The most important five minutes of plein air painting

Lucille Ball Plein Air Painting
Even Lucy painted in plein air! American actress Lucille Ball (1911 – 1989) painting in the garden of her home, circa 1960. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)

I’m a relatively new plein air painter (about eight months).  Typically, I paint in the studio in the cozy comfort of my home or cabin. Coffee is a mere 5 steps away. My dogs lay by my side. I blare my music, ranging from Henri Mancini to Vivaldi’s Winter. Last spring, I was asked to teach a plein air workshop in September at our local arts center. I’ve painted outside once or twice before, but definitely did not consider myself a plein air painter. With fall on the horizon, I ought to see what the hype was about.

A good artist and teacher prepares. I ventured out to a local park. The first painting I did was a muddy mess. What was I doing wrong? I stumbled on a video called “Outside the Lines,” an easy to watch documentary about the history and how-to of plein air painting. The host mentioned Asher B. Durand painting in the Adirondack area of Schroon Lake  in 1837. The town is about 10 minutes from my cabin. I took it as a sign; I should paint plein air! I then watched every possible video, listened to every podcast and read many books. I went out practically every day last summer trying new techniques, palettes, brushes and subjects. It was like the movie Groundhog Day, with each day presenting new challenges. Once I forgot a canvas to paint on. I have forgotten medium, turpentine (“turps”, which I only use outside), and once, I even spilled all my turps. Pine needles have fallen into my paintings, along with bugs I attempted to get out of sticky paint. My easel has collapsed, and if I am not remote enough, a family will photo bomb my painting.  Despite the uncertainty and unpredictability, I love it! I can’t get enough.  It’s an adventure each time I pull out of the driveway (with my coffee!). What I have learned, I am realizing, is that most critical work happens in the first five minutes, even before I touch a brush.

Here’s a snapshot into my current routine. I am sure plein air painters are always trying to streamline their process, as time and cargo are precious. Finding a spot to paint is an art form in itself. I’ll talk more about that in another post. But let’s assume you have found the spot and lugged your gear to that ideal location. Here’s 5 tips to help you have a good start to your painting:

Beaver in stream
Be ready for anything! This beaver swam into my painting!
  1. Consider what the sun will do in the time you have. I once set up in front of a birch tree that was beautifully lit. Two minutes later, the clouds rolled in and I had to adjust.
  2. Take a picture as soon as you get there. Some people will say not to, but I want to record what it looked like the second I decided this was the place to paint.
  3. Look. Before you touch a brush, just look.  Your adrenaline will be high and for me, it helps me to just SLOW DOWN and take in my subject.  I typically pray/meditate and thank God for providing me the opportunity.  I want to make a deeper connection with my subject. I think about it in history, and what it has seen over the years.  Think about WHY the place caught your heart, not just your eye. What was it that appealed to you?
  4. Make a few thumbnails with your horizon line in mind. I like to use a viewfinder (View Catcher).
  5. Breath, relax and paint. Oh, and savor every second; this is the good stuff!

PS. As I write this, my Dad, a guide-boat builder and woodworker, is building me a lighter weight set up. I’m finding my current Guerilla Campaign Box, easel and supplies are too heavy. Thanks, Dad!

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