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Plein Air Tips and Tricks

If you're an avid outdoor painter - aka, Plein Air painter - then this blog might be redundant for you. But if you've only been painting outdoors for a few months or even a few years, then read on!

Here's the challenge - chasing the light in the wind, rain, or blasting sun. You can face bugs, bears, and bystanders either wasting precious time or just standing in your way. You face fast drying paint or if working oils, working wet on wet so it's nearly impossible to start over. Every brush stroke counts. Every minute counts. So below are some invaluable tips!


  • If at all possible, scout out the location before you get there. If you know the area, then you are not wasting time picking a spot and possibly losing precious time.

  • Choose a shady spot where light isn't bouncing around your palette and canvas, which confuses putting down accurate values. Shade on a hot day also keeps you physically cool.

  • Know where the wind is coming from and pick a spot that might shelter your from the wind, or else tie you're gear down according to the wind direction.


  • Remember the shade we talked about earlier. it's not always possible to be in a shady spot. So, pack a hat, sunscreen, and umbrella. There are plein air specific umbrellas that can attach to easels so head over to a local art store or order one online. I've gotten burned too many times!

  • Choose your easel based on your needs. If you're an avid hiker, you'll need something lightweight that fits into your backpack so you can trek long distances and is easy to pack up in case of animal encounters or quick changes in weather. But it you're a tailgate painter (one who drives to the location and only walk a short distance), then a larger pochade box or French easel might be just fine.

  • Snacks and water. Before you know it, you've been painting for a few hours, hiking maybe, and still have to pack everything away and travel home. It's easy to get light headed and dehydrated so accommodate that.

  • Pack light. Bring a max of two canvases just in case things are going well and you have time for two. If you're a watercolour artist, you have less to weight to worry about already:)

  • Don't bring every single brush you have - Maybe pick 5 max.

  • Wet panel carrier or something to bring paintings home whether your work in watercolour or acrylic or oil.

  • a tripod chair if you cannot stand for hours or have no other place to sit. Again, this depends on whether or not you're hiking long distance and how much weight you can handle, or if you're driving up to location.

  • I'm pretty sure this is intuitive, but you'll need to clean up your stuff. Don't forget a garbage back, paper towels, water or solvent containers that seal well!


  • Deal with composition first and use a viewfinder if you have issues narrowing down the landscape in front of you. You also have the liberty to move objects around as you see fit if you think it will make the composition better - no one's going to go to that exact site and compare your painting - so make it yours!

  • draw out your composition and locate the shadows first because those will change fast! If you're working in oils and acrylic, work dark to light. This is not the case with watercolour, but if you have your shadows planned out, then you know where they'll go as you start layering your darks.

  • Concentrate on VALUE over colour. Colour will fall into place if you know where your dark, medium and light values occur. You don't even have to copy the colours you see in the moment. If you want to capture the mood of the moment, you can choose whatever colours you want in order to say that, so long as the values read correctly. If you need to do a quick value sketch before getting into your canvas or watercolour, do it! Take the extra 5 minutes and scribble down the values and shapes to ensure you have a plan.

  • Say more with less. Simplify the scene into shapes of value and colour and use less brush strokes to do the job. Atleast at first. This might mean you start with a larger brush and if needed or desired, use your smaller brush to add very discretionary details.

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