new painting spots and will also have access to exclusive painting locations.  

  1. Exploring Watercolor Mediums: Paper, Pads, Sheets, and Blocks

While working with watercolors, you have to completely make sure that whatever paper you using is watercolor grade. These sketching papers are made to be very thick so that they can hold the water content and paints without getting damaged. The texture on these is made to be pretty different than your regular sketchbooks. Watercolor sketchbooks in particular are especially grainy and coarse to hold the effects of the color saturation.

So the quality of the watercolor paper is calculated in GSM which is “grams per square meter.” The higher the measure of gsm, the thicker your paper is and the more water it would be able to hold.

Usually, the preferred gsm for papers for watercolors is 200-300 gsm. However, more is not always correct. Do check out the requirements for the kind of paints you are going to be using. If you’re not going to use a higher content of water in your paintings and keep it mostly a dry-on-dry painting, then you can easily opt for lesser gsm.

But if you are looking to use a lot of washes and wet-on-wet techniques involving multiple layers and tonal variations, then ensure you have a higher gsm measure on your paper.

A Closer Look at Watercolor Blocks

So the papers for your watercolor paintings do come in many forms. You could get sheets, regular framed canvases, rolls, or pads of all kinds for your painting purpose.

A really nice alternative is watercolor blocks that are readily available in almost every local stationery shop near you. These are ideal for en plein air painting as the edges on these come glue-down and the surface is pre-stretched for easy and hassle-free usage outdoors. This mean that you do not have to worry about masking tapes or having to gum down your paper while setting up. Also, this prevents your paper from flying away if you’re working at a very windy location such as seasides or open fields.

  1. Brushes Uncovered: Your Magic Wand

So, after selecting the appropriate paper for painting en plein air using watercolors, let’s talk about the kind of brushes for this purpose. You do get a ton of options in brushes to suit every requirement. From traditional to hi-tech, specialized and even self-cleaning brush pens that hack down on the amount of effort you have to put in with conventional supplies- you get it all.

So, when painting outdoors, you could either opt for these awesome brush-pens, or you could go for your usual brushes and glass jars.

Brush pens could be pretty easy to work with if you’ve gotten used to their overall mechanism and do not require for you to dip your brush frequently in the water. Some are even designed to regulate color and tonal consistency which would eliminate the need for mixing up or searching the right amount of saturation, time and again, for that matter.

However, the disadvantage of these is that they come with a particular pen tip that may not hold up under regular use and constant pressure. These are pretty delicate to work with and can in fact cause you to miss certain steps in the basic procedure of paintings if you hold in incorrectly or aren’t accustomed to the techniques.

On the other hand…

...the simple brushes and glass jars can be really comfortable to work with. Although they have no special mechanism to bring to the canvas, they do provide you with the ease of learning and mastering the fundamental strokes and techniques as well as developing your own in the process.

These could provide you with a steady supply of clean water, which might not be the case with brush pens all the time. Also, the basic glass jars are pretty inexpensive than brush pens. And if you can, pack two while preparing your outdoor paint kit: one for dipping the brushes and the other for rinsing them well.

However, if you think that all the extra jars are going to weigh you down, then do go for fine brush pens that are easily available at the market or online. 

  1. The Easel: Your En Plein Air Painting Partner

While hunting for the perfect easel for your outdoor painting session, you will definitely come across a wide variety of the same. Do consider going for something that will be immensely portable, yet very durable, matching up to every standard that ensures its strength.

You should get something that can really tough out the onslaughts of the weather for a substantial amount of time. One other thing that you should really make sure is that the entire structure is compact and sleek. Avoid getting anything elaborate that needs a ton of effort and procedures to set up.

The traditional French Ease is an incredible choice for this purpose that gives you all benefit of being an amazingly lightweight and compact easel for outdoor painting.

This could be folded right up like a briefcase and allows you to sit or stand up while painting comfortably. This makes it especially ideal for all of those planning to paint for hours or over a considerable span of time.

A French easel also comes with the added benefit of having all the essential compartments such as paint-mixing palette slots, troughs and holders for all your painting tools, and even a slot to fix your umbrella. This dispenses the need for you to pack any separate kit or bag for your requirements.

But the best part of this is that you can actually store all of these in the easel itself before you head outdoors to paint, with your canvas, or watercolor block right into the canvas holder.

  1. The Sketchbook: An Artist's Best Friend

Keeping a “handy-dandy notebook” or a sketchbook is a brilliant thing to have by your side while you set out to work in plein air. An art sketchbook or one that’s specially made for watercolor work can efficiently serve two very important functions.

First, it comes in really handy as a journal for entries regarding tips and techniques. This can be your safe place to test out color schemes and tonal or textural variations. Work out your own techniques or develop an individual style even while painting to see what you can apply to your main work. This is especially helpful as it allows you to make all the mistakes you need to make on it rather than messing up your main artwork.

This is exceedingly helpful when...

...you have to ascertain the tones and textures of your subject as it changes with shifting the time period. You can even come up with your very own way of handling tonal shifts and develop a way to achieve the right balance of the values and elements of painting.

A sketchbook is a great way to practice and perfect the art of art itself.

The other advantage of having a sketchbook is that it is a less expensive alternative to costly watercolor papers, watercolor blocks or even a French easel.

A sketchbook would also be a lot more handy, compact, and portable than every other sketching media.

You could easily get a beautiful watercolor sketchbook rather than getting a full-size canvas itself. It is just a perfect thing for beginners in every way. You could get yourself one in soft bounds or hardbound or even in an attractive moleskin one.

These could also help you complete your paintings a lot quicker, especially when you have to do it in a congested place or somewhere with a lot of traffic. 

  1. Capturing Moments: The Role of Photography in Art

Because, when in doubt, always take pictures! Take quick snaps and several ones for that matter, if you’re doubtful or not very confident about achieving a particular effect for your painting. This works especially well for beginners who might want to study the different aspects of the scape.

Also, you might need to take several pictures of your subject during the entire course of your painting for studying the shifts of lights, clouds, and shadows at different points of time or hours in the day.

Since the quality or the basic overall effect of your watercolor painting doesn’t have to be “hyperrealistic” in any way, you need not take a professional camera or a ton of photographic arrangements with yourself to the location.

However, do ensure that your camera does have proper zooming to a considerable extent and captures reasonably clear details, if not crystal-clear, for you to work on comfortably and confidently.

  1. Perfect Seating: Ensuring Comfort in Creativity

A seating arrangement for all outdoor artwork, in our opinion, is an absolute must. And it has got nothing to do with your age or fitness!

Wanting to sit, especially after a considerable amount of time, is a completely normal bodily requirement and impulse. And it is, in fact, important to be absolutely comfortable when you’re outdoors painting and studying and analyzing your surroundings because you’re feeling the environment with all of your senses at the same time. This is something that you can’t do if your body is tensed up all the time and is pressurized without being given the time to rest to function properly.

This is why a portable stool or compact, lightweight, foldable chair is always good to have around while painting plein air.

You could get a travel stool for the purpose or even one that is specifically designed for painters and students for school projects. These are very lightweight and are constructed in a way that makes them slide right into most travel-gear bags or backpacks. This makes them perfect for every plein-air art project.

Tools And Materials Needed For Plein Air Painting

  1. Watercolor Paints

This is an obvious one. There are many forms of watercolor paints available in the market, like watercolor tubes, watercolor pans, etc. For plein air painting, however, you need convenient paints to carry and hold. So, your best bet would be watercolor pans. 

Watercolor pans consist of a variety of vibrant colors available in convenient dried blocks of paint. All you need is a little water to activate the dried paint, and you can start painting right away!

In landscape painting, a variety of colors is required to capture the true essence of the scene on canvas. Rather than carrying each and every pigment to outdoor locations, select a white shade along with a cold and warm shade of every primary color. 

Note that the French Impressionists didn’t include black in their toolkit because of 2 reasons: 

  1. Black color doesn’t exist in the environment, i.e., nature. 
  2. The effects produced by variations in hue are far more vibrant than those produced by changes in shades. 


Creating black without using black is easy– all you’ll have to do is mix emerald green with magenta to produce a gorgeous black shade. 

  1. Watercolor Paper, Canvas, Panels, And Boards

Small to medium-sized panels are ideal for plein air painting projects, as they fit the majority of French-style easels. 

If you are using watercolors, watercolor paper, too, is available in many different forms: watercolor blocks, watercolor painting books or notebooks, watercolor sheets, watercolor sketchbooks, etc. If you are a beginner, a small sketchbook is the best option for you. It is the format you are most familiar with and is also convenient outdoors. But you will see some warping and buckling with this. 

For an experienced watercolor painter, a watercolor block might be the better option. You don’t have to worry about warping or buckling because the paper is already stretched. Blocks are also usually thick enough to withstand most watercolor techniques so that you can paint away without worry. 

Please make sure the paper you are getting is 300 GSM or above to ensure it is able to withstand all wet mediums and techniques. 

But, if you use pochade boxes, you’ll have to make sure the canvas is compatible with it. Keep in mind that quite a few canvas carriers accept canvases up to 70 cm, whereas some require sets of equal-sized canvases to function properly. 

As a piece of advice, I suggest opting for a small-scale canvas since working on it will be fun. 

Even ready-to-paint panels offer a nice rigid base, which is why they are excellent for plein-air paintings. The best part about primed panels is that they are compatible with both a French box easel and a pochade setup. And because they don’t occupy much space, you can carry multiple items. 

In this regard, I suggest going for handmade linen panels. 

  1. Watercolor Brushes

When selecting a brush set for plein air painting, consider your painting style. You should also take into account the plein air painting techniques you plan to employ to finish your artwork. 

In my opinion, opting for a set whose brushes are a perfect blend of spring and stiffness will be the best bet. Or you can create your own brush set by adding round, filbert, and flat brushes to use multiple techniques with ease. 

As an artist, you should always go for high-quality brushes because the bristles of such brushes do not come off while mixing the paint. Alongside brushes, make sure to add a graphite pencil for sketching. 

You might also want to invest in a quality brush holder to protect your brushes from damage while traveling. 

  1. Water Container

What else does watercolor painting require? Water, of course! For plein air painting, you can’t expect to get water quickly. So, you will need a handy water container, along with some jars, to make painting a smooth process. I suggest having two jars of water, one for painting and the other for cleaning your brushes. 

  1. Portable Easel 

This is an optional thing to buy, but it is something that many plein air painters recommend. Some painters prefer to sit while painting, while others prefer to paint standing. An easel will significantly help in the latter case. You can find lightweight, portable easels that will make painting an easy and convenient process for you. 

If you don’t want to invest too much money in an easel, you can also use an old camera tripod, assuming it is of suitable height. Use an ‘adapter’ so you can fix your sketchbook or block on the top of the tripod. 

  1. Sun Hat And Sunscreen

One thing you don’t want is a pesky sunburn while you are painting the sun itself. So, a sun hat and sunscreen are important. 

  1. Other Optional Material

You can also carry painting gloves, paper towels, a watercolor palette, a watercolor drawing board, a folding chair, a folding table, and watercolor pencils in your art bag. You can also bring along a folding picnic table to keep all your supplies on. None of this is technically necessary, but it will surely make your plein-air painting experience easy and pleasant. 

 Prepping For The Painting Session

Now you can start with prepping for your painting.

Setting Up Your Materials

Once you reach the desired location for your plein air painting, start setting up your supplies. Set up the easel and the folding chair if you brought one. Take out your watercolor pans, palette, and paintbrushes. Set up the jars of water on a table. And at the very end, place your watercolor paper on the easel, and you are ready to begin painting. 

Sketching The Composition

Before you actually start painting, you might want to sketch out a rough composition. Bring out your graphite pencil and start sketching. The advantage is that if you get something wrong with the pencil, you can easily correct it using an eraser. But you might not be able to erase actual watercolor paint. 

So, take in the feel of the scenery and make a quick sketch. 

Mixing Colors

Your pan colors might not always have the exact color you require to paint your masterpiece. So, mixing colors always comes to the rescue. Watercolors are extremely easy to mix, so you don’t have to face the cons of a limited palette. 

Just decide the two colors you want to mix to make the third one. Knowledge about the color wheel (and the color theory) can greatly help you in deciding the right colors. Next, put the two colors on a palette using your paintbrush. Now, mix the two colors together using however much water you need. Keep mixing until you reach your desired shade. 

Plein Air Painting Techniques

Here are 3 techniques that will help you get started with plein-air painting projects. 

1. Painting Light: Capturing Light And Atmosphere

In plein air painting, artists paint by observing the environment around them. Therefore, they come across a variety of light sources, including electric light, candles, window light, overcast skies, and direct sunshine. 

It’s a well-known fact that all kinds of lights have distinctive qualities, which you, as an artist, need to understand in order to paint them realistically. 

I. Overcast Light

Often, sunshine is diffused by cloud layers, wiping out the dramatic contrasts of shadow and light. One significant benefit of overcast light is that you can paint outlines in their true colors minus the need for extreme contrasts of shade and light. 

II. Direct Sunlight

The blue sky, the sun, and reflected light from luminous things are 3 distinctive illumination systems that are at play on a bright, sunny day. Of all the 3 light courses, the light from the blue sky and the reflected one should be subordinate to sunlight because they derive from it. 

III. Streetlights And Night Conditions

Other than the moonlight, metal halide, arc, sodium, mercury-vapor, neon fluorescent, incandescent, and LED lights make up the modern nightscape. Every single light source has a unique spectral power distribution. 

I’ve listed a few tips that will help you understand night conditions, so you can capture night-time lights and conditions convincingly. 

You can experiment with urban night-time painting by illuminating your palette with a portable LED light. Moreover, take a camera and set it to night mode to capture images at night. Make sure you use a modern-day camera because its lens will capture excellent pictures in low lights. 

Most importantly, observe the variety of exterior lighting hues whenever you fly above a city in an airplane. 

2. Painting Water: Sketching And Blocking

Believe me, no other subject is as challenging to paint as water in landscape painting. 

Lake, pond, river, or ocean– each subject needs to be handled differently, which you’ll understand only when you study them carefully. Here are 3 techniques to handle water bodies:

A. Coastline

Both the water and the sky are similar in color, albeit the former is darker in tone. Sketch a solid coastline or horizon and block them simultaneously to ensure the 2 have a consistent color. 

B. Reflections

Painting reflections on still water bodies like ponds, lakes, and tranquil rivers is challenging because they often glow in the colors of dawn or dusk. Remember, reflections should be rendered as gestural and loose as possible. 

Instead of a lot of individual strokes, try depicting it as a huge tonal mass of color. Bear in mind that the objects are lighter than the reflections, so keep them dark. 

C. Movements

Plein art painters with little to no knowledge and experience find it challenging to capture the light effects and the movements occurring in ocean waves. A trick I learned from my teacher is to use a palette knife when painting ocean waves. 

3. Simplifying The Scene And Using A Limited Color Palette

Though prized for freshness and spontaneity, being deliberate and organized is one of the finest ways to learn the art of plein air.

Prior to heading outdoors, devise a plan and approach the painting deliberately from the get-go. Many a time, plein air painters, in their eagerness to start painting, begin adding color to the surface even before drawing the composition (visual arts) completely.

Capturing and painting each and every detail from the scene in en plein air is overwhelming. That’s why I suggest looking for scenes featuring basic shapes and sizes. At the same time, keep the value of 4 or fewer than that to simplify the values. Instead of every minute detail of the scene, like an animal, the texture of a leaf or a plant, flower petal, or fruit, captures small shapes in large groups.

Simplifying your palette is also important for every individual, starting with plein-air painting. A limited palette or a palette with cool/warm colors will be the best bet.

Challenges Of Plein Air Painting

1. Changing Light And Weather Conditions

One significant challenge plein air artists face is changing lighting and weather conditions. 

The weather may become cloudy from sunny, rainy or windy in the spur of the moment. Even minor changes in the weather can affect your final painting, adding an element of uncertainty to the painting procedure. 

But this isn’t the case with studio painting, as they aren’t affected by the changing outdoor weather. An artist creates studio painting in a controlled environment, where they have full control over the lighting conditions. 

2. Insects, Bugs, And Critters  

Bugs, critters, and other insects are also a source of distraction in plein-air painting. As insects are attracted to moisture, they tend to flock around watercolor or oil-based pigments you use in your artwork. 

Pigments comprise animal fats and are usually present in oil-based paints, thereby attracting cockroaches.

3. Time Constraints

In the studio, you have plenty of time to work on your artwork, but things are different when it comes to plein-air painting. A painting that is completed within 2 to 3 days in a studio needs to be completed within a few hours outdoors. 

This time constraint is what makes plein air painting challenging for painters. 

4 Plein Air Painting Tips For Success

A. Plan

Plan ahead by searching for potential locations and checking the weather forecast so that you won’t have to deal with surprises later on. 

B. Expect The Unexpected

Lighting and weather conditions change continually, so be prepared. 

C. Keep Things Simple

Do not attempt to include every little detail in your painting. Instead, keep things simple by focusing on general and familiar shapes. Also, use a small canvas or paper so that you can complete the painting quickly and easily. 

D. No Substitute For Practice

Practice, practice, and practice as much as you can only then will you master plein air painting techniques. 

 Benefits Of Plein Air Painting

1. Capture Real Scenes

When you paint outdoors, you can let your creative juices flow in your painting, which isn’t possible in studio painting. That’s because the scenery is right in front of your eyes, and you can read and interpret with your senses. 

Compositionally, plein air artists’ eyes aren’t constrained by a camera viewfinder. Even observing proportions, depths, and object relations is easy, as you only have to move your eyes and head a little. 

2. Disconnecting From The Digital World

For many artists, creating art or painting is a sort of meditative activity. 

On days when everything feels dark and gloomy, landscape painting can calm your mind and result in healing. The point of landscape painting is to disconnect artists from the digital world. That means you’ll have to leave your phone in your studio to rest your eyes and set your focus on creating stunning scenery via plein-air painting techniques. 

3. Recognize Colors Accurately

Painting outdoors is often considered the most effective way to recognize colors and study how they compare to each other. 

Because of warmth, contrast, and saturation, the camera eye alters the values and colors of the photograph, which isn’t the case with plein air painting. By painting en plein air, you’ll be able to use actual colors in your artwork, including seasons and times of the day. 

Regardless of what you think, you’ll be able to match the wintery whites and blues of snowfall or the pinks and oranges of spring sunset better in plein air painting. 

4. Mentally Refreshing

Plein air painters, as a part of their job, are more physically active than studio painters. This is due to the fact that they explore the locale outdoors to capture scenes on their canvases. 

While sitting in an open landscape, they soak in a lot of natural light, which is beneficial. Like, exposure to natural light or sunlight improves sleep patterns and the circadian rhythm to help the body produce Vitamin D. 

Not only are you able to focus better on work, but you also feel happier. And if you’re a social person, painting en plein air in groups will refresh your mind and help you make new friends. 

5. Step Out Of Your Comfort Zone

In studio painting, you work at your own pace and whenever you want– be it early morning or late night. 

But things are different in outdoor painting. Painting en plein air means you only have a few hours to complete your artwork, so painters tend to work differently than they do at a studio. 

Plein air painting (quite literally) forces painters to get out of their comfort zone. And during the process, you’ll learn new techniques and fresh approaches to complete your work within a certain time frame. 

You can make marks via gouache, dry brush, wax, flicking water, spritzing, or other techniques. As a plein air painter, you must have the courage to be bold and use thick paints with as large a brush as possible. 

Taking risks or getting bold in the studio is hard; after all, no one would want to ruin a final painting after spending 160+ hours on it. In essence, painting en plein air is a safe place to take risks and go bold. 

Plein Air Painting FAQs

  • Are notebook pads good for plein air painting?

    Notebook pads are ideal for sketching but not for plein air painting, so it’s best to avoid them. 

  • Who are some of the well-known artists in present times?

    Gordon MacKenzie is a talented watercolor artist whose landscape paintings are stunning. Cathy Johnson, another artist well-known for illustration, has written numerous books on creating textures in watercolor. 

    A self-proclaimed color theory expert, famous in the art world, is Jenna Rainey, who specializes in watercolor and hand-made drawings. Other artists specializing in visual art, including concept art, are Jean Haines, Ray Hendershot, Matthew Palmer, and Leslie Frontz. 

    Even Nita Engle, who passed away in 2019, was an American watercolorist and illustrator who had painted numerous landscapes from Alaska to Lake Superior. 

  • What are the best locations for plein air painting?

    Some of the best locations for plein air painting are:

    • Bali, Indonesia
    • Oia, Santorini
    • Grand Canyon, Arizona
    • Napa Valley, California
    • Paris, France
  • Can beginners paint en plein air with watercolors, or is it more suited for experienced artists?

    Beginners can absolutely paint in plein air. It is not a matter of skill but a matter of inspiration. While painting en plein air, the big advantage you get is that you have your desired scenery in front of you. 

    Beginners can start by painting easy sceneries like a flower, a tree, an animal, parks, etc., and then move on to more complex landscapes. All you need is a good eye for your concept art.

  • How do I deal with changing light and weather conditions while painting en-plein air?

    When you’re painting outside, quick changes in light and sudden shifts in weather are all part of the game. A good tip is to check your weather app before you head out. It’ll give you a heads-up if it’s going to rain or be too windy, saving you from a wasted trip.

    And about the changing light, always note the exact time you start painting, if you attempt to paint on another day, the time reference will help you find similar conditions. A hack for the shifting light is to make a quick sketch of what you’re about to paint and snap a picture too. That way, even if the light changes, you’ve got a reference to help you finish your watercolor masterpiece.

  • How can plein-air painting improve my overall painting skills?

    Practice makes perfect, right? That goes for watercolor painting too. Any type of practice will boost your skills. But with plein air painting, it’s special. You’re right there, looking at the real scenery, and it makes you feel super connected to your work. Plus, nature doesn’t always make it easy – you might have to paint rushing water, rustling leaves, or a setting sun. Sure, it’s a bit tough, but hey, that’s how you up your game. And believe me, you’ll see your skills sky-rocket!

  • Are there any famous watercolor artists who painted in plein air?

    Yes, there have been several notable watercolor artists who painted en plein air, including Camille Pissarro, Edgar Degas, James McNeil Whistler, Jean Haines, Leslie Frontz, Matthew Palmer, Cathy Johnson, Gordon MacKenzie, Jenna Rainey, and John Singer Sargent. 

  • How do I transport and store my paintings created en plein air?

    Transporting and storing plein air paintings requires careful consideration to prevent damage. To transport wet paintings, consider a wet painting carrier, which keeps the artwork separate and secure. For dry artwork, use acid-free paper or glassine interleaves between each piece, stored flat in a sturdy, waterproof portfolio. Long-term storage should be in a dry, temperature-controlled environment, away from direct sunlight and extreme temperature fluctuations. Always handle with clean hands or use cotton gloves to avoid oils or dirt from damaging the artwork.

  • Final Words

    That was a lot of information on plein-air painting, so take a couple of minutes to collect your thoughts. 

    To sum it up, plein-air painting is all about capturing the essence of a natural environment. As a plein air artist, you need not capture everything in the area, only a few large objects will do the trick. 

    Best of all plein air painting offers numerous benefits, as it relaxes the mind and you can start painting en plein air as a hobby. You can sell your artwork on social media to earn money. 

    Before starting painting, don’t forget to check out a few tutorial videos online, and I’m sure you’ll be good to go! Also, do not be afraid to experiment; in fact, unleash your creativity and draw whatever you want. 

    Photo and Painting Courtesy of RafaCM