This Is Why I Don’t Do Plein Air

One thing that would help me in my art is plein air painting. It’s been suggested to me many times, and the art groups I belong to occasionally hold plein air sessions. I conveniently manage to be busy on those days simply because I don’t want to embarrass myself.

I would like to get comfortable with painting on location, though. It would be a huge step forward for me. So, now and then, I force myself outdoors — but usually no farther than our porch. Last summer I grew quite comfortable with drawing out of doors, and I looked forward to my “nature drawing time” each day.

Going outside to draw is simple. I grab a sketchbook and a pencil. Going outside to paint is a bit more complicated.

So when I decided to get out of the house and into nature today, I wanted to make things as easy for myself as possible. Instead of gathering up oil paints, brushes, and the rest of the paraphernalia a good artist needs, I chose a much easier route. Or so I thought, at least. I took a 12 x 16 canvas — one already toned with a lovely yellow acrylic — put it in my shoulder bag, and then grabbed a charcoal kit. What I planned, you see, was to just sketch out the basic elements of a scene on my canvas. Later, with the help of a photo reference, I could complete the painting at my easel.

Yeah, right. As you can see, I wasn’t very successful in sketching anything!

PAP (2)
I’m calling this one “Charcoal Mess” for obvious reasons.

I know. You can’t tell what it’s supposed to be. That’s all right. Neither can I.

I made this “Charcoal Mess” at a nearby place called “Lord’s Park”. I chose that location because it’s never busy in the summer. Other than a swing set and one shelter house with a grill, there’s really nothing there except trees surrounded by lots of lush greenery. I knew I could visit the park and not have a lot of curious onlookers peering over my shoulder to see what I was doing.

In the winter, however, it all changes. Lord’s Park is home to “Sledding Hill”, the place to go if you want all the thrills, chills, and spills of sliding down one long, steep slope.

Lords Park Winter

To reach the top of that slope, you climb up a long stairway. That’s what you’re seeing in my Charcoal Mess. You’re actually seeing it in two different places, because I struggled with figuring out exactly where it was supposed to go. If at first you don’t succeed, you know.

The stairway looks rather forlorn in the summer. It’s overgrown and lots of that lush greenness hangs down and around, almost obliterating the stairs from view.

pap1Here’s the first photo I took. Yes, it’s very blurry. I tried using the zoom feature on my smart phone, so it’s not a good image. I wasn’t planning to sketch from the photo. It was only for reference.

So I started sketching, beginning with the visible sections of the rails and stairs.

Why, oh, why, did I deliberately choose a scene with a man-made structure?  Definitely not a good idea, but I plodded along with my charcoal pencil, doing my best to draw what I saw.

Unfortunately I was seeing more than what’s shown in the reference photo. This is a real problem for me when I’m doing plein air painting. I can’t tell where the boundaries are. So as I sketched a bit more, I included some of the trees to the right of the stairway.

pap2Here’s another photo with an expanded view of the scene. Now you’ll see why I moved the stairway way over to the left. I liked the clump of trees I’d started sketching, and I wanted them in the picture.

Of course, that clump of trees is no longer recognizable in my “Charcoal Mess”, so don’t bother looking for them.

I was having problems with the charcoal pencils — ones from a General’s 12-piece kit.  Ordinarily I enjoy working with charcoal, but these pencils were extremely hard to use. I couldn’t get strong, consistent marks, so I put the pencils back and grabbed a thick piece of charcoal.

Now, how to illustrate all the leafy boughs and all that lush greenery I was seeing? I just started scribbling around, trying to suggest the shapes, adding in limbs here and there, and just making a big mess. I also tried to mark places where the grass was dappled with light. I tried to suggest the slope of the hill. I tried to show a bit of the path. But despite my best efforts — and yes, I really did try — all I had was that awful mess.

I had allotted myself an hour for sketching, but after about forty-five minutes, I gave up on the canvas. I’d made enough of a mess. That’s when I looked at my hands and realized I hadn’t brought anything to clean up with. No water. No rags. Not even a paper towel. The bathroom at the park was closed and locked, and there was no water fountain around. Yikes! I truly had a bigger mess on my hands than I’d thought!

Nothing to be done but live with it, though. I did walk up to the stairway and grabbed a couple photos:

And, yes, despite all the mis-steps of today’s sketching session, I’d still like to try drawing this stairway. The next time I feel like challenging myself with a drawing project, I’ll probably pull out one of these pictures.

With a few minutes to spare, I turned my attention to other little features in the park and did manage to do a nice charcoal sketch of an old stump. That made me feel better. It’s always nice to come away from a painting or drawing session feeling that I accomplished something.

And, in all honesty, in some perverse way, my “Charcoal Mess” has a certain charm about it. So, I packed it all up and headed to Wal-Mart for a bit of shopping.

First stop, the restroom! I felt a lot better about my drawing time once I’d washed my hands.

What will become of my yellow canvas with all those crazy scribbles? I don’t know. Maybe I’ll go ahead and use it, working from my expanded photo reference. Or maybe I’ll just hang it on the wall here in my little art room as a reminder of why I don’t do plein air. 






  1. Good for you for getting out there and having a go at it, Judith! While you were making those ‘scribbles’ as you call them, your brain was learning stuff! Maybe it would help you if you thought of the ‘live’ experience as gathering data for a more polished work, later? Seeing something in person allows a chance to figure out things like light and color and also the reality of perspective, foreshortening and focus…all the stuff that photographs tend to distort. If you do this kind of exercise regularly you will start to notice the drawbacks that photographic references contain, and also develop the knowledge to work around them! I know it’s frustrating, but, I do strongly encourage you to step outside your comfort zone from time to time and challenge yourself with this….and yes, I should listen to this advice more, myself, especially with drawing live people! Personally, I am not very fond of working where anyone might look over my shoulder, because the casual observer just does not understand what an artist is doing when they work en plein aire and I am uncomfortable with the idea of weird and judgey comments (not to mention how hard it is to participate in a conversation when I have just been deeply focused on what I am doing!!) I do find it easier to work in places that are very crowded with unaware people (airports!) and also from my car….Your very honest account of this experience just went a long way towards encouraging ME to get myself out there more often, who knows, maybe I WILL?! How about YOU? Do you dare to go back and give it another go????

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    1. Yes! I’m going to get back out there and try it again, especially as the seasons change and we have those lovely autumn days to enjoy. Part of my problem is that when I go somewhere, I don’t know what to draw or paint. That sounds silly, I suppose, but our parks seem to be nothing but lots of trees forming a green background — and nothing more. That’s one reason why I tried to focus on the stairway yesterday. It was at least something different from trees, trees, trees. I love trees, but when that’s all I see, they just become a bit of a blur with nothing distinct about them. Or maybe that’s just my inexperience talking. I do get frustrated trying to paint outdoors, and that’s largely because there’s so much involved in just getting there. Every time I’ve tried going out to paint, I’ve forgotten something, and that’s made it a lot less enjoyable. I am going to get back into my habit of sketching outdoors each day, and hopefully I’ll gradually move to doing some simple paintings — much like the one I did from our front porch recently. I’m thinking, too, of doing plein air paintings with watercolor. I’m terrible with watercolor, but I think it would be a good way for me to practice “sighting in” a view and learning to capture basic shapes. I have a convenient little set of Koi watercolors and water brushes that are very easy to transport. So, I’ll do a bit more outdoor drawing first, then try watercolor, and maybe by next spring I’ll have worked my way up to trying oils again. Keep pushing me! I appreciate it.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. That sounds like an excellent plan! I bet you find the watercolor grows on you, over time! I LOVE my little Windsor and Newton box, it’s so small it fits in my pocket (If you don’t have it already I would advise you to invest in a water-brush to go with your little Koi set) and above all, keep BLOGGING about your experiences …. always happy to chip in my 10 cents, Judith, especially if you think it HELPS!! 🙂

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  2. Actually, I quite like your “Charcoal Mess.” To me it shows you are trying to see, really see the way things are, not just draw the way you think things are supposed to look (or the way other people have drawn them). The drawing has what I would call “life.”

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    1. Yes, it does have some sort of life to it, so even though it’s a mess, I can find something valuable in it. That’s one reason why I’m thinking of just leaving it alone and hanging it here in my art room. It’s a mess, but it’s MY mess, and it means something to me. 🙂

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  3. When I was starting to paint in Plein air I always listened to my iPod. That helps you ignore people who might distract you. If they want to talk you can hear them, if not you don’t have to see them at all. You can be in your own private art zone. I like when people talk to me, though, since I’m alone most of the time.
    If you’re not sure what to paint take a sketchbook and do some roughs with charcoal on paper first.
    Oh yeah, I often forget to bring something I need too. That’s a pain.
    People will like to see you out doing art. You are braver than they are to try. Go back to it another time. It took me a couple years to get used to it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I will keep at it. I’ve gotten accustomed to going out with a pencil and sketchbook, but I’ve only drawn little things, not tried to sketch a complete scene. I thought maybe sketching with charcoal on my canvas panel would be a “next step” but I think working with charcoal and a sketchbook would be more comfortable. That’s what I’ll do next time. 🙂 Taking a little music and headphones along sounds like a nice idea, too. Thanks for suggesting it.

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  4. Personally I seldom ‘paint’ plein air, just because of all the stuff to carry. But I sketch. And for me it is about being out and just stopping here and there because something grabs me. I sometimes then use those sketches to do a painting. What I get from working from the sketches is very different than working from a photo. And take heart, it takes so long to work out what materials work for you when out and also what is that grabs you in that view, I’m still not there, I’m still such a long way off even though the fog is getting clearer. Maybe see you charcoal ‘mess’ equally as a jumping off point, often my very quick sketches are something like that, give yourself the freedom to turn it into something. And I do tend to opt for fairly lonely places or put myself so (against a wall or hedge) that people can’t come behind me. Maybe do it for the love of being outside and you just make the experience a little longer and deeper by doing a sketch or painting. Thank you for sharing.

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    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I do enjoy sketching outdoors, but painting seems like such a chore! Getting there, setting up, doing the painting, and then getting it all home again! It’s not easy. I’ve done a few paintings from sketches and photographs I’ve made from my outdoor art time. I will be doing more of that when autumn arrives and we have all those glorious fall colors. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I should have taken one with me, but I was doing my best to “travel light”. I could have used my hands as a sort of view finder, but I didn’t. I really need to work on focusing more. 🙂


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