En Plein Air is a French term meaning "in the open air" and is particularly used to describe the act of painting outdoors. When working En Plein Air I enjoy the freedom of being able to move around easily. I would rather create many watercolor sketches that express the feeling of a place than come away with one large half finished painting. This is what works for me and I encourage you to work in a size and manner that you like.
Assessing the Location When you arrive on location, the first thing to do is walk around for 5 to 15 minutes. This is when you get a “sense” of the place. Until you explore, you don’t know what options are available. When you find something that really excites you, such as the light, shadows, or a particular view, begin your sketch. It is a good idea to write down information about the time of day, weather conditions, people you meet, and so on. Write anything that helps jog your memory about the place.
Time of Day Look for the position of the sun, and how it will change the scene over a period of a couple of hours. If the subject will be in complete shadows shortly, it might not be a good choice. My favorite time of day to work on location is in the morning between 8:30am and 11:30am. The shadows are interesting and the light is clean and bright. As the sun moves towards midday the shadows are straight down and less exciting. In late afternoon the shadows are once again interesting, however, on warm days, it may be too hot.
Selecting the Right Approach When you set out to sketch or paint you need to ask yourself an important question, how much time is available? If you have realistic intentions, you can very likely complete what you start. Otherwise, you might become frustrated and feel your skills are lacking, when in fact, you didn’t allow yourself enough time. Be realistic, in how much time it takes for you to do a quick sketch compared to a finished watercolor.
Safety The number one priority is personal safety. I do not encourage anyone to work alone, especially women. I have always had a painting partner and suggest you do the same. When sketching or painting we become oblivious to traffic, loose dogs, sprinklers, unscrupulous people... An extra set of eyes is always advised. And of course it’s always more fun to share the experience. If you are alone I suggest you sit in a safe place such as a street café.
Eye Protection Wear good sunglasses. When working on a white surface (such as watercolor paper or sketchbooks) light reflects off the paper and into your eyes. It doesn’t take long to burn your corneas, and repeated exposure can cause serious eye problems. So, before you setup, make sure to position yourself in the shade, or turn your body so the light doesn’t directly hit your paper.
What I am listing here are my own favorite tools for sketching and painting outdoors. Please know this is only to get you acquainted with what works for me. I have found there is no magic brush or paint and what you are most comfortable with is most likely the best tool to use. Please don’t buy anything you don’t expect to use after the workshop.
Palette: Heritage Folding Palette with 18 wells. The lid seals and is great for travel.
Brushes: Rounds size 6 to14; flats size ½ inch and 1 inch and a small stiff brush for lifting techniques.
Niji Waterbrush: Brush handle is a hollow reservoir for water. When squeezed the water comes to the tip of the brush. Great for small, quick watercolor sketches.
Watercolor Sketchbooks: I make my own spiral bound sketchbooks with Bockingford watercolor paper and a few sheets of colored Canson pastel paper. Good store bought brands are Aquabee Super Deluxe 808, Arches and Canson. All have papers that are dense enough to handle washes of color without warping or bleeding through.
Pencils & Erasers: 2B or 4B pencils. Knead able or white eraser.
Water-Soluble Pens: Tombow pens have two tips one end has a stiff “nib” for drawing and a brush tip. I use colors that are more neutral (#947 Burnt Sienna) as they blend nicely into watercolors. Can be found at Michael’s Art Supply or on the internet.
Waterproof Pens:Pitt, Micron, fountain pen...I love pens and I use them all!
Chair: Folding travel stool. My favorite is a Roll-a-Chair. Some of the best ones are in camping supply stores.
Miscellaneous Items: Paper towels for clean up, water bottle and container, small spray bottle, sun hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, snack and camera.
I carry all my supplies in a single canvas bag.
I carry all my supplies in a single canvas bag.
I hope you are getting outdoors to sketch and paint. The days are long, the light is perfect and the world is waiting for you to explore it!
P.S. I am going to slip away for a bit on a grand adventure. I'll tell you all about it when I return. One hint: It is where the term En Plein Air originated.