What I Learned in My Second Season as a Plein Air Newbie

 Painting outdoors at Three Fox Vineyard in Deplane, VA

Painting outdoors at Three Fox Vineyard in Deplane, VA

If you follow me on Facebook or Instagram, you have probably heard me talk about the Loudoun Sketch Club. A lot. I really love this club. Every week, we get to go draw, paint and photograph at the most stunning places in and around Loudoun County, VA. Most of them are private properties where the owners have graciously allowed us to set up our easels and paint, draw or photograph the day away. Then we get to share these beautiful places with the world through our art. One of the things I love the most about this group, is that every single one of the artists and photographers in the group is incredibly generous with their knowledge. Each week, I learn something new from one of my fellow artists, be it a cool new art tool, or an intriguing technique or the name of an artist I am unfamiliar with. Every week is a new adventure.

 Plein air painting in Faquier county VA. I often work on two paintings at the same time when painting outdoors.

Plein air painting in Faquier county VA. I often work on two paintings at the same time when painting outdoors.

My second season as a member of the club has just ended, and I have been reflecting on all I have learned this year. Last year, I did not bring my easel and paints out with me. Instead, I spent each outing sketching and taking photos. This year, I took my easel and paints with me whenever possible.  I still have a great deal to learn about the challenges of painting outside, but here are the things I've learned this year.

Paint fast and loose - because your light or the weather can change rapidly. I will be working on this one for a long time to come. Perhaps next year I will bring palette knives instead of brushes. 

Find a shady spot, and get an umbrella - On more than one occasion this year, I had to stop before my painting was done, because I was set up in the sun and it was too hot. I always wear a hat with a brim to shade my face when I'm in the sun, but sometimes, that is not enough.

Work small - I bring a small selection of canvas panels with me, and usually work on either two small paintings or one larger one. I never work on anything bigger than 8x10," because I want to finish my painting in one outing, or at least get it to the point where it has only a few details to add back at the studio.

 These are some of the things I bring with me when I paint outdoors.

These are some of the things I bring with me when I paint outdoors.

Bring less stuff.- This is probably the most important lesson I learned this year. When I first went out with the club last year, I brought so many supplies, I had to make more than one trip back to my car.  Sometimes, I choose to paint far from where we are allowed to park, so I've been learning to consolidate and each time, I bring less stuff. When I am running low on a tube of paint, I get a fresh one for the studio, and keep the mostly used up one in my plein air pack. I don't run the risk of running out of the color, since I tend to paint pretty small when outdoors, and it makes for a much lighter backpack. On my very first sketch club outing, I brought along 5 sketchbooks. FIVE! Why? Who knows, but now I limit myself to one small one and some pens. Some days, I go out only with my sketchbook and gouache, and on those days, I bring a bigger sketchbook and a chair or picnic blanket to sit on. 

These are the things I currently bring with me:

  • Paint - partly used tubes of the colors I just can't live without. I bring two ziplock bags of paint - one for warm colors and one for cool. I should probably winnow down the list of colors I must have with me, but its hard for me to leave any favorites home. 
  • Brushes - Again, I need to winnow down this pack too,especially since I tend to only use two or three of the brushes I bring with me.
  • Water containers - When painting outdoors, you don't always have access to water, so i always bring my water with me. I bring two containers with screw on lids - each are filled with clean water. I bring one out to the painting site with me and leave the other in the car. If I need to change my paint water, I just bring the dirty one back to the car and get the clean one. You should never pour out your paint water onto the ground, as that is rude to your hosts and bad for the environment. I always take my dirty paint water with me to clean up at home. 
  • Paint rags - I prefer to use old towels and washcloths, but I also bring a few paper towels for messier clean ups.
  • Sunblock and bug spray - Lyme disease is a very big problem where I live, and I take it seriously. I use bug spray with DEET on my pants and shoes, and if I'm in an area where the grass is high, I pull my socks up over my pants legs or wear boots. I have an all natural bug spray that I use on my face and arms - mostly to keep the gnats at bay. I once had to spray it on my paint palette because the bright colors were attracting some bugs looking for pollen!
  • Spray bottle with water and paint retarder- I learned this year why most plein air painters use oils. Even with my trusty Masterson Stay Wet Palette ,  I found my paint dried up way too fast; especially if I was painting in the sun. I plan to try Golden Open acrylics next year.
  • Easel or Pochade Box - I currently have a french easel like this one , but it is heavy, a pain to set up, and it wobbles in the wind. I am dreaming of a pochade box that attaches to a camera tripod. 
  • Cell Phone with full battery - At the very least, you will want this to take photos of your work in progress, or the scene you are painting in case you need to finish back at the studio, but it is always a good idea to have a way to contact someone if you need to.

If you are a newbie plein air painter like me, I hope this gives you some ideas. If you have been painting outdoors for a while, I would love to hear about  your experiences. What am I forgetting? What else can I leave out of my backpack? What are your favorite supplies?  I would love it if you leave any advice you have for me in the comments.