Not Plein Air

I have very mixed feelings about plein air painting. I love the idea of it. It sounds so … well, artsy.  In my imagination, I can see myself standing on a windswept prairie, a colorful scarf wrapped around my head, a thoughtful expression upon my face as I gaze at the wondrous scene before me. I have a paintbrush in my hand, I’m standing before my easel capturing all the nuances of the fresh morning air, the early sunlight, the breath-taking beauty of the world around me.

But that’s imagination. The reality — for me — is much different. Although I’ve done very little real plein air painting, I have tip-toed around the edges of it, and it’s not been an easy thing for me to do. I tend to forget things — like a palette or another necessity. I all but wear myself out just lugging all my equipment out to the car, driving to a painting location, and dragging everything out again to set up. And, of course, I’m hesitant about painting with people watching. I bluffed my way through it on my first outing, reciting phrases like, “Well, I try to paint what I feel more than what I see,” and silently gave thanks that my viewers — a couple out strolling through the park — caught me in the earliest stages of painting at a point where all I had was a lovely sky. Had they returned later, they would have seen a lovely mess!

My biggest concern when it comes to plein air painting is the simple fact that I can’t be trusted to draw what’s before my eyes. I remarked on this at an art club meeting, and I was assured that plein air paintings didn’t have to look exactly like the scene, but my fear goes a bit deeper than that. I’m not a good artist. My drawing skills are adequate but not great. What if I choose a scene that I simply don’t have the ability to draw or paint? How embarrassing!

That’s a bit how I felt when I attempted to paint a beautiful waterfall using my gansai. This was during our art club outing to the Arboretum. I enjoyed our field trip, and it helped me get past some of my plein air anxiety, yet still I would have liked to have been able to truly paint that waterfall, not just do a quick gansai color study that bears little resemblance to what I was looking at.

I know that drawing and painting in plein air would definitely help me become a much better artist. I’m coming to realize how important it is to sketch from life whenever possible instead of working with reference photos or creating imaginary scenes. And here’s the simple truth. If I want to learn to paint what’s in front of me, I have to get out there and do it. The only way to learn how to paint en plein air is by painting in plein air. Right? Right.

Well, yes, that’s right, really, but maybe I can still learn a few things even by painting indoors. That was the approach I took to today’s drawing assignment. I was supposed to get outdoors for my sketching, and I really would have loved to do just that. I am fairly comfortable sketching en plein air. It’s easy for me to grab a sketchbook, a couple pencils, an eraser, and a pencil sharpener and head out to the park. Sitting and drawing, I’ve learned, rarely attracts attention in the way painting at an easel does. Even though I sometimes encounter other hikers while I’m on the trails, I’ve never had curious onlookers peering over my shoulder to see my sketchbook.

Although I’d planned to get outside today for a bit of nature sketching, it didn’t happen. Even early in the morning, our temperatures were soaring. It was hot and humid. Oh, how much easier to stay inside and work from home. I’ll go plein air sketching another time, I decided. For today, I’d stay home and sketch a landscape using a reference photo.

I grabbed my phone and asked “Ms. Google” — our name for the Google Assistant — to show me landscape photos. I’d made an agreement with myself that I’d take the first one that came up. Here’s what appeared.

I can’t tell you much about this photo. Despite doing several web searches, I haven’t been able to identify it beyond saying that it’s obviously a botanical garden somewhere.

I was working only from a small image on my phone, and this was what I came up with:

This was instructive. Truly, it was.  I began by doing a graphite sketch. I started with the sky and then drew in the shapes of the trees along the horizon. I added foliage, trying to note where the shadows were.

The quick sketch, of course, was the easy part — at least as far as the background goes. I felt like I was on familiar ground. I’ve done a lot of quick sketches of a lot of trees and bushes, and my main objective here was to try to get the shapes right. I even shaded in a bit of shadows to the left of the trees, and I was feeling good about my progress. But then I came to the rest of the scene.

Oh, there’s a pathway there. Well, maybe I’ll just leave that out. 

And what is that weird black thing on the right? Oh, I can skip that. 

Wait! There’s a post sticking up there. And there’s another? Do I have to include those?

And just how am I supposed to draw — and later paint — all those flowers and grasses in the foreground? 

OK. Here’s the deal. One reason my plein air paintings will probably never look like what I’m painting is because I only want to paint the easy things. I want to just skip over or leave out anything I’m not sure how to draw or paint.

Later, when I uploaded the photo to my computer and saw it enlarged, I realized there are several more posts there, along with a fence, and I can get a better look at that strange “black thing” at the right. There’s a lesson to be learned here, too, of course. We can’t paint what we can’t see or identify, and this is one of the reasons why painting from reference photos is not always ideal. I should have enlarged the photo before I started drawing, but this “drawing assignment” was about sketching very quickly. I did the best I could to draw what I could see in the small photo on my phone.

As I realized how much I wanted to just leave out, I shook my head. This was originally supposed to be a plein air exercise, and the one thing I really want to learn is how to paint what I see in front of me. So, I made myself add in the posts that I saw. I insisted on adding that weird black thing, and I just took a deep breath and tried to figure out some way to suggest all those flowers.

No, I wasn’t very successful at it, but I accomplished one thing I set out to do. I drew and painted what I saw to the best of my ability. I know at times it’s all right to simplify scenes by leaving out certain elements or that it’s fine to create a better composition by omitting or re-arranging landscape elements, but for this my intention was to paint what was there whether I liked it or not and whether I knew how or not.

In that, at least, I think I succeeded.

Learning to draw and paint isn’t necessarily a straight-forward line of progress, and in many ways it’s not always about the results we achieve with each drawing or painting we make. Art has a lot to teach us, and there are many ways to get to where we want to go. One objective for me is to get out en plein air, to get over those anxious feelings, to find ways to make plein air painting an easier process. I’m working on it, and even though this little gansai painting in my sketchbook is (a) not a work of art, and (b) was not even done en plein air, it’s gone a long way toward helping me pack up my paints and get outside.





  1. Sigh…

    I thought we just covered this very subject a few days ago? What was it you realized, “art is an illusion”? File this post along with the prior one.

    Re: the embarrassment of plein air painting in front of others… who cares? Seriously, this is like going to the gym/jogging/riding a bike while carrying some extra pandemic weight, who the eff cares? If you don’t get out there and actually do it, you’ll always find an excuse to keep from doing something that you’ll enjoy immensely.

    I absolutely LOVE plein air painting! Do I do it enough? No. In fact, if I had my way, I’d be painting outside every single day of the year, including during the winter months. But I DO do it. And when I say I’m going to do so, you had better not be standing in my way.

    Re: hauling everything but the kitchen sink out for plein air painting. Yes, you can do this… but I’ve found that it provides incentive for excuses and not actually getting out and painting. My experience? I used to drag a full-sized tripod, a stretched full-sized piece of watercolor paper on a heavy panel, my entire watercolor kit, extra water, extra paper towels, etc. and ride on my BICYCLE to where I wanted to paint. And this is one of my plein air paintings from that period:

    My solution now is to use a plein air watercolor painting kit that I put together, so that everything is small enough to fit into a waist pack. And that includes absolutely everything that I need for painting in the field – all the art supplies, extra water, towels, watercolor paper, everything.

    Re: the painting not looking anything like the subject. Again, who the eff cares? It’s YOUR painting! Think of it as a color study. Just block out chunks of color in rough shapes, using a 5-minute timer to make yourself hurry and keep everything loose – and have fun! Want to add more detail? Bump up the timer to 15-minutes or so, but don’t get lost in the weeds trying to create reality on your paper or canvas. Work small – start with 3”x5” or 4”x6”, which helps to keep from going overboard on detail and effort.

    I will post my own plein air watercolor painting kit tomorrow for people to see, just so you can understand how small and compact it is.

    You can do it!

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thanks for the encouragement. I especially like the “start small” idea, so I’ll be heading out with a 4 x 6″ canvas panel on my next trip. I’ve put together a little “gansai watercolor”kit that I take with me to art club meetings. Because we can’t meet in our usual room at the library due to Covid restrictions, we’re meeting at the park, and that is giving me a chance to do a little plein air watercolor, and I am getting more comfortable with that. But I want to do oils. That’s what is bogging me down a bit. I haven’t yet found an easy way to transport everything, but, yeah, that’s mostly an excuse. I should probably put together a “plein air palette” with primary colors, a white, and maybe Payne’s Gray and probably a sienna. Got any suggestions along those lines? A jar for water. A bit of medium. Again, got any suggestions? (I’m using water-mixable oils.) Plenty of rags. I’m messy. A way to transport the painting home. Plus a lightweight easel… something this 99-pound great-granny can easily move about.

      I know, I know. Stop making excuses and just go do it. Today is booked, and I’ll be out of town tomorrow, so I’ll plan on Thursday morning at the lake.

      My new “hurry, hurry” drawing style has helped with sketching, so maybe taking that same approach with blocking in an oil painting will be useful too.

      I’ll do this. And I’ll share the results LOL.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Remember, you asked for it – this guys does oil paintings from an Altoid mints tin!

        So does she!

        If you Google “tiny plein air oil painting” you can find a bunch of ideas (kitchen fridge magnets for one), as well as “tiny plein air oil painting in an altoid tin” which results in a bunch of articles about oil painting in miniature.

        I know that there are special plein air oil field kits:

        – One type is called a pochade, which can be mounted on a photography tripod, and it can carry your colors, brushes and other supplies – plus a canvas or canvas board with paint on it, so the painting is protected during transport to-and-from the painting destination. These are available in whatever size you want your canvas to be, but they aren’t expandable to larger sizes if you change your mind later.

        – The other type is called a French easel or half-French easel (both of which are much smaller than normal portable easels) – which can pack everything except the canvas or board into a small (relatively speaking) package for getting yourself outside. This is a good option for allowing you to use whatever size canvas you want, but then you have to figure out how to protect the canvas on your own.

        I never got into oil painting, simply because of the long drying times and difficulty in cleaning up. Watercolor – on the other hand – has always appealed to me because it’s so very portable by comparison, and it can dry in a flash.

        Another idea regarding oil painting… have you tried oil pastels? There are also “oil paint sticks”, though I don’t know how they differ from oil pastels. Both of those would offer you portability and convenience over oil tubes.

        Your choice of water-mixable oils is a good one for plein air painting.

        Another thought for transporting oil painting gear is some sort of wheeled device, which you can drag behind you to your painting location, like rolling luggage. Don’t focus on an expensive design-driven solution… think about hacking something into a solution that works for you. Rolling laptop bags are an excellent solution and can be found pretty cheap. Another solution is a rolling grocery cart or tote, which may be even better.

        For small paintings, I like using watercolor postcards – which are the perfect size – plus you can send them in the mail to friends and family, or mount them on larger blank cards for a more formal presentation.

        Anyway, I’ll have my post on the subject up by tomorrow morning.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I think as long as I plan on “staying small” I’ll be able to figure out a good transport system. I’m going to plan out a “minimalist” palette, choose a good brush or two, and pack along a bottle of water. I’m also thinking of using my cold wax medium so I don’t have to mess with oils or mediums that can spill. Now, the next trick is getting it all into one of my little sportscars LOL. For a 4 x 6, I think I can actually use my little box easel — and store my paints inside.

        What is that old saying about ‘getting there is half the fun”… or did I just make that up?

        Really, when I think about working on a small scale, it all seems so much more do-able.

        What time will your post be up? I’ll be going out of town early and will be gone most of the day. If I miss it before I leave, I’ll catch it tomorrow evening.

        Thanks for pushing me!

        Liked by 2 people

      1. Sure thing! You can see all of the art I’ve posted so far at the following link:

        Most of what I’ve shared is small-scale watercolor paintings, but I have a couple of others there as well. And you can see that with the plein air paintings (at least the ones after the cherry blossom painting) I practice what I preach – I don’t lavish them with detail, and they are all painted quickly… roughly 15-to-30 minutes, if that.

        Liked by 3 people

  2. He’s right. You can do it and there is a great advantage over working from a photo. With the photo you might think you have to paint the odd black shape but in plein air you can ignore it. Plein air will improve your skill fast and make you feel good physically and mentally. I know it’s not for everyone. A lot of artists are too shy to start but it gets easier and the people think your painting is great even if you don’t, so don’t disillusion them.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks. I’m going to go small like Mitch suggested, take a 4 x 6 canvas, a few oil paints, and a bit of medium and head out on Thursday morning. Be watching for the results! 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I think that’s been one of my problems — always trying to work a little larger. After doing that “index card” oil project last year, I got to be very comfortable with painting small landscapes. Now, it’s sounding like fun, and even if I mess up… well, it’s just a little 4 x 6 so who cares? I like that attitude. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. The whole art game is depending on your attitude. And it’s true, no one really cares what you do out there. They just admire someone who tries, if they notice at all. But they are doing their own thing too and might not see you or if they do see you they don’t register it mentally. It’s liberating when you realize you’re invisible anyway. hahah

        Liked by 3 people

  3. Very interesting!! I think it looks good -👏👏👏- and your subsequent indoor work, too. Re working outside: I’ve never & won’t. Nope. But I don’t do landscapes. As for being watched while you work? LOL – totally understood. But I think you’ll figure out your best way to do things and to move forward. 🤗

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m getting more relaxed out of doors. I do a lot of sketching outdoors, and nobody ever bothers me then, so I’m very comfortable with that. Lately I’ve been doing a lot more gansai/watercolor painting outdoors, usually with our art club, so people sometimes look but they know I’m not a watercolor artist, so it doesn’t make any difference. Oil painting? That’s different. When I have gone out plein air with oils, I’ve had curious onlookers. I’ve dealt with it, but that’s because they’re strangers. I would be embarrassed for any of my art club friends to watch me do an oil, especially plein air where they knew what I was trying to paint. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  4. i absolutely love painting outdoors..i took to it the very first time i tried and was soon addicted.I started with acrylics though and this appears to be watercolor? i have only tried that once( even though watercolor is now my favorite medium- which took 3 years as well).I guess for me it’s being able to breathe and feel the environment up close and personal. That doesnt mean i dont take photos and work out the details later at times. But yeah- it is still a learning process. I felt like i was dragging half my studio with me. eventually i learned that if i have several “bags” prepared and at the ready for each type of art i do, it goes much better. First came the deciding what to put into each -i have a plien air “bag” ( a fold up cart with huge wheels that works as a table, a chair and and area for bringing materials), i have a figure drawing bag for those sessions at a local venue, a watercolor box that i keep at work with all the stuff i need, and a fold up table, and a sketch book with some pencils that i keep in my car for quick ones if i have a spontaneous opportunity. I could get more detailed about what goes into them but i believe thats a learning process for each individual. For instance, some plien air sites i need more, or less, items. or different ones but the basics remain the same.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m going to go out tomorrow morning bright and early… well, early, at least. I doubt that it will be too bright. My plan is to head out at dawn. I’m not sure if I’m going to use watercolor or oil pastel. I’m leaning toward the oil pastels right now since I haven’t used that medium in ages! I think it might be fun.

      Plus, our friend Mitch from AEtherPx posted a great look at his “field kit” today, so check it out. The two of you can compare notes. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. My Thursday outing was not good LOL… I really struggled. You’ll read about it in tomorrow’s post. I’ve definitely learned a lot of what NOT to do, so I can start working on what I should do now.

        Liked by 1 person

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