Painting En Plein Air

This holiday, I decided to do some painting in the great outdoors.  Although I thought I was reasonably well prepared, I learned a few things.

I had a nice hat, some drinking water, a comfortable, light-weight fold-away chair and sturdy portable easel.  I had a stay-wet palette and smallish canvases, so that I could complete one in an hour or so.  I chose acrylics because the brushes can be cleaned with water and the work will dry reasonably quickly, so you can carry it home without the risk of smudges and mess.  I took a selection of brushes and palette knives and also a water bottle for extra cleaning.  I did not forget the paper towel (indispensable, this stuff).  Off I went into the wheat fields, feeling like a modern day Vincent.

Here’s what I found out can go wrong.  For a start, acrylic paint drys in air and its rate of drying depends on the moisture content of the air.  For me, with the weather as it was, this varied wildly.  Consequently, so did the drying time of my paint on the canvas and the brushes.  Nightmare.  The canvas was either swimming in wet paint or else too dry to blend and work.  This really took some getting used to.

Secondly, the wind is not your friend.  I tried to weight my easel down with water slung from it, but the wind was stronger and the canvas wanted to attack me several times.  You need much more weight in strong wind.  A couple of litres of water would have done the trick, slung from and tied to the centre hinge of the easel, so that the water bottle gives the whole construction a low centre of gravity.  The wind also dries the paint quickly on the palette and on the brush, which with a fan brush, becomes a nasty problem quickly.  Oil paint would not have been so susceptible to moisture and wind, but then the painting doesn’t dry and you need to carry it back somehow without wearing it or damaging the work.  I have an idea about how to solve this, but that’s for another time.

Insects also attacked in swarms.  Avoid pasture where flies like to gather.  They can really distract you.

The light changes faster than you can imagine and I struggled to get the details of colour contrasts and shadows down quickly enough before they were irrevocably changed.

The sun can beat down on you and burn you, but luckily I didn’t have this problem.  There was cloud cover and I mostly painted in the late afternoon.  Rain is also problematic, but I avoided painting in the rain.  Not worth the hassle, at least in my view.

The biggest problem is cleaning your brushes before they dry and well enough so that they do not harden on the walk back home, before you can get back to civilization and clean them properly.  Using nylon bristles helps in this department, as they are reasonably tolerant of improper cleaning, at least for an hour or so.

Carrying all the gear can be a problem too, if you take too much.  This is especially true when your painting site is a long way away.  I got this about right, though I would take fewer colours next time (based on my choice of subject).  I would also not forget the Naples Yellow next time, as wheat fields benefit greatly from this colour.

I found that some of the acrylic colours (notably those based on phthalo green) bled into other colours on the more moist days.  There is no substitute for letting the stronger colours dry completely before you put lighter colours near or over the top.

Finally, with very small canvases (12 inch x 16 inch), painting landscapes can be hard if you cannot stipple to create leaves and textures.  That means you should take stippling fan brushes, deer’s foot brushes and other brushes good for texturing and stippling.  I didn’t and had to make do with brights and filberts, which didn’t give me the details I was looking for.  I’ll know better next time.  Terry Harrison’s brushes are a good idea.

Finally, I found that a little acrylic heavy structure gel gives a better result than just plain old W&N acrylic paints.  Texture due to impasto effects works well on landscapes.

Would I do it again?  You bet, only changing things to make the acrylics stay open longer, with more stippling options and a few other tweaks to my kit.  I might even try oils.

It’s great fun and beats ordinary holiday snaps.  Give it a go!

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About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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