Plein Air: Drawing and Painting from Life

Plein air is one of the most interesting and rewarding ways to paint! It propels so many creative processes that may take much longer to develop in the studio or at home, in front of a computer screen. Any painting or color mixing difficulty can be resolved when painting in nature, from life. If you like painting but feel stuck or unmotivated or feel that your artworks are missing some vibrancy or generally look plain, it’s time to paint outdoors! Below I share some of my thoughts about painting en plein air, as well as some advice. I used bullet points to keep this text short and condensed. 


General Approach to Plein Air

  • The best advantage of painting en plein air is that you are documenting life using your own eyes and presence - there is no intermediary between your vision and the object or a scene. You are the translator of reality onto the paper. It’s not a photo that someone took selecting the angle, the filter, and the composition. It’s the entirety of the environment with everything in it. You get to choose what and how to paint!
  • If you ever wondered about finding your style and what it entails, this is it. Drawing and painting from life is the fastest way to develop your own recognizable style. Painting from life is the most subjective and honest way to convey what you see and how you see it. 
  • Instead of focusing on multiple small details, try to capture the essence of the object or a moment or a place. Each session is a once in a lifetime opportunity - the place will not be the same next time you see it and you will not be the same next time you visit. The object(s) you picked may no longer be around days/months/years from now. Present moment is unique. Try to capture it in your artwork. Imagine that if you don’t depict it, it might be lost forever.
  • Plein air subjects can be big and small. It can be a vast field with buildings and dramatic sky or it can be a tree branch with a flower. The main criteria for selecting a painting subject and composition is your excitement and interest to explore, not the scale of the scene.
  • Don't settle for the first interesting thing you see. Spend 10-15 minutes walking around and looking at potential painting subjects, notice small and large scale compositions, variety of colors, and unusual angles. Start painting when you find something you feel you must paint! I once painted near community gardens and settled for some trees and bushes. I treated this painting session as an exercise in generalization of greenery and felt good about it. When it was time to leave, I walked around looking at people's vegetable gardens and saw some beautiful hanging gourds that looked similar to the famous Sargent's watercolor painting "Gourds" (1908). I immediately regretted spending two hours painting some boring trees when these gourds were there the entire time! Don't repeat my mistake! Explore and scrutinize your plein air area to find something truly exciting!
  • Experiment with composition - it’s the best way to try different approaches to painting/drawing an object. Show scale, distance, relationships between different objects or people. Try to incorporate an emotional component using colors and depicting movement.
  • You don’t have to share your artworks with anyone. If keeping it personal helps you feel more relaxed and experiment, don’t show it to others. If you are an Instagrammer or an art blogger, a healthy ratio is usually 50/50 - 50% of “content” to show others and 50% of personal exploratory art. 

Advice for beginners:

  • Start small. No need to buy all art supplies. A good limited palette, few brushes, and a sketchbook is enough to begin painting en plein air.
  • Unless you are documenting an event where chronology is important, feel free to paint/sketch on random sketchbook pages, no need to start with page 1. This will help reduce the pressure to create perfect art on every page.
  • Try different sizes of paper. Start with something manageable (7x9”) and see how it works for you. Transition to slightly larger size (9x12”) if you feel you need more space. Feel free to paint smaller (4x6”), if larger sizes feel overwhelming, or go even larger to try something new. You will notice that your way of painting and choice of composition will change with different paper sizes. Experiment until you find the size that works best!
  • Use three brush sizes to create a variety of brushstrokes and to keep your artwork interesting! Start with a large brush for lighter washes and large shapes, continue with medium brush to introduce details, and finish with a fine brush for small details. 
  • Squint and step back often!

Materials and supplies

  • Use high-quality tools and supplies! I like this quote by James Richards from his book “Freehand Drawing and Discovery” (2013): “Expense is not as important as quality, but low-quality supplies can frustrate, while better tools can inspire. A great tool matched to the task at hand can allow skills to grow and artistry to emerge. Over time, the instrument, hand, and personality each contribute to a unique and personal expression of style and creative energy - something with a soul. My advice is to buy above your skill level, and work your way toward mastery of those tools.” It’s better to have fewer high quality colors and brushes and use high quality paper than have lots and lots of lower-quality supplies. 
  • Use practical portable materials that are easy to carry around and pull out of your bag. It should not take you a long time to set up. Pack light. Having limited amount of options will help you focus on the process itself and will save you time deciding what to use or alternating different media and tools. Lighter plein air painting kit means faster transition and higher likelihood of actually painting often! Fewer colors and media also means less mud in the final artwork!
  • Try different supplies and colors until you find what works for you. You may start with a graphite pencil and watercolors and end up with gouache, ink, or pastels, or a combination of some of the above. Experiment until you find what works for you!
  • Create a checklist that you can use to pack your plein air bag to make sure you have your painting supplies, weather-appropriate items (sun screen, bug spray, umbrella, extra layers of clothes, etc.), water and snacks, and other things you might need (headphones, charger, clean towel, etc,). To save time packing, you can dedicate a small backpack to plein air and keep it ready to go. When you feel like painting, you can leave right away, no need to pack.

Be safe, considerate, and pick a good spot

  • Pick a day with pleasant weather or bring things to help alleviate any weather-related discomfort (cold water and a hat on a hot day, warm layers and a hot beverage on a windy or chilly day). Be comfortable while you paint!
  • Use bug repellent to prevent mosquito or tick bites. Know when these insects are most active in your geographic area.
  • Pick a spot where you are not in the way of other people! If you don’t like company while painting, pick a spot where no one can bother you. It’s safer when no one can approach you from behind (if you sit next to a wall, tree, or a park structure). Find a calm place where you can focus. If you are painting alone, find a spot where people can see you at a distance but not necessarily close to popular spots. Wear large over-ear headphones, if you don’t want strangers to bother you while you paint. Be aware of your environment: watch out for wild life, if you paint in national parks or unfamiliar park areas; watch out for unwanted human activity (make sure you have a charged phone and know your way around the neighborhood).
  • Account for light change during the time you plan to paint. Light changes dramatically during the morning or evening hours. You may quickly lose all colors and shadows. If you would like to have more or less stable light for a few hours, paint in the late morning or early afternoon.
  • Leave the place cleaner than you found it. If you brought a bag to collect your trash, spend a minute to pick up any things that do not belong. I usually end up picking up plastic bottle caps, plastic toy parts, or shreds of wrappers. It does not take long and helps keep park areas clean.

I hope you found this helpful! To see my plein air artworks, check out my Instagram page @poemsaboutme. If you are interested in getting a perfect set of colors for spring-summer plein air painting, click here for the newest plein air set!

Happy painting!