Painting Outdoors for Beginners
Painting outdoors is rewarding but poses many challenges you must plan for. Sunlight, temperature change, weather, and wildlife can be unpredictable. In order to be successful painting outdoors you must be organized, plan ahead, and pack light. Painting landscapes can be intimidating, so to help beginning artists prepare for painting outdoors, I have created a How to get started checklist.
Artists have always painted outside, but began to perfect this practice during the Renaissance. Renaissance artists painted the landscape to make studies for larger and more time consuming paintings they would complete in the studio. Post-renaissance movements such as the Barbizon school regularly painted directly in nature and by the Impressionist movement outdoor painting sketches became accepted as finished artworks.
Painting outdoors is possible for any beginner as long as you stay organized, keep your supplies simple (only bring what you can easily carry), and practice, practice, practice. Painting does not have to be expensive nor does it have to be incredibly time consuming. Isolating 2-3 hours in your schedule to practice painting is a good place to start. With regular painting sessions you will become more efficient and accurate.
My beginning painting students had about 10 weeks of Oil painting class under their belt before they jumped into Plein Air painting. They were generally comfortable mixing colors and had some experience composing an image. They were also knowledgeable about applying oil paints, which takes some time to learn. If you are interested in painting outdoors, but have not used oil paints, I would recommend starting with acrylics or begin by practicing with oil paints at home (safely) before taking them on the field. Note that Oil paints come with a few safety precautions such as the use of paint thinner and linseed oil, please be responsible and refer to this Safe Painting guide. by Gamblin Paints. If you use acrylics, you really only need brushes, water, and a palette to get started. It takes some time to get comfortable painting outdoors, but the only way to do it is to try!
Steps for painting outdoors:
Collect your Materials
If you want the no-cost option, you can simply use a pizza box and disposable palette paper.
Just plan to sit on the ground, or on a bench. Note for this option you will have to sit the painting box on your lap as you work. You could also use any sturdy box with a folding lid. Some artists like Remington Robinson even paint out of tiny altoid cans.
If you are able to spend a little money you could invest in a travel French easel like the ones you see us using in the photos. These can range in price from 100 dollars to very expensive. Most can hold small tubes of paints, brushes, and oils , some can even hold wet paintings. You can carry them by the handle or add straps so that you can carry it on your back.
You will also need a book bag or cross body bag to carry extra supplies that do not fit in your travel easel or box. You should practice carrying your bag and your easel to make sure it is not too cumbersome for you.
Must have Oil painting supplies:
2-3 small Canvas Panels or small canvases. I recommend 8" x 10."
Oil paints are recommended. If you have never used oil paints before, I would recommend acrylics until you are comfortable with oils. Start with a simple palette: 1-2 of each of the following colors: White, Red, Yellow, Blue, Green & Brown. No black is necessary. Palette combinations are endless and are really something you should not experiment with until you are more experienced. You could use a combination of any of these colors, or all of them. You should likely just keep it simple, so I have underlined the required colors.
RED: Cadmium Red light ,Alizarin Crimson,
YELLOW: Cadmium Yellow, Zinc yellow, Yellow Ochre
GREEN : Permanent Green, Viridian Green, Sap Green
BLUE: Ultramarine Blue, Cobalt Blue, Cerulean blue,
BROWN: Burnt Sienna,Burnt Umber
WHITE: Titanium White
Brushes- no more than 5 are necessary. Make sure you have a range of sizes from small to about 1" in width. Avoid paintbrushes not suitable for oil paints. Here is a good set to try: Grey Matters Brushes
Cotton rags or old t-shirts ( 2 rags is enough)
Solvent free gel or linseed oil
Solvent or Safflower oil for thinning paint and/or cleaning brushes
Gloves or Barrier Cream
Baby oil/Wipes to clean your hands- travel size
sunscreen/sun hat - you have enough to worry about besides getting a sunburn
bug spray ( depending on the location)
Comfortable shoes and layered clothing ( depending on the climate)
2. Plan your location
It is helpful to search out a perfect location beforehand so you do not expend all of your precious energy hiking around. Carefully consider selecting a place that the light or shade will stay consistent. Pick a location where you know you will not be blinded by the light, nor a place that is too dark and shadowy. These types of locations can alter our perception of what colors we are actually seeing and mixing. In sunny climates, I tend to choose locations that are in soft shadows or dappled light. Take note of where the sun is when you begin painting. It will move higher or lower in the sky and this could drastically change your painting environment. Note that if your location is not a public space it is important to call ahead and get permission before painting on site.
3. Find a simple composition
Use a homemade view finder ( not your phone!) or something like this Viewcatcher to find a good composition. Make a decision fast. A good rule of thumb is to align trees or focal points 1/3 over into the image and avoid centering. You should also avoid including too much information in one image. Keep it as simple as possible, without zooming in too much. Keep it simple.
4. Block in your drawing
Pick a color and sketch out a quick blocky drawing of what you want to paint. I always sketch with thinned out paint instead of pencil or charcoal, but do what feels comfortable. Simplify shapes of trees and large objects using angles and simple lines indicating placement. Once major shapes of the drawing are established, block in the value of the shadow shapes in thin paint. Shadow shapes are fickle in landscape painting, so pick one and stick with it.
Since I mostly paint in Florida, I usually find myself using Viridian Green as my sketching color.
5. Pre-mix your colors
Take a few moments to mix about 5 of the main colors you see. This could be sky, grass, tree, water, and shadow. Pre-mix these colors on your palette before you begin laying them into your drawing. Try to work quickly as your environment is likely changing right before your eyes.
6. Paint quickly.
As long as you take time to mix the specific colors you see, the actual painting process should happen fast. Do not over think the painting process and lay those 5 colors in quick, covering as much of the canvas as possible. Beyond those five colors, work from the background and sky forward gaining more accuracy as you continue. Back up from your painting every few minutes comparing your image to your environment, making small corrections as you go.
7. Remember Atmospheric perspective
Remember that in most environments objects will appear lighter and bluer as they go away from you. Lightening and/or cooling off the background ( as long as it is not a sunset!) is a quick way to create convincing atmospheric space. This means, use more white+blue paint towards the background! Work back to front, using more warm colors like yellow and green as you get closer to the foreground.
8. Add a few details in the foreground
Accentuating a few areas such as an important piece of foliage in the foreground will create depth in your painting. Objects that are closer to you are often more colorful and have sharper edges.
9. Nothing is precious
Paint fast, and move on quickly. Landscape studies should take you no more than 2 hours. Some could take minutes. Within 2 hours most of the environments light and shadow have changed. It would be better to stop early, and move on to the next painting instead of re-painting your entire picture. Carry extra canvases with you so you can quickly jump to the next painting.
10. Be responsible
-Wear gloves or barrier cream to keep paint off of your hands/body as much as possible
-Do not eat or drink alongside oil painting
-Keep paint thinner use to a minimum or use solvent free materials instead.
-Leave nature how you found it. Pick up your trash
-Return oil stained rags to your nearest art school hazardous waste disposal can. Do not throw away any painting rags or empty paint tubes into a standard trash can. This is a fire hazard, especially if thrown away outdoors.
-Clean your brushes with safflower oil or paint thinner before packing up.
-Be kind to yourself, painting outdoors is challenging
Landscape sketches can be finished artworks. They are a capturing a swift moment in time, and impression of what is in front of you. Working thoughtfully and quickly will help capture this moment. If you plan to make multiple paintings in one trip, I would recommend a handmade or store bought wet canvas carrier or clips so that you do not risk ruining your paintings. Note, that painting in Plein Air does not have to be expensive. You can use student grade paints and brushes and create phenomenal artworks. Expensive paints and brushes will not make you a better painter. Keep it simple and practice often.
If you want more information on the practice of Plein Air painting, I highly recommend visiting Outdoorpainter.com for more information and watch this video by Andrew Tischler. Or contact me, Holly Scoggins for more information on landscape painting courses.
Other helpful links: