Why in the World Would You Go Outside to Paint?

Plein air art, which is creating art outside in the open air, actually started on the walls of caves as far back as women started creating art (LOL...you see what I did there).

Creating blankets on looms, working with clay, weaving baskets, doing quill work on hides, knotting fibers for nets, hollowing out wood for tools, vessels and canoes, are all arts which, for most of their history, have been done outside.

More recently, plein air painting in Western art has been credited to the Impressionists. But, earlier artists, such as John Constable, also painted outside. The Impressionists popularized plein air painting.

Wivenhoe Park, Essex by John Constable. In the collection of the National Gallery of Art, DC. Oil on canvas, 1816.
Wivenhoe Park, Essex by John Constable.
In the collection of the National Gallery of Art, DC. Oil on canvas, 1816.

The availability of metal tubes for both oil and watercolor paint, as well as improvements in lightfastness, made the plein air experience more successful. Additionally, the camaraderie of the Impressionist painters, and their tendencies to paint together in groups, helped foster the plein air movement.

My set-up in Italy to paint. Usually I paint on a flat horizontal surface. But, sometimes I paint standing at an easel. And this actually is my set-up for oil painting — which I do infrequently.

As a plein air artist it means you gather your gear, head outside, plunk yourself down, and start observing. Notice the observing comes before the painting. Whether your choice of creative pursuits is oil or watercolor, photography or textiles, poetry or music, when outside you are now a citizen of the space on-the-other-side-of-the-doors; you are a visitor to the great open air.

I am painting en plein air in the woods in Ohio.

Don’t waste a minute of it. Your time outdoors is precious. So much time is spent inside.

First: slow down, breathe, look around, observe. Your pace and your role as a visitor to the great outdoors is different than when you are indoors. Here your role is as a student, a learner, a sponge. Don’t overthink it — in fact, don’t overdo any of it. Soak it in. Relax. Shut your eyes. Sense the environment. Allow your nose to pay attention. Smell the season. Listen to the citizens of this outside neighborhood.

I'm sketching the Claes Oldenburg "Spoonbridge and Cherry" sculpture at the Walker Art Museum, Minnesota.

When you are outside, you are at the mercy of the seasons, the weather, the ecosystem you are visiting. Sometimes I have been caught up in wind or rain storms. Once, I inadvertently disturbed a hornets’ nest. I’ve had children run up to see what I am painting. I’ve had dogs come over to sit at my feet and bring me sticks or balls.

For me, painting en plein air is a collaboration with nature; me observing and interpreting while Mother Nature does her thing. The experience creates a “muscle memory” of sorts. Even years later, when I look at my completed painting, I can hear the bird sounds, smell the scent in the breeze, and the feel of the sun on the back of my head.

I am painting as I balance with my palette and brushes on a boulder on a mountainside in Colorado. My shoe kept slipping off and I was concerned at the moment of the photo that I was about to tumble down the the rocks. It doesn't look as precarious as it felt!

It’s an activity that can be shared with all the other members of your family or a group of friends. Each person takes away their own individualized learning from the experience.

Wondering what to do on an unscheduled afternoon? Go outside and paint.

My original watercolor painting, Pumpkin Tangle. $350 matted and not framed. (Plus applicable tax and shipping.) Not on my website yet. If you want it before I post it to everyone on the website, let me know by replying to this email :-)

Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.
- Confucius

So, true, isn’t it?

That’s one of the reasons I love painting outside. It’s so simple. Just two steps: 1. Observe; 2. Interpret.

A dear friend of mine and superb Missouri-based plein air artist, Billyo O’Donnell, says, “Any plein air painter who takes more than six brushes on an outing, is just insecure.” Gosh, it took me years to come to that same conclusion.

Funny how we can overcomplicate things.

4 tips to a successful plein air outing

  • Keep it simple.

  • Don’t get discouraged. You don’t have to show your work to anyone. Learn for yourself what the challenges were as well as the successes.

  • Don’t focus too much on your painting. You’re outside. Focus on outside. 80% of the time, your eyes should be elsewhere; not on your paper.

  • Don’t keep working once you get tired. For me it’s about 2 hours and then I need a major break. A walk? A conversation or critique with a friend? A snack? Before your art begins to convey your exhaustion (it shows...trust me), pack up and call it a day.

Thoughts on Plein Air from Some Famous Artists

The pleasure and freedom of plein air!

Gilded Age painter, John Singer Sargent, transitioned to watercolor from oil painting when stifled by constraints of painting portraits of aristocratic members of society in Paris, London, and the US. As he moved to watercolor, he delighted in the freedom and challenges of plein air. When he “distanced himself from the profitable profession of portraiture he retreated out-of-doors where he executed pictures for his own pleasure.” (John Esten, Sargent Painting Out-of-Doors. 2000.)

Artist and art critic, John Ruskin, also had strong feelings about plein air painting: “Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.”

The sometimes-irascible Winslow Homer, who painted almost exclusively outdoors, said, “I prefer every time a picture is composed and painted outdoors. The thing is done without your knowing it.” (This point of view is from someone who was absolutely at home and relaxed plein air painting. He was a confident and proficient artist. I am not yet up to that lofty ”struggle-free” zone where the painting paints itself!)

Praise of plein air adventures can be summed up by French Post-Impressionist painter, Paul Cezanne, “All pictures painted inside in the studio will never be as good as the things done outside”.

I encourage you to be outside en plein air — even if just to observe.

Here’s my Rx for you...

Be outside, whether you are painting or not. Start with 10-minutes just observing. No phone. No talking. No multi-tasking. Just observe. Breathe. And, observe.


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