If you’re sitting around wondering what to draw or paint next, why not try an age-old art practice? Known as “en plein air” or just “plein air” painting, this is an art practice that’s loved by artists all around the world. It’s also a great way to hone your art senses, no matter your ability level!

So without further ado, here are a few tips on getting started with plein air, so you can be out and about in no time.

Tip #1: Bring What You Need

“En plein air”, as you may know already, translates to “in the open air” in French. And since you’ll be going outdoors, it’s best to be prepared for the day.

1. Drawing Tools

Even if you’re thinking of jumping straight into painting when you’re outside, it’s always good to have at least something to draw with. Your favourite graphic penfountain pen, or pencil will work just fine. Of course, make sure they’re all working and ready to go before heading out! This means making sure your pens have ink in them, or your pencil has enough lead. 

Tip: If you’re planning on painting after inking, make sure you’re using a pen that has waterproof ink! Also, this goes without saying but if you’re bringing a traditional wooden pencil, then you may need to bring a pencil sharpener as well.

Try to just bring what you know you’ll use, and streamline your toolkit to suit your preferred style. If this is your first time, then feel free to bring a little more, and take note of what you needed and what you didn’t so that you know what you can leave behind next time.

If you’re the kind of painter who doesn’t like to sketch beforehand, then you can still “sketch” with a paintbrush instead. Plus you’ll need one to paint with anyway, so pack one or two of your desired brushes!

I recommend taking either a travel brush (where you can disconnect and flip the barrel to cap the bristle-half of the brush) or a water brush (where the barrel is its water reservoir). The former is good for better water control, while the latter is better for when you don’t want to bring a container of water with you.

You can also consider bringing a white gel pen for adding back highlights in your painting, but this is optional. The key here is to keep things simple, so don’t go bringing things you know you won’t use!

2. Paint and Palette

These are essential for plein air paintings, and I highly suggest investing in a travel-friendly set.

It’s a good thing watercolour paints are made for travelling! They reactivate with a touch of water and can be found in pan form. They can also be found in travel-friendly palettes, such as a fold-up metal one, or Etchr’s special porcelain one. Metal ones are lighter though.

Tip: Someone’s gone and invented watercolour sheets, which are super light! Imagine having a thin layer of watercolour paint stuck on paper, which you can reactivate in the same way as pan watercolours. 

With paints, you’ll also need a small container for water (if you’re not using the water brush) and paper towels or tissues to wipe your brushes on. I specifically save paper napkins for this but use whatever works for you.

As for the number of colours you should bring, I recommend anywhere between 2 to 12 that mix and work well together. If you’ve bought a travel set, it should be fine to just bring that set with you.

3. Paper

I prefer bringing 2-3 loose sheets of watercolour paper that are A6 to A5 in size. The postcard size is great, too! I bring a small clipboard and washi tape with me too, for a sturdy and flat drawing surface, and to secure my paper to the board.

You can bring a sketchbook instead, though they’re much heavier than the previous option. It depends on how long you plan to paint outside!

4. Carry Equipment

You’ll also need something to carry all your tools and other non-art essentials (like your wallet). I highly recommend something from Etchr’s carry range, where there are bags tailored for plein air. All of them (minus the field case, which is more like a pencil case) can be mounted on a tripod as well, which means you can convert them into easels!

Alternatively, just having a pencil case and a backpack is enough for your tools, so don’t worry too much about trying to find the “perfect” bag. You also don’t need a portable easel; just find somewhere where you can sit down and paint.

5. Other Stuff

More of a side note, but just as important is to check the weather and area you’ll be visiting. If it’s sunny, bring a hat and sunscreen! If it’s humid, or in a forested area, bring insect repellent! And if it’s raining, just stay home and reschedule your trip, as your painting won’t survive getting wet.

And of course, bring your wallet, phone, and a bottle of water, otherwise, you won’t get very far. 

Tip #2: Location, Location, Location

When you’ve made your preparations, it’s time to go scouting! Your painting subject will be determined by where you go. Of course, if you have any preferences, you can do a quick search beforehand. 

For example, if you like buildings and/or painting people, then you might want to head to a town or city. If you want to paint a landscape, then you can go on a hike or forest trail. If you want the best of both worlds, a park might do the trick! The point is to just be somewhere outside.

Tip: A plus is if you find a place with a public seating area unless you plan to stand and paint. Painting while standing is fine if you have a portable easel with you, but if not, it may get annoying to have to reach for your tools on the ground every time you need to switch tools or colours.

Once you’ve decided on a place and get there, you’ll need to do a little setting up to make sure your tools are prepped and within easy reach. It’s also a good idea to set up somewhere that won’t disturb others, especially if you’re in the city.

Also, if you do decide to paint a close-up of a human subject, it’s generally good practice to ask for permission from that person beforehand.

Bonus tip: If it’s sunny out, try to set it up in a shaded area, as the heat can not only cause sunburn but will also affect your paints’ drying time.

Tip #3: Quick and Loose Sketch

So you’re all set up and ready to go! If so, then it’s time to start. Pick the subject you’d like to focus on, then spend a few minutes going over some possible compositions.

You can draw thumbnail sketches first, use your phone camera’s viewfinder to see how to frame your subject, or even create your viewfinder with your finger and thumb using both hands.

Alternatively, you can jump straight into sketching or painting. The focus of most plein air sessions is to practice because you have a time limit.

So don’t spend time fussing over getting everything perfect, or worry about making mistakes! If you come with the attitude to learn, then even a bad sketch or painting becomes an opportunity to grow.

Giving yourself a time limit will create more chances to make “happy accidents”! So don’t worry too much, as you can always try again.

One of my favourite styles to do for plein air is what I call a “scrawly” style, where I use a fountain pen with a Fude nib to “scrawl” out what I’m drawing. It’s quick, it’s loose, and it gets the job done while looking good, too!

There’s also the freedom to add or take away things to simplify and/or improve your composition. Don’t feel like you have to draw every single rock, flower, or tree. It’s best to pick and choose what to include, so the focus remains on your subject.

One more thing you can do to enhance your sketch is to add a little visual texture, especially to things like rocks and tree trunks. If they have some sort of patterning, then you can indicate that with small marks, or even include some shading for the darker areas.

Tip #4: Essence Painting

There are a few things to keep in mind when you paint, one of them being that you want to capture the essence of the atmosphere and subject matter rather than going for a photorealistic representation of the colours you see.

This means you’re free to switch up the colours and add contrast where your composition needs to bring out your focal point. For example, in my painting of these 3 rocks, I added darker shadows to the bottom to give them more contrast, and I made the flowers red or orange to help them stand out among the green leaves.

This is where having a limited palette helps you push the boundaries of colour because you can try layering completely different colours, or create mixes you hadn’t thought of before.

I also highly recommend using one large round brush to paint everything, as it forces you to loosen up and stop worrying about painting “within the lines”. And again, paint loosely and quickly for a more easy-going style.

Just be aware of areas of your painting that are wet, as you can’t layer your paint until the paper is dry. You can, however, create some awesome blends and bleeds!

Bonus tip: Don’t be afraid of leaving some white gaps in your painting, or white highlights. They add a little “sparkle” to your painting!

Tip #5: Get Up and Go!

So what are you waiting for? There’s a whole world waiting just outside the door, ready to be painted through your eyes and hands!

And the wonderful thing is that you could even paint the same subject every day for the rest of your life, and each time will still look different from the other.

The world changes, the lighting will change, the weather will change…and so will you, as you improve your skills and gain more understanding of your tools and subject matter.

Wherever you go, and whatever you paint, I wish you all the best in your ventures and adventures and happy painting!

Where is your favourite “plein air” place? Do you find it easier to paint indoors or out? Let us know in the comments below! Also, feel free to subscribe to our email newsletter for more tips and tricks on creating art. We also announce our workshop schedule, giveaways, and new product releases there as well.

Nicola Tsoi is a practising graphic designer and illustrator based in Hong Kong. During her downtime, she likes to watch birds do funny things, search for stories, and bake up a storm. She keeps a pet sourdough starter named Doughy. 

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