Spring has finally arrived, with summer not far behind; it’s the perfect time to get out into nature for some fresh air, to relax, and to paint. Painting outside can be fun and different, whether you make it a field trip to the woods, a park, a nature preserve, or just sit out on your own doorstep. If you’ve already planned a trip to the beach, gather your sketchbook and paints to take along. Take a few painting supplies when mountain climbing. When you reach the summit, you could rest while doing a quick sketch and painting of the view. Or sit on the dock at the lake to paint the clouds and water. A change of scene can encourage close observation and inspire us.
Before starting out, consider your supplies. Keep your art kit on the small and lightweight side since you’ll be carrying it with you. Pack it in a bag ahead of time, so you’ll be ready to go when the time is right.
In my kit I include a small sketchbook (that I use to record color and weather observations, to create thumbnails, to make sketches and contour drawings, to experiment with color matching (i.e. as a test sheet), or to make notes of ideas). I also pack a small ‘block’ of watercolor paper (which is easy to hold on my lap for painting). I suggest including a watercolor travel palette like this one from amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Winsor-Newton-Cotman-Water-Colour/dp/B000PD3LY4/ref=sr_1_23?crid=1T41EILMKX301&keywords=winsor+newton+watercolor+set&qid=1656615455&sprefix=winsor+neton%2Caps%2C128&sr=8-23. (When the paint in the small half pans has been exhausted, I refill the pans from watercolor tubes in my choice of colors.) The above set includes paint, a travel brush, and small water pots as well as a water container. Another palette you might like, with better quality paint, can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Schmincke-AKADEMIE-Aquarell-Watercolor-Compact/dp/B0012F64CA/ref=sr_1_6?keywords=schmincke+travel+palette&qid=1683561524&sr=8-6&ufe=app_do%3Aamzn1.fos.18ed3cb5-28d5-4975-8bc7-93deae8f9840 .
If your paint set doesn’t include a brush or two, water in a container, and a water holder (for painting and cleaning your brushes), you will need to add these to your kit. If you prefer, water brushes (which have a water reservoir attached to a nylon brush) are available, so added water would not be necessary. I have some water brushes, but personally I don’t find their quality to be very good. A pencil, eraser, paper towels (or tissues), a viewfinder, perhaps some water-soluble drawing pencils, and watercolor pencils are also fun and good to bring along. Depending on how far I will be going, I might also bring a hat, a folding chair, and something to drink.
I enjoyed making my own small accordion sketchbook to take on outdoor sketching trips recently. I cut a full sheet (22X30″) of watercolor paper into three strips, attached them to each other, and used two pieces of leftover mat board for a cover. I keep it closed when not in use with a covered elastic headband. The finished sketchbook size is 4X6″; it opens into a continuous painting area of about 6X72″, or 18 pages on one side, and 6X64″, 16 pages, on the opposite side.
HOW TO CHOOSE WHAT TO PAINT.
When you arrive at your destination, look for a comfortable, interesting spot. The first part of your process involves looking around to get familiar with what’s in front of you. Look closely and think about what draws you in. Take your time. If you have a viewfinder, use it to help you pick your subject for painting. (You can make your own viewfinder by cutting a rectangle out of white card stock.) Looking through the hole, move the viewfinder closer and farther away from your eye to “zoom” in and out. Wait for a composition to come into the frame that appeals to you.
You can also plan a composition by drawing several quick thumbnail sketches in your sketchbook to begin to translate what you see into two dimensions on paper. See this blog post for more information on the advantages of thumbnails: Hold Your Horses!, (7/17/2020), https://leemuirhaman.com/2020/07/17/hold-your-horses/ . Sketch out various viewpoints or arrangements of the scene to find your preferences. Pick one of your thumbnails to paint, without overthinking.
DIFFERENCES BETWEEN OUTDOOR AND STUDIO PAINTING.
There are some differences to keep in mind if you are painting outside. You will probably have less time to spend on each picture, due to changing light or unexpected weather shifts, and will need to paint more quickly. It’s therefore advisable to to simplify or narrow down your subject. Limit the size of your paper in the beginning to 11X14″ or less, until you have some experience with how quickly you must work. Expect to include fewer details in your painting. In other words, plan to be less ambitious than you might when working indoors or in your studio.
You will be organizing the information you see before you into your own composition. There is no need to include everything you see in your painting. In fact, your picture will be stronger without including every detail. Observe the scene closely, then narrow in on what interests you. Sketch your composition quickly, so you have a painting plan. Note values in particular to insure you include light, middle, and dark values in your painting. Allow yourself to improvise, be spontaneous, even play, using what you see as your starting point. Feel free to paint smaller and quicker than you usually do. If desired, use your smartphone to snap a couple of quick pictures of the light or colors just in case you need the information later.
Notice big shapes and a range of lights and darks. Look for patterns, color combinations, or shadows, for instance, to focus on. For more information about how to think about shapes in your artwork, look at Simplify Your Watercolors By Focusing On Shapes!, (7/16/2019), https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/07/16/simplify-your-watercolors-by-focusing-on-shapes/ .
YOU GET TO CHOOSE.
Outdoor painting is a good way to start moving beyond copying because you don’t use others’ photo references. You get to decide your own subject and your own focus during your painting session. Paint what you find most interesting. You can choose to include or leave out whatever you wish. Since you will be in control of determining your main concept, edit out anything that is not important to the story you will be telling in the painting.
There are many ways to approach outdoor painting. Generally, outdoor paintings tend to be done more quickly and loosely than studio paintings because time available is limited. So, simplify and try not to get bogged down with details. Instead, one way to begin painting is to use light washes to block out the main areas of color on the paper. Then work on the lightest areas first. You can gradually build up and intensify colors as you proceed to create depth and detail.
One artist I know begins by loosely painting colored shapes first, then drawing line and detail later when the original colors have dried. She uses various materials for these later layers, sometimes choosing more watercolor, or perhaps Pigma micron pens, Faber Castell Pitt pens, or Caran D’Ache Neocolors. Another artist friend will start with a loose, very light pencil sketch before applying any paint. Yet another artist I know makes a lot of separate watercolor marks (squiggles, dashes, dots, lines, blobs), but no washes of color to describe the scene, much like pointillism. When the color on the paper has dried, this artist lightly softens marks to merge colors, fill in white space, and create shadows.
Give plein air painting a try, especially if it’s new to you. You may just fall in love with it. It can be fun to experiment with something new and different.
Paint what inspires you. And when your painting session is done, your outdoor painting can stand on its own or become the basis for a later studio painting.
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Great post Lee. I have a smaller Cotman set of half pans and the paints are surprisingly vivid and intense.
Thank you. It’s great to get outside to paint, isn’t it?