Out in the Open Air
In all seasons and in all weather
To keep their palettes and paintings
dry on a damp day, painters will
attach umbrellas to their easels.
• The commonly used
painting phrase, ‘Plein
Air’, is French meaning
“out in open air”.
Another way to express
this type of painting
experience is: We are
surrounded by Nature
Betsy Lewis and Susan Stranc paint
a waterfalls along a gravel back road
in Jeffersonville, Vermont
• Plein air painters prefer
to be out doors rather
than painting in their
studios. They study and
paint the light and its
effects on objects out of
Susan Luca painting along the
Merrimack River, Newburyport.
• Plein air painters try to
capture on their canvas
or paper an immediate
‘impression’ of what their
eye sees at a particular
time of day. Because the
sun is always on the
move, from east to west,
the painter’s time is
Susan Spellman working at her
French easel painting an authentic
Vermont barn in Charlotte, Vermont.
• Painting outside is a
recently new practice for
artists. Before the early
1800’s, artists were
limited to working in
their studios because
they had to handcraft all
their paints. They ground
their pigments and then
blended it with linseed
oil on glass palettes.
Colors were limited and
paints were made in
Margery Jennings working at the Old
Rowley Mill in the cool temperatures
of early spring.
• Then along came an
American painter, John
Rand. He loved to paint
outdoors in and around
London but he became
transporting his oil
paints in pig bladders!
The bladder had to be
with a pin and often
would burst upon
squeezing out the paint.
Winter painting at Rye Harbor, New
• His invention was the tin
paint tube. It was
created for convenience
and portability. Rand’s
invention enabled artists
to leave their studios and
travel to outdoor
environments with the
convenience of pre-
packaged and portable
S. Stranc bundled up for a day of
winter painting at Tower Hill Botanic
Gardens in Boylston, Massachusetts
• Summing up the
importance of John Rand’s
portable paint tubes, here
is a quote by Pierre
• “Without colors in tubes
there would be no
Cezanne, no Monet, no
Pissarro, and no
revolutions began with a
squeeze of a trigger, some
with just a squeeze”.
and the Set Up
The easel and palette.
The style of easel and palette depends on what medium is used:
pastels, watercolors or oils.
The late Bob Gertz paints his
watercolor surrounded by spring
blooming flowers and his equipment.
Many watercolorists prefer to
sit at an adjustable metal easel
surrounded by their supplies
conveniently laid out on the
ground and within reach.
Dan Shaw (left) and Bud Smith enjoy
the day painting along the rocky
shore of Booth Bay Harbor, Maine in
When painting along the coast
of Maine, there are always
plenty of rocks to sit upon.
One can bring along a
collapsible stool if the need for
comfort is important.
Joan Hancock paints at her French
easel while the late Bob Gertz
contemplates the progress of his
When out and about, look for
benches. They are usually
placed with a scenic vista in
mind. While sitting to paint,
the easel legs can be adjusted
to any height.
John Singer Sargent, Paul Helleu
Sketching with his Wife 1889
Being the famous artist that he
was, John Singer Sargent
brought along his painting
supplies while he enjoyed a
day of canoeing and fishing
with friends. Pictured, Mr.
Helleu improvised an easel by
planting his fishing rod into
the marsh grasses and leaning
the canvas against it.
Winslow Homer, Artists Sketching in
the White Mountains
If you like to paint out in the open
without a tree or bush for shade,
or perhaps at the beach, bring
along a big umbrella and folding
stool. Sunscreen is important too!
Note: in the foreground there’s a
backpack for carrying art
supplies to and from the field.
Bud Smith paints mammoth
sunflowers in Charlotte, Vermont
Some painters prefer to stand
at their easels. They have
more movability to step back
and to look critically at their
the canvas and assess their
Dan Shaw bundled up while painting
at his French easel along a rushing
This set up has a roll of paper
towel conveniently bungeed to
the front of the French easel.
The palette is contained in a
re-sealable plastic tray and
will be placed in the painter’s
backpack at end of the
With sketchbook in hand, Margery
Jennings begins to compose her
painting at Great Bay Estuary,
Newington, New Hampshire.
A great plein air painting begins
with a great composition. Be sure
to bring along a sketchbook and
pencil for drawing quick sketches.
This step helps to determine the
best compositional design before
applying paint to the canvas.
Here’s a dapper fellow of the
1800’s wearing a straw
boater’s hat painting in front
of his tri-pod collapsible easel.
He holds his palette and
brushes in his left hand. In the
foreground there is a woven
picnic basket for carrying his
Pierre Auguste Renoir, Monet
Painting in his Garden at Argenteuil
Here is the most famous
Impressionist plein air painter,
Claude Monet painted by his
good friend, Renoir.
Note the folded umbrella on
the ground perhaps rain was
forecasted or the hope of the
sun returning. Monet is
bundled up against the cold.
Mark Brown, a Hawaiian plein air
painter, paints on a large scale.
This painter is standing at two
(studio) easels to accommodate
his very large canvas. All other
essential plein air equipment is
on a grand scale too. His palette
is a table. There are no small
tubes of white just a big gallon
can. He’ll be out there multiple
days to finish his painting!
A sampling of easels
Aluminum, French, drawing board.
Beechwood box and fully equipped.
Four legged aluminum easel
can be used to support a
drawing board or canvas
panels. It is a very useful easel
used by watercolorists
This is a French easel used by many
of the members of the Newburyport
Ten Plein Air Painters. Using wing
nuts, this easel easily collapses into a
carrying box with a handle. It will
hold numerous brushes and paint
tubes as well as a palette.
The Beechwood paint box;
simplicity at its best. The box
will hold a palette, brushes and
paint tubes. It can be set up on
a picnic table or placed on your
Sienna plein air pochade box and
Here is a set-up with all the bells
and whistles of essential
equipment There is a palette,
palette knife, brushes, paint tubes,
can of turpentine, paper towels.
When the easel is closed, it fits in
a backpack with the tri-pod
attached to the outside. On the
right: carrying cases for wet
Claude Monet, Spring Fruit Trees
With your portable
equipment, you can paint
anywhere that is open to the
public or on private lands with
permission from owner.
John Singer Sargent, Stream and
New England has many
beautiful spots to paint
throughout the seasons:.
mountains, woods, rivers,
orchards, farms, the coastline.
Claude Monet, “Waves at
It has been told Monet had to
cross several beaches, pass
through a rock tunnel to reach
this site. During his painting
session he and his easel were
nearly swept into the sea. If you
have the opportunity to see the
painting up close, you will see
sand imbedded into the dried
Edgar Degas, “Seashore” pastel
Every good painter should
experience painting in all
types of weather: each varying
in certain kinds of drama and
color. Be sure to wear
appropriate clothing for the
weather. Perhaps bug spray
and sunscreen will be
necessary to tote along.
Bottled water is essential.
John Singer Sargent, Cloud Study
During each painting session,
there will be changes in the
quality of light and mood.
Claude Monet, Regatta at Sainte-
On 25 June 1867, Monet reported
that he was working on about
"Among the seascapes, I am doing
the regattas of Le Havre with many
figures on the beach and the outer
harbor covered with small sails."
Before painting, always check to see
which way the tide is turning.
Claude Monet, Garden at Sainte-
This painting captures the summer
late afternoon light as well as a brisk
Note the long cast shadows and
fluttering flags and smoke.
Seated people in the landscape adds
a quiet repose to the setting. Family
members make excellent models.
John Singer Sargent, Reapers
Resting in Wheat Fields 1885
Rural activities have always
commanded the attention of
many artists for inspirational
While painting barns, herds of
grazing cows, or weathered
farmers working the fields plein
air painters have an opportunity
to work along side these subjects
in golden sunlight and fresh air.
Claude Monet, Haystacks in Winter
A scene can be painted more than
once as Monet and his Haystack
series celebrates .
Paint in the morning light, at high
noon or in the evening, and paint
in the spring, summer, autumn,
Paint! Paint! and Paint!
Often when a painter is faced with a scene,
there's simply so much to see that's appealing,
that it is difficult to choose what to focus on.
This is where a viewfinder is useful, as it helps
the artist focus on particular parts of the scene,
enabling them to decide what will make the
best composition, both in terms of focus and
There are many options for viewfinders
Here is a simple home made version made out of
foam core using the proportions of an 11 x 14 canvas,
with an acetate window with horizontal and vertical
lines for reference
You can make them out of dark colored mat board
in two separate pieces so you can adjust for the size
of your canvas or surface.
Here is a sample of a viewfinder that is
sold in art supply stores.
toning the canvas
• The brightness of the white surface may cause a glare when painting outside
• It can help unify a painting especially in the early stages before all the areas are
• You may like some of the toned color peaking through
• You want to set a mood
• The white canvas is cold in color. That may distort some colors for you as they
may appear warm next to the white until the canvas is fully covered
• You may have more spontaneity with a toned canvas
You may want to coat your canvas or board
with a light tonal wash before painting. There is
no right or wrong on this, some artists do tone
their canvases and some don’t. Here are some
reasons to tone the canvas first:
When creating the sketch on canvas,
some artists use grisaille. Grisaille is a
Painting technique by which an image is
executed entirely in monochromatic
shades of gray or brown and usually sets
up the values and creates an illusion of
space. Here is are a few examples by the
artist Donald Jurney.
A simple Quick sketch to start
A lot of artists just create a simple
sketch and then get started on
painting in the broad shapes. This
is a quick sketch done on a toned
canvas to lightly draw in the basic
scene and composition.
In the next following images,
artist Susan Spellman’s painting
evolves from quick sketch to
finished plein air painting.
block in large dark and broad shapes
It’s a good idea to start with broad
shapes and add details later. In this
image, Susan has painted larger shapes
that she will add details to later in the
process. She has used oil paint thinned
with a little turpentine.
A lot of artists start with a thinner layer
of paint, one that has a mixture of
turpentine and paint, to start an
underpainting as their decisions are
getting worked out, and then end with a
thicker layer of oil paint on top of that.
sky and color notes
Here she has added the sky to
define the tree shapes and started
to add more color notes throughout
the painting. Notice that there are
more warm colors in the
foreground than in the background,
and also darker values in the
foreground as well.
more paint and “fat over lean”
Here is the painting getting closer to being
finished adding thicker paint overall and
highlighting the light lavender flowers
against the dark background.
This is painting 'fat over lean'. 'Fat' oil
paint is oil paint straight from the tube.
Mixing it with an oil medium makes it
even 'fatter' and increases the length of
time it takes to dry completely. 'Lean' oil
paint is oil paint mixed with more
turpentine than oil, or oil paint mixed with
a fast-drying oil. 'Lean' oil paint dries
faster than 'fat' oil paint. Painting fat over
lean ensures that upper layers of paint
don't dry faster than lower ones because
cracking can occur when the painting
finishing the painting in one session?
If your painting is not finished when
it’s time to clean and pack up, return
the next day or in a couple of days to
the same spot at the same time. Or
if you have a camera, take reference
photos before and after painting.
These will be helpful when finishing
the painting in the studio or at
Remember to keep your composition
simple not complex. Divide your
canvas board into large shapes with
a pencil or charged brush. Don’t get
bogged down drawing details: there
is not enough time to paint every
leaf, blade of grass or flower buds.
Once the composition has been
drawn in, mix a local color for each
area. If time permits, mix a range of
values; a light, medium and a dark
for each local color.
We hope you enjoy your
time outside painting
Nature surrounded by
Nature or as we like to
say in ‘plein air’.
Marjet Lesk painting in Springtime