painting outdoors

Painting nature or en plein air is fun and not at all impractical. The fact that it is incredibly more difficult than it seems may come as a rude shock to your self confidence. But it is a wonderful way to get in touch with your vision, and grapple with the complexities of light and color, even if landscape is not really your thing.

Many books on the subject explain the basics of what should be common sense — mosquito repellant, closing country gates, respecting property rights, avoiding dogs, taking a lunch. I'm only going to mention the specific issues that I've found are unexpected and most important to the act of painting.

Naked and out of control. The emotional experience of landscape painting is challenging, and you should prepare yourself for that. Yes, it's fun to be in the fresh air and have nature all around, but the work is something different. The work is hard.

All the usual props familiar in the studio — the music system, the mug of coffee, the perfectly adjusted lighting, the comfy chair, the cozy slippers, the familiar table and shelves, the adjustable stretcher board, the magnajector for tracing photos, the convenient water and store of paints — all that is gone. You can't trace your drawing. You can't take your time with tediously accumulated washes. And you're largely unprotected to wind, glare, cold, dirt, traffic and pests. You're naked.

Your eye is naked too. Rather than focusing on a limited subject — a photograph, a vase of flowers, your cat — you're immersed in the subject. You're floundering in light. And the subject is changing rapidly with the angle of the light and the reflections or cover of clouds, which changes all the value relationships in your motif. You're consumed by the air and the movement.

Mother nature, as if recognizing your predicament, steps in to makes things worse. A little wind to fret and water your eyes. A soft haze that shifts all the colors to a glowing gray you can't quite capture by mixing muddy paints. Let's move that sun around and change the colors and shadows entirely. A biting bug there in your ear. Ah, and here comes a survivalist couple with their pit bull off the leash ...

Most of the painters I talk to sum it up this way: I tried painting out of doors, but went back to the studio because I didn't have any control. That sums it up for me ... naked and out of control.



There's nothing to do about it except get in there and paint — just don't think you're weird or abnormal because you feel naked and out of control.

Isn't that what good sex is all about?

Scouting. There are many ways to scout locations for paintings. The most effective depends on your familiarity with the area, the time you are going to spend there, and your method of transport.

City locations are often the easiest to scout. Many cities are well documented in popular cinema, art books, guide books, and tourist art. (Who could travel to San Francisco and not know about that big red bridge?) Guidebooks describe picturesque or historic locations and scenic walks, and these often make interesting painting spots. (But beware of spectators.)

Sometimes your choice of hotel gives you a leg up: if you pick an interesting part of the city to sleep in, you have painting opportunities at your front door or, even better, right out your bedroom window.

Wilderness or hiking areas are perhaps the hardest, because you are carrying all your painting supplies without any assurance you will find something to paint or a safe place to paint from, and you are completely at the mercy of weather (it's usually inconvenient to camp for two days to wait for a rain front to pass through). In these and similar situations the most practical alternative is a digital camera and sketchbook; the camera to document the scene and the sketchbook to make notes about mood and light. Then back to the studio.

I've found many of my landscape or city painting sites while driving in a car. I always have my field paint kit in the trunk, and the car provides a sheltered place to paint in almost any weather. This greatly cuts down on the amount of time required to make a painting, and puts me on site at any time I choose.

Around home, I've learned to buy a local area map, at a large scale, and to mark on it good painting sites that I discover while driving on errands or commutes. I try to document these locations with a digital picture, and sometimes use these pictures to block out the outline drawing of a scene so the paper is ready to go when I get there. The camera is also practical to capture an image from a location that won't serve for painting — the middle of a bridge, someone's private field, or the crosswalk at an intersection, for example.

Don't disparage hotel rooms, restaurants, cafes, museums or park benches as painting locations. In the mid morning or afternoon many eateries are nearly empty, and a good window table with a scenic view is a perfect place to work away from wind, cold or rain. I suggest you first ask if it's OK to spend an hour or two painting at a table, and first order a lunch with tip to reimburse the business and waitperson for the courtesy.

Your Field Equipment. I've described the field kit I use for outdoor painting, and this is the essential piece to get right. But additional equipment can often be justified, such as chairs, metal tripods or easels, umbrellas, special backpacks, special hats ... art retailers make their trade by dreaming this stuff up and putting it in their catalogs.

My main suggestion is to select your equipment gradually, rather than rush into buying everything you think you need. The main trick is this: don't choose a piece of equipment that forces you to use another piece of equipment.

An example: I began painting with as little equipment as possible — sitting on the ground, a rock or a log, and holding the watercolor block in my lap as I painted. This turned out to be inconvenient if the ground was wet or overgrown, so I bought a canvas folding tripod stool. But I had to stoop down to reach the paints and water, which I still put on the ground. At this point, I was getting ready to buy an easel, or take a metal tripod in the field, when I realized that my choice of stool was pushing me into using an easel. And the easel would require a backpack, and the backpack would require ...

The solution is often not more equipment but better or simpler equipment. In my case, a folding canvas beach chair, with a seat just 6 inches off the ground, was ideal. It's more cumbersome than I'd like, but it doesn't encumber me with other equipment necessary to make it useful.

The other trick is to choose the minimal solution to the problem. A wide brimmed gardener's hat, available at any garden store (especially during the summer), is much better than a folding umbrella. And with luck there is a tree or structure at hand to shelter your work from the sun.

The Painting Position. One of the most important points of outdoor painting to get right is your painting position. This is a surprisingly personal choice. Your main goal should be to make yourself comfortable and adaptable to different situations.

The most common position is assisted seating in the manner of J.S. Sargent, shown painting watercolors during one of his beloved hiking excursions in the Italian Alps. The essential element is a seated position on a stool or folding chair (here he may be sitting on the ground or on a low flat rock, but in other photos we see him using a folding canvas stool or lawn chair). I have noticed, however, that the seated position for some reason seems to invite a lot of additional equipment to the party. With Sargent, this includes a small folding table for his painting materials (he has folded underneath the legs on one side, to accommodate the slope of the hill), a water dish and box of accessories (sponges, knives, brushes, etc.), a stretching board or watercolor block, an adjustable metal tripod to hold the stretching board, a folding palette, two large umbrellas, a wide brimmed hat, and so on. All this equipment requires a pack (or pack animal) to carry up and down that hill, and probably included other special equipment not visible on this occasion — notice, for example, the vertical pole at the far right that seems needed only to support the small umbrella. More weight for the mule.

The main problem with a chair is that it presumes a "floor" or flat surface to put it on. Often this is not available out of doors. One option is to use a short three legged stool instead: a tripod will sit steady on any surface. But Georgia O'Keeffe adopts an even less encumbered approach, admittedly helped by the sunny windless weather typical of the American Southwest. She prefers ground seating, cushioned by a small pillow or folded coat, which is comfortable for her characteristic "sidesaddle" painting position — both legs tucked into her left arm. She paints on a watercolor block or folded sketchbook laid flat on a firm, larger cushion underneath. (A waterproof tarp or small blanket are good alternatives.) This second cushion is not as indulgent as it might seem. Ground is typically so wet, overgrown, rocky or sloping that it is difficult to find a suitable surface for the painting support to rest on. The enameled metal palette and water container (a common drinking glass), set on the ground, are the only other pieces of equipment she requires. The cushion raises her body far enough above the ground to keep her legs relaxed, but also distances her from the painting support, which suits her oriental style grip near the end of the brush. The paper, water and paints are all within a comfortable arc of the arm, and all can be placed to suit the direction of gaze during painting.

Or there's the standing position preferred by lefty New Englander John Marin. He uses the same type of tripod as Sargent, but because of its height (and the large size of the painting board attached to it), he must weight it down with several loops of heavy chain dangling inside the legs. This seems inefficient: David Dewey, who also stands while he paints, uses a gallon plastic jug, filled with water and hung from its handle, as his tripod weight. The paintbox is set to one side (on the flat rock in the foreground), where he must crouch to reach it.

Marin's stooping posture seems incredibly uncomfortable and fatiguing to me, but it must have worked for him: it reappears in other photos of him painting, even in the studio. Note that the tripod altazimuthal attachment is fully adjustable in any direction, so the support can be held flat or tipped and yawed to any side — a real convenience in handling large washes. This picture was taken in New Mexico, which makes me wonder how Marin sheltered himself against the Maine wind and rain. For that matter, I have no idea why his pants cuffs are rolled up. I'd think he would be distracted by the glare from those shoes.

As these photos attest, an artist's outdoor painting set up is highly individual. It is interesting how each painter's stance reflects something of their painting style — Sargent's visual precision, O'Keeffe's introspective vision, and Marin's passionate energy. But it also accommodates their physical limitations — physical build, flexibility, age and stamina, tolerance of discomfort or inconvenience, sensitivity to glare; the artist's preferred painting locations and painting implements or techniques also influence the solution. Again, it's best to identify your preferred painting posture before you buy the equipment to accommodate it. Don't choose to sit because you've bought a stool: buy the stool after you are sure that you don't like to stand or roll around on the ground.

Although I pack in the trunk of my car a folding canvas beach chair — the low to ground kind perfect for dozing through a fat summer novel — often as not I sit on the ground on a folded cotton blanket. My black canvas tote bag can be shaped into a level surface for the watercolor pan on uneven ground. The paper rests either on the ground between my outstretched legs or, on sloped terrain or when I am sitting with legs crossed "lotus style", on my knees. Admittedly I'm still at the mercy of light and wind, but I've found that landscape shelter or a wide brimmed hat almost always gives adequate relief.

The Elements. By far the most difficult weather condition for painting is wind. Even a moderate breeze will tug at the paper, blow dust or sand in the paints, whip drops of liquid out of your brush, and cause washes to dry unpredictably. Worst, whenever I'm forced to look into a wind or breeze, my eyes tear up so much that I can't see.

Sargent's large umbrella placed behind him is likely a shield against the mountain wind, because we can see it's a sunny day and he is actually facing into the light. By sitting low to the ground, he can tip the umbrella on its side to create a windbreak. On windless but sunny days, the umbrella can be used to shade the paper and the painter.

Sargent's choice is a picnic umbrella, the kind available at any recreational supply store, and available today in lightweight nylon and aluminum. If you like these, be sure you get one that is tinted black, gray or white. A brightly colored umbrella will reflect or transmit its color onto your paper (or filter the light, if you use it for shade), disorienting your color judgment. A brownish linen or canvas umbrella can have a more subtle disorienting effect but usually one you won't notice.

I prefer to find sheltered depressions on the lee side of small cliffs or hills to paint in, and if nothing else is available, to paint from a raised position, or an area overgrown with grass or other ground cover, to reduce the sand or dirt blown onto the work.

Variations of temperature and humidity are the most subtle hazards to your painting. We all develop an intuitive sense for how long paints normally take to dry, and anything that accelerates or slows that process can really throw your painting off rhythm. The two special catastrophes are large washes (which dry before you want them to) or complex passages (which run together when you think they are dry).

Just because the weatherman says it is a dry or hot day does not forecast how your painting will go if you're near a lake or in the shade. Changes in the dew point around sunrise or sunset can be quite large. The main solution is to pay attention as you paint, and continually check the surface wetness of the paper by touch or appearance.

An additional solution is to carry a small "watercolor postcard" block for use in testing color mixtures, and to paint on it a standard stroke of water (that is, of a specific size and with a specific brush) as you start to set up for work. Observe how long it takes this stroke to dry, if necessary by timing it with your watch, and use that as a gauge of the drying time of your paints.

When you're faced with rain, snow, sleet and the like, the only solution I've come up with is to paint sitting in a car, from a window, a porch, or a cafe or restaurant table indoors.

Painting Light. The three issues with light are the angle of lighting across the landscape, the color of light on the landscape and page, and the intensity of light in your eyes.

Light changes at different rates during the sun's daily arc across the sky. The changes are most extreme and most rapid around sunrise and sunset: the sun is moving into or out of atmospheric pollution and surface humidity that lie along the horizon, which amplifies changes in color and brilliance. Also, shadows are much longer, so changes in their size and shape are greatly exaggerated. In the hours before and after noon, the sunlight is falling nearly vertically, which minimizes the filtering effects of the atmosphere and changes in shadows.

Light begins noticeably to change color within 3.5 hours after sunrise or before sunset. This usually makes the hours from about 11 to 3 the optimal painting hours. The light from 12 to 2 is especially strong and can be harsh, but the changes in the color of the light are less important. Other times are important for getting a unique mood, however: the classic "painter's hour" at twilight is a landscape favorite.

Even on partly overcast days, light on the page will strain your eyes and cause bright light adaptation (contracted pupils, bleached cone pigments) that distorts your color sense — primarily by reducing the range in values and color saturation. Your mixed colors will appear brighter and more strongly contrasted when you take the field painting back to the studio.

Sargent's smaller umbrella on the right is a shield against light falling on the paper, and his wide brimmed hat shields his eyes — separate solutions for separate problems. A hat also shields your head from heat and some insects.

People and Other Pests. If you are painting in a remote location you will appreciate the solitude immensely. There is nothing like having nature all to yourself. If you are painting on vacation in touristy spots or painting in town you will almost certainly have to deal with other people.

The spectator is a kind of large insect that is strongly attracted to wet paint. It will typically block your light, buzz into your concentration, and bite you with pointless questions (are you painting? is that a painting? how long ya been painting? where'd ya learn to paint?) and comments (it sure is a fine day, hey look he's painting, my brother paints better than that, I wish I could paint, I used to paint, I think it's great that you're painting, that boat looks brown to me — of course, the worst possible comment is always hey, get the baby, let's eat lunch here!). You can try ignoring them, but these bugs can be very clever. I've been duped into responding by being asked directions, the time of day — anything that it seems rude to ignore — and once I answer the bug is chirping its intrusive song.

Some painters wear a walkman headset to create the illusion that they can't hear questions or comments. This is a very good idea but only partial remedy: painting once in lower Manhattan, preteens used my cement bench as a prop for skateboarding stunts, which was pretty nervewracking.

The infallible remedy is to sit where you can't be disturbed. This may be on top of a large rock, with your back against a wall, on the balcony of your private room, in a corner table of a cafe, in your car, on the back of a truck ... whatever you can find. Never sit below people, because young males seem unable to resist the impulse to throw something your way.

One of the more congenial defenses against spectators is to paint with a partner or two. A group of painters seems to have a more intimidating effect on intruders, not least because your conversation marks off your space as your own, like the conversation around a table.

Fatigue. One of the most subtle but most important problems to come up in landscape painting is the gradual shift in your painting aims or concepts that I call concept fatigue. This actually occurs in any setting where you're painting "from the motif" — whether it's a still life, portrait or figure study — but to me it's more acute in a landscape setting because you're thrust into an unusual painting situation with more distractions and a more dynamic environment of light and air to deal with.

You may start out wanting to capture the radiance of the day, or the rhythm of the hills, or the transitions in the hues of yellow across the near and distant fields, but before you know it you're simply slogging through local color, trying to catch up with changing light, and hoping that bus moves from in front of that grand old tree. You've forgotten why you started painting in the first place.

This is a kind of exhaustion, so the first thing to do is keep vigilant to feelings of struggle or confusion, and when they happen ... just take a break. Get up, stretch, walk around, chat up your painting partner. Step out of the corner you've painted yourself into.

The other hazard is physical fatigue from standing or sitting in one position. Neck, upper back and arms can get tense; your legs and lower back get tired. Eyestrain is a problem in bright light. Again, the best thing is to get up, stretch, amble around, and take some deep breaths. Let the painting dry a little and look at it from a distance.

Simple but effective, eating a refreshing snack can do wonders for your outlook and alertness. In my experience painting watercolors is every bit as cognitively demanding as playing chess, and after an hour of it your mind is craving glucose to burn. Fruit juice, candy bars, sandwiches, the trail mix called "gorp" — anything helps.

Then sit back down, close your eyes, take a deep breath, and look again at the scene the way you did when you first sat down. What did you want to paint? It may have changed because of shifting light or weather: if you can identify these changes specifically, you can compensate for them as you continue. Or you may simply have gotten distracted by technical details, and lost sight of the poetry.

Words have a surprising power to preserve a state of mind, so I find it's helpful before I start painting to describe in one sentence (mentally or out loud) the essential aspect of the motif I want to capture. Repeating this brief definition as I work keeps me from getting derailed from the original concept.

A common hazard, however, is to try to do too much. You can't ever get everything you see onto the paper, no matter how many days you work at it. The essential discipline is to paint the concept, and no more.