Welcome to Part III of the multi-part guide Your Summer Art Guide full of great ideas to enliven your art practice this summer! If you are looking for ways to get out of the studio and spice things up, look no further!
We recently looked at maintaining an art practice during overseas travel, by using sketchbook and taking great reference photos for painting, and family vacations or cottage trips, by integrating your family and friends into your art-making. Today we’re going to look at another common summer holiday scenario, and a related art practice: plein air painting.
Scenario #3: Road Trip or Camping
Travel style: You’ve got wheels and a trunk!
Luggage: Several bags. Whatever there’s room to throw in.
In this scenario, having a car means that you can bring a few more items with you than you would if you’re backpacking or traveling by plane. You may have room for a portable easel, a palette, and a small set of oil or acrylic paints. This means that, in addition to keeping a sketchbook and taking photographs (see Scenario #1: The Overseas Dream Trip), you can do en plein air (“open air”) studies – in other words, painting outdoors on location. How fun!
A Visual Introduction to Plein Air Painting
What is Plein Air Painting?
Just a fancy French term which means painting out of doors or in the ‘open air’. Plein air painting is about getting out of your studio and into the world! Making your practice mobile! Which is perfect for when you are on vacation. In fact, it adds a whole other dimension of meaningful, creative activity to any trip.
Why Paint Outdoors?
There are countless reasons, but just to name a few:
1. Connect with your surroundings.
Painting outside is a wonderful way of connecting with nature or your surroundings. It allows us to slow down and take in what’s around us through close observation, something we don’t often have the chance to do in our hectic lives. The places I’ve drawn or painted on location are etched in my mind. I vividly remember the details of the experience: the kind of day it was, the feel of the air, the sights and sounds.
2. The Study of Light.
It also gives you a chance to study the effects of light on your surroundings. These will change with a variety of factors, including the weather, the time of day, the season, and the atmospheric conditions. Painting outside will give you a better understanding of how light and shadow work, which can be applied to your studio practice.
The impressionists were fascinated by light, particularly its ethereal qualities. They were the first group to systematically abandon their studios in favor of painting en plein air. Monet, in particular, was obsessed with painting the same scenes multiple times in different conditions.
3. Direct painting.
Plein air paintings have a fabulous fresh quality that is difficult to achieve with a more labored painting. That said, your beautiful paint sketches can, of course, be used as studies for larger works done in the studio. This is what Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven did, as well as Spanish artist Joaquín Sorolla. But their plein air paintings, loose and lovely, are appreciated as works of art in themselves. In many cases, I actually prefer them.
4. Opportunities for engagement.
When you paint outside, especially if you are in a crowded place, like a local park or a street corner, people will stop to watch what you’re doing and maybe even ask you questions. See it as a chance to engage with your community. Don’t be shy! As artists we are often isolated in our studios, so getting to connect with others is important. If you’ve never done it before, trust me: people are very kind and will be excited by what you’re doing. They may even ask to take your photo.
Use sketches in oil or acrylic paint as a form of visual note-taking, to capture not only the quality of light, but also true color and a sense of space. Many people think that a photo is more accurate than the human eye. But the camera, unfortunately, doesn’t see like the eye. It flattens the image and it changes color. It will often darken shadows, eliminating color cues, and wash out light areas. Therefore relying on your first-hand experience will bring more life to your paintings, even if you use reference photos later as source material.
As you have probably sensed already, painting outside of the studio doesn’t necessarily mean painting traditional landscapes. The subject matter is quite up to you! Here are just a few ideas:
- old buildings with interesting architecture or other cityscapes
- seascapes, beach scenes
- city parks or public gardens
- outdoor cafés and terraces
- night scenes
- your street or your house
- abstract compositions inspired by the colors or movement of nature
Materials for Plein Air Painting
Generally plein air paintings are quite small, no larger than about 10 x 12 in., but typically 8 x 10 in. or as small as 6 x 8 in. There are no rules, of course. It is mainly a question of transport and of time. It may be difficult to finish a large painting in just a few hours, so keep that in mind.
- optional: a portable easel or plein air (pochade) travel box. These come in many varieties (see below). If you don’t have an easel, don’t sweat it: paint on a picnic table or prop your painting up with a rock
- canvas boards, wood panels, or masonite (small & pre-gessoed)
- a set of paints (the small tubes are great, but if you only have large ones bring them!)
- a few paint brushes
- a palette (wood or plastic)
- containers (yogurt containers for acrylic, or glass jars with lids for oil)
- soap or brush cleaner; rags or paper towel
- mediums (taltine or odourless solvent and linseed oil for oil paint). If you are using oil, use a medium (like liquin or galkyd) to speed its drying time
- wet panel carrier (optional). Many pochade boxes come with a built-in panel holder
Portable or “field” easels come in many varieties, from the classic French easel to lightweight aluminum tripod easels. Travel boxes are often called “pochade boxes.” Each type has advantages and disadvantages.
For a full guide to plein air painting see my upcoming post.
Abstract Painting Inspiration
If you are interested in abstract painting, look to your surroundings for things like line, rhythm and color clues. Take compositional ideas from nature.
Taking Reference Photographs
Keep my previous tips in mind for taking reference photos, and don’t be afraid to get a few shots from the car window. Combined with a few notes and sketches, these can make great paintings.
Monica Tap, a contemporary Canadian painter, has made several series of work in which the paintings are based on single, blurred film stills of video taken from cars and buses, which freeze motion and offer a sense of the captured moment. It goes to show that sometimes motion or even graininess in an image can actually serve your work.
If you are going to be camping here are a few ideas of possible subjects:
- caravans, tents
- lakes, forests and mountain scenery
- the campfire
- the night sky
- your travel vessel
Finally, be sure to bring along your sketchbook! You’ll find plenty of opportunities to sketch or brainstorm ideas while you’re in the car or lounging in a hammock.
You may want to check out my Pinterest collections “Plein Air”
and “Landscape Painting” for ideas and inspiration. There’s something for every taste. You’ll discover many artists who paint the landscape using different styles and techniques.
[pin_board url=”http://www.pinterest.com/ohshepaints/plein-air/” size=”custom” image_width=”100″ board_width=”600″ board_height=”280″]
[pin_board url=”http://www.pinterest.com/ohshepaints/landscape-painting/” size=”custom” image_width=”100″ board_width=”600″ board_height=”280″]
That’s it for now! I hope that your holiday planning is going well. Are you inspired to bring your paints on your next camping trip and try some plein air sketches this summer?