Monday, April 4, 2016

En Plein Air

Spring is here and getting outside is at the top of my list. Nothing compares to painting from life! Today I'm going to share my experience with you.
I’ve sketched and painted on location for many years. I delight in knowing the light, weather or other conditions can change at a moments notice.  This creates a sense of urgency I don’t get in the studio. I also enjoy being immersed in what’s happening around me (hearing chatter from a nearby restaurant, smells in the air, feeling the temperature on my skin, interacting with fellow artists, students and onlookers). I’m aware not all painters share my passion for working outdoors. I wasn’t always comfortable either, but over time my skills improved and so did my comfort level. Now it’s my favorite way to work. 

Over the years I’ve learned many lessons. When I arrive on location the first thing I do is walk around for 5 to 15 minutes.  This is when I get a “sense” of  place. Until I explore, I don’t know what options are available. When I find something that really excites me (such as the light, shadows, color, or a particular view) I’ve found my subject.  Next I need to ask myself, how much time is available? It’s important to have realistic expectations. How much time does it take to do a quick sketch compared to a finished watercolor? How much time do I have before the light changes or I need to leave? If I have realistic expectations, I can very likely complete what I start.  Otherwise, I will become frustrated and feel my skills are lacking, when in fact, I didn’t allow enough time.

It’s important to note the position of the sun, and how it will move and 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

Be careful not to let the sun directly hit your paper. It’s alarming how many people allow this!
Not only does direct sunlight make it difficult to judge values and color the light reflects 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.

I belong to a group of painters called, Thursday’s En Plein Air. We meet once a week at locations in and around the Pasadena area, with further excursions in the summer. This group is important to me for many reasons. I enjoy the fellowship of the other painters. Too much time alone in a studio isn’t healthy. It’s enriching to see how each person approaches the location differently.

I’ve always had a painting partner and suggest others do the same. I do not encourage anyone to
work alone en plein air, especially women.  When painting we become oblivious to traffic, loose dogs, sprinklers, unscrupulous people...  An extra set of eyes is always advised.  And of course it’s more fun to share the experience. If you are alone I suggest you sit in a safe place such as a street cafĂ©.

I consider my plein air watercolors complete as they are.  Sometimes a piece will inspire me to explore the subject further. When this happens I’ll refer to the original plein air piece for color, reflective light and shadows. It’s almost impossible to achieve the same freshness of a piece painted on location so I will intentionally change the design enough to bring something new to it. I might use a location photo for additional information, if needed. In my studio I prefer using my larger Pike palette. I like the large flat surface for mixing washes. My brushes vary in size and materials (rounds and flats). I prefer Arches 140lbs. cold press. I work on loose sheets clipped to a board and stretch if necessary when finished.

Plein Air Supplies
I have a neck and shoulder problem so I keep my equipment light and portable as possible. I enjoy the freedom of being able to move to new sketching spots easily. I would rather create multiple smaller watercolor sketches that express the feeling of a place than come away with a larger half finished painting. I carry all my painting supplies in my Sketch-Bag called a Rigger Bag. Found at Harbor Freight Tools. A light weight chair called Roll-a-Chair. I rarely use an easel and never an umbrella.

Palette:  I have a couple different palettes for working outside: Heritage Palette & Palette Box by Craig Young

Paint: My paints are Daniel Smith Watercolors unless noted differently. I may add or subtract colors.
Hansa Yellow Medium
Raw Sienna (Winsor Newton)
Quinacridone Gold
Permanent Yellow Deep
Anthraquinoid Scarlet
Permanent Alizarin Crimson
Quinacridone Rose
Ultramarine Violet
French Ultramarine
Phthalo Blue GS
Cobalt Blue
Manganese Blue Hue
Cobalt Teal Blue
Phthalo Turquoise
Green Gold
Phthalo Green (BS)
Quinicradone Sienna
Transparent Red Oxide or 
Burnt Sienna (Winsor Newton)
Lunar Black

Brushes: Rounds: assorted sizes 6 to14. 
                Flats: Da Vinci Series 5080 size 20mm, and ¼ inch flat stiff brush for lifting.

Watercolor Sketchbooks: I make my sketchbooks with Bockingford 140lbs watercolor paper and Canson pastel paper (tan, creme, and grey tones). Learn more here I also use the Stillman & Birn Sketchbooks (Beta series).

Pencils & Erasers: 2B or 4B pencil. Knead able or white eraser. 

Miscellaneous Items:  Clips, paper towels for clean up, water bottle and container, small spray bottle, sun hat, sunglasses, sunscreen and camera. 

Happy Painting!


  1. Thank you Brenda! So interesting to hear how you approach your plein air paintings and it will help the rest of us be a little more brave in trying it. I especially like the two photos showing what you are looking at as well as your finished sketch. Love your blogs - love your paintings - would love more of both!!

  2. I have taken a class from you at Dillman's in Wisconsin a few years back. Loved loved loved it.
    I think about it often and use my notes and your books a LOT. Lately I have been exploring what is being called "urban sketching". Now I think what you do and what is described is very much a like or at least the definition is easily stretchable. "Documenting your life is the key to urban sketching and urban sketches tend to put a lot of people and architecture into their work. I'd love to hear you comment more about urban sketching.

    1. there is a difference between the two. Urban sketchers are about sketching. When I paint on site I am often taking the piece to a greater degree of completion.

    2. ... Remember that the term or name used, urban sketchers is used to define what they do. I don't think it's something to get concerned with as far as terminology. I am called an urban sketcher and a plein air painter.

  3. The two books I am using to study urban sketching are Urban Sketching: the complete guide to techniques (Thomas Thorspecken) and Sketching People: An urban sketchers manual to drawing figures and faces by Lynne Chapman.

  4. Brenda, I always enjoy your posts and learn so much from them. I have had the riggers bag for several years and just bought one for a friend today for her birthday. Our do you attach the patches to the bag. It seems impossible to sew them on, we are thinking perhaps some sort of glue??? Many patches today have an adhesive on the back, but not sure it would hold. We are planning a rigger bag decorating occasion and would appreciate your expert advice

    1. A bag decorating party...what fun! I sewed my patches on which no fun. Other have used a special fabric glue. Unfortunately I don't recall the name of the glue. I think Michael Art supply carries it and it's a fast drying fabric glue. Have fun =)

  5. I love your carry-all rigger satchel. I have been using a Land's End canvas tote for my supplies. It works, but yours gives more of a visual to what you have with you to use. Thanks!

  6. Thanks Brenda - you are so generous in sharing :-) so instructive in hearing what you do and what you use! I love painting en plein air - so glad spring is here!! - but I tend to forget about the changing light... and other things... your tips are so helpful :-)

    1. Anita, Nice to hear my tips were helpful. I've learned a lot over the years...trial and error ;-)

  7. Hi Brenda,
    Thanks for all your tips. The only thing I wish is that you offer more I wanted to sign up but they are full. Your work is so wonderful, no wonder you're in great demand!

    1. Debbie, You're very kind. Hope we have a chance to sketch/painting together one day!

  8. Hi Brenda. I find it hard to sit in a little camp chair (had a hip replacement) and prefer to stand when plein air painting. do you ever use an easel for that and if so, what kind?

    1. Patsy, A good, lightweight easel is the “en plein air pro”.
      Happy painting!