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How to enjoy plein air painting when you're just starting out

Updated: Jun 7, 2021

Let me start off by saying I am in no way an expert on plein air painting. I'm a beginner too! I still have so much to learn. Over time, I've made a few changes to my approach that has allowed plein air painting to be more enjoyable. I wanted to share these with you.


Forget about creating a masterpiece....

In the past, I pressured myself to create the perfect painting. I've come to realise this unrealistic for someone with little painting experience and also can turn a very relaxing, positive activity into a stressful, negative one. Instead of trying to paint the perfect painting, focus on doing studies and learning about what you're trying to paint.


Sketch before painting

Before diving in with the pastels and watercolours, draw out what you would like to paint on a few scraps of paper. Walk with your sketchbook and do quick studies to get a feel for the dark and light areas. This helps you review the scene several times before actually painting. Doing this helped me realise that every time I looked at the area I was trying to paint I saw something new and different that I hadn't observed before.


Paint with a group

The COVID pandemic has made this really difficult, but it's still possible if you practice social distancing. In Barbados there is a plein air painting group moderated by Neville Legall whose work and passion I'm always blown away by. The word "happy" can hardly describe how I feel every time I hear him talk about painting. He has this infectious excitement about watercolours that really encourages me to keep going.


Being around more seasoned artists this time helped me to relax and approach what I'm doing with an open mind. Their presence also helped me feel less awkward about being outside with my painting gear which is a fear I have. What if someone walks up and sees how horrible my painting is? This time I couldn't care too much about that cause honestly I wasn't the only one around to look at!


Don't get too hung up on what you're painting with

Don't worry about supplies, how good they are or even if you have the right ones. just get out there and work with what you have. I have found that keeping it SIMPLE is key.


Don't wait for the occasion

I always take my sketchbook or some paper and a clipboard everywhere I go. I've drawn all sorts of stuff at home, when I'm out doing errands, when I go on walks......I keep capturing little moments. Now that I've done that for a few years, when I approached the painting session this time it was less daunting and I took away much more from it because it felt similar to what I'm always doing anyway!


Use fewer colours

Working with colour can be extremely difficult. I have found that limiting yourself to a few colours helps a lot. Especially when they are close to each other on the colour wheel. Doing this helps you minimise creating a painting that looks too muddy.


You may be asking what colours do I take? I think it's best to have one (or a few if you can't help yourself!) of the following:

  • a light tone

  • a medium tone

  • a dark tone

Before heading out, take a black and white photo of the colours you've selected and identify which ones fall into the categories above. As you sketch your scene and identify the areas that fall into dark, light and mid tone apply the respective colour to those areas.


You can come back to it later

Finishing the entire painting on site is an amazing goal. When you're now starting out, however, it may not always be possible to do this. It's always helpful to take photos of your subject and return to it another time. This allows you to approach the work with fresh eyes.


RELAX and have fun

We live in a time where EVERYTHING has turned into a contest and "being your best" somehow means being "better" than the next person. Don't get sucked into making alien air painting an unhealthy contest. When you go out to paint, try to enjoy the process and your surroundings. This time we went to Tent Bay and while I was sitting there, I reaIised I never really listened to the ocean for an extended period before. It was a great experience for me and made me realise that moments like these, as simple as they are, can be missed out on if we don't take the time to slow down.


Painting out doors can be great for your mental health if you let it. It's for everyone, you don't have to be a seasoned painter to do it. The painting I created on site wasn't much of anything but when I see it, everything about that day comes back to my mind. For me, this makes the whole activity worthwhile.


If you're a beginner and you've never painted outdoors before or you've just started out I hope these tips are helpful. I would love to hear your thoughts, drop me a line in the comment section below!





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