Tips for successful plein air painting

After years of painting I have come up with some tips for successful plein air painting outings. It’s about more than having the right supplies!

Preparing for a successful outing

Part of preparing is gathering the supplies you’ll need, but after that, it’s time to get in the car and head out. Here are some tips my painting buddy and I learned about making your plein air outing a successful one:

  1. A safe place to paint is number one. Literally. We don’t want to be standing on the side of a highway.
  2. Obviously a pretty scene. We usually gravitate towards structures and ponds. Painting water is always great. I’m trying to grow more as an artist and choose scenes that don’t necessarily have a structure, like a stand of trees. But bottom line is I like to paint structures, I like all the architectural lines and angles. So that’s why you see buildings in many of my paintings.
  3. We don’t paint on private land without permission.
  4. Orientation to the sun is important for MANY reasons. See below.
  5. If we see a beautiful or unique Texas barn, we pull over! Or a pond. Or a farm stand. Or Bar-B-Q.

Well that doesn’t seem like too long of a list. Read below for more on each of the points I made above.

Or if you like, you can read about a Paris, France plein air outing where I painted Notre Dam.

Or a plein air painting outing in Jackson Hole, Wy.

Galveston Beach, Texas.


Safety should be first and foremost when you are thinking about how to prepare for plein air painting. It’s best to go out painting with a friend so you’re not out by yourself. And just like any other trip you take in a car, you should have a cell phone for emergencies. Having a cell phone is handy for directions too. But we’re often out in the middle of nowhere without service so a paper map (remember those?) can come in handy too.

I also find it helpful to have LOTS of water to drink. Sunscreen. Bug spray. A little cash can be handy. And bear spray if you’re in an area with bears.

A great scene

More than a “pretty scene”, I look for a great composition. As we are driving and looking for the next painting spot, I’m scanning everything around me. You know the movie “The Terminator”? That’s what I feel like, I’m looking at everything around me but only for values and shapes. I’m looking for a very strong composition. That’s ideal.

And figure out what you like to paint. What are you most successful at? Some days I’m a little tired, or it’s our third painting for the day, and I just need to paint something I’m pretty sure I can do successfully. Other times I’m up for a challenge and want to push myself to try a scene I know will be difficult for me.

Sometimes a successful plein air painting outing means coming home with no ‘good’ paintings. That’s right, it can mean going out and challenging yourself to the point where you don’t come home with any keepers. But this will be a benefit in the long run.

Plein air Texas fog
Wonderful foggy morning, I used my umbrella anyway for consistent light.

Don’t paint on private land

This one seems obvious. Once in the while we get lucky and we are invited to paint on someone’s land. We recently were invited to paint this beautiful red barn on someone’s property.

Paris France plein air
I found a quiet and shady spot to paint the Eiffel Tower!

Most of the time we don’t have to worry about crowds. But there have been times when I’ve painted in very crowded spots. For example, in Paris. While I do love talking to people about painting, when the sun is changing quickly and I’m focusing on the right color, value, and placement, I can’t always chat. My solution to this is to wear HEADPHONES! I don’t listen to anything, I just have on headphones to dissuade people from talking to me. But I have to say, it only works about half the time.

Plein air Texas
See what a difference the sun can make on a painting?

Orientation to the Sun

There are many reasons it’s important to notice where you will set up in relation to the sun.

  • Most importantly, in my mind, is you don’t want to be looking INTO the sun while you paint. I prefer to paint with the sun behind me, or at least to my side. If you are looking into the sun at your view, then look down at your palette to mix paints, your eyes can’t adjust quick enough and accurately enough. Your pupils will be constantly dilating and constricting. You won’t be able to judge colors or, more importantly, values correctly. I suppose with lots of practice you could compensate for this by knowing, or guessing, the correct values, but that doesn’t sound like much fun to me. Or a recipe for success.
  • It’s also important to note that you want shade ON YOUR EASEL and canvas. If you have sun shining on your paints and easel, it’ll be difficult. The sun will make your paint, both on your palette and on your canvas if it’s in the sun, look very WARM. Then when you get home and look at your painting inside you will discover that you have a very cool painting. I know, I did this. But only once.
  • If you have an overcast day, you’re in luck and you can paint facing any direction. It’s still a good idea to use an umbrella if you have one though, the sun is strong even when it’s overcast and this can affect how you judge values and colors.
  • It’s nice to find shade, either under a tree or under an umbrella. But beware of chiggers: they like the shade too. This is why you need to use insect repellent! Another lesson I learned the hard way.

Fun is a big part of plein air painting!

We may seem to have a lot of requirements when we’re out painting, but in reality we stay flexible. If you’re on your way to a scene you planned to paint but see something you really want to paint, pull over and paint it. I’ve learned that scenes can be almost unrecognizable in different lighting conditions, so if you see a great scene, paint it now.

We also stop for Bar-B-Q and snacks and farm stands for fresh fruit!

Plein air GTNP
The hatchback on my car provides a lot of shade. I was alone at this Jackson Hole, WY spot but I was in a well traveled overlook so felt safe.

Summary: tips for successful plein air painting

I hope this tips have shown you a bit about how to prepare for a successful plein air painting outing. Please let me know your own suggestions for making a great outing to my comments. And as you have probably concluded, we have a lot of fun, that’s why we go out and paint. On that note I’ll leave you with a little story:

Funny story

This reminds me of a funny story. Myrrh and I saw a wonderful large barn looming just over a hill, but it was a little far away, on someone’s property. We pulled up to the gate and noticed a sign with a phone number along the fence. It was some kind of cattle related business.

So we called the number and asked if we could paint the barn.

Do you know what the elderly woman who answered the phone told us? “No thank you, we just had the barn painted last year.”

Wait . . . . .

We didn’t get to paint that barn. Though it does always make us laugh to recall that story.

Happy Painting, Joan

Thanks for stopping by!
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