En plein air is a fancy sounding, French expression that means “in the open air.”
Plein air painting is not nearly as glamorous and arty as it sounds, but the phrase still conjures up visions of bucolic fields and rippling streams or sun-kissed flowers waving in a breeze.
The reality of painting outdoors may be a lot different.
It can be trudging with bags, boxes and an unwieldy easel through rough, prickly terrain to reach a somewhat level piece of dry ground. Alternatively, it could be stepping in muddy puddles, trying not to slip. Add whining mosquitoes that zoom threateningly near the face and eyes. This may be the truth of outdoor painting, but is an experience that many artists treasure.
Thought and planning is important when considering an expedition into the wilds to paint. Minimalism describes the artist’s choice of supplies when packing up to paint outside the studio. Planning what equipment and tools are necessary will make the experience more enjoyable and productive.
The student is certainly not going to pack up his entire tabouret when painting in the great outdoors. Simplicity is the key. Since a location has probably been chosen, the general coloration and flavor of the area is already known. The artist should select a basic set of colors that he will use on site for his painting. Be realistic about how many colors to take, as more work will be done back at the studio. Additional colors can be added to the palette in the convenience of the studio.
Most artists have far more brushes than they use during a painting session. Pare down the number of brushes to the basic sizes that will be used for the painting. A palette is necessary, but a disposable plastic tray may be a good alternative to the large, perhaps heavy palette used in the studio. Styrofoam meat trays are a good temporary palette that take little room and weigh virtually nothing.
Watercolorists and acrylic painters need only bring plastic containers and clean water, if none is available on site. An oil painter would have to bring small amounts of thinner and oil, as well as small containers in which to place them. Again, think disposable for these types of supplies.
Easel And Supports
A folding, portable easel is very important for fieldwork. It should be light, stabile and fold into an easily toted size. It is possible that the artist could use a rock, fence or tree to support his canvas or board. However, unless he has done recognizance work, that unknown quantity is pretty risky. An enterprising student may fabricate a halter or straps to enable him to sling the easel over his back.
Obviously, very large supports are not popular with the outdoor painter. Select reasonably sized canvases or boards for convenience, and save the jumbo-size paintings for the studio. A watercolorist may wish to use a paper pad, rather than stretching his paper on a Masonite board. Watercolor paper is available in blocks of many different sizes, weights and textures. By using a watercolor block, the artist has a convenient supply of paper available.
Be sure to take ample paper towels or cleaning rags. If clean water is not available, take enough water for both the water-soluble medium, clean-up, and personal uses. Make sure that trash bags are part of the inventory, as well as disposable containers to dispose of used turpentine, thinner and oil when working with oil paint.
Take insect repellant if plans include a buggy area. If there is any chance of precipitation, pack a plastic rain poncho. This can be used to protect either you or the supplies, depending on which is more likely to be damaged by moisture. A change of shoes, socks and clothes to leave in the car is a good idea. Wearing layers is a good idea if temperatures may change throughout the day. Fingerless gloves are helpful, as they keep hands warm but leave the fingers free.
A folding stool is very handy. Alternatively, a cushion to pad a makeshift rock or tree stump seat is a convenience worth the extra space it takes. Personal conveniences may include snacks and beverages, baseball cap to shade the eyes, and perhaps an mp3 player. A flashlight and sunscreen are other items that may be of use. A camera is very practical for recording subjects and settings that the artist may wish to work on in the studio.
Getting It All Together
If the artist intends on making this a regular part of his painting routine, it makes sense to invest in equipment to make hauling his supplies as easy as possible. Assemble everything that will be used to see how much equipment there is. Now the student can see the sizes and types of carrying cases he needs. Measure items, if necessary, to see how large a case should be. Include all the items, such as paper towels, and other bulky items. Once the student has gotten organized with proper bins and totes, it is a simple matter to be ready for a plein air session.
As the artist spends time outdoors painting, he will learn which things he really needs and which are superfluous. Culling out extraneous items from his kit will lighten the load, and adding needed items for productivity and comfort will make the plein air experience more enjoyable.
If a student is hesitant about painting outdoors, perhaps setting up in the back yard or a nearby park will give a taste of the potential for this type of painting. Nature is all around us and it is not necessary to mount a major safari to enjoy the pleasures of plein air painting.
Go out there and get a few bugs on your canvas.