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Take it Outside

With summer right around the corner, it is tempting to leave your artwork and studio behind in search of relaxation and fun in the sun. Why not have both by taking your art along! Read on as outdoor artists share what makes working en plein air work for them.

How do you select your scene and location? Are there specific elements that draw you to it?

Maria Josenhans – Oils
In most cases I don't think I select a location so much as it selects me. Over the years I have come to trust my first instinct. Generally, over thinking will cause me to be too safe instead of tapping into the energy that first drew me to the spot.

Bob McMurray – Oils & OPEN Acrylics
I look to the path of the sun so that I am assured of shade on my canvas for at least a few hours. Usually, I will prowl the area at the outset taking photos of a number of possible painting subjects.

Alfonso Tejada – Watercolour
My favorite subject is a townscape urban or rural. What draws my attention is the contrast of light and shadows as they mark and define space. The second elements that I always look for are colours and forms creating the essence of my subject matter.

Sigrid Albert – Watercolour, Pen & Ink
I like views down a street or an alley that offer an interesting panorama or narrow vertical view. I like sketching ordinary sights that most people might overlook within a few blocks of my neighborhood.

David McHolm – Oils
More often, on first arriving, nothing looks worth painting. So set up and start painting. The magic happens later. It can be very much like life drawing, you may not like the model but you paint him or her anyway.

Marilyn Timms – Watercolour & Ink
It must be interesting enough to hold my attention with the colour combinations attracting me the most. I really enjoy places that include reflections, landscapes, boats and glass.

Michael King – Oils
I am looking for something of interest, whether it is a building, a tree or a lighting effect. These same three elements can be applied to how I choose my scene or subject as well. When sketching out value sketches before I start painting I use a sketchbook and a soft pencil. When establishing the scene to my painting surface, I'll either use charcoal or a brush with some thinned pigment.

How do you navigate the changing light or the movement of elements?

David McHolm – Oils
Put your light and shadows into the painting as early as you can, then don't chase the light by changing where you first put it. If a person walks through your vista and added something that you want in your picture, block it in then and there. Just a mark on the canvas may be all you need.

Marilyn Timms – Watercolours & Ink
I block in the large shapes as quickly as possible (taking a quick digital photo), then work more detail in by looking for the shape I need somewhere else. If it is people I am depicting, I pick the least active person and paint them using simple shapes and little detail.

Alan Wylie – Acrylics
I always try to establish the light forms very quickly in the morning, although as the time goes by, you may find the light pattern change to something more interesting. Make sure you take plenty of reference shots throughout your painting time, as you may decide to do a studio piece later.

Sigrid Albert – Watercolour, Pen & Ink
I often draw outlines first and add shadows quickly at the end. When it comes to sketches of people, they may have a curb running through them, because I sometimes draw the street first, then populate it with people later.

Alfonso Tejada – Watercolour
The first element that I mark very clearly in my sketch is the outline of the shadows as casted at that time and use this outline to define form and areas of interest. Sometimes as time passes and the shadows move, I consider modifying my first outline only if I feel that it is in keeping with my original idea.

Michael King – Oils
I make an effort to paint early morning or later in the evening when the shadows are at the best. I deal with this fast changing light by blocking in the shadows first so I maintain the suns directionality.

Do you complete the work all in one session outside or do you continue to work into the piece once you are back in the studio?

Sigrid Albert – Watercolour, Pen & Ink
I try to do the complete sketch, including colours, on location. It has spontaneity and a pleasing imperfection that comes from being drawn on location. Sometimes a sketch may inspire a whole new work that I do in the studio.

Janice Robertson – Acrylics
I wouldn't normally work on one image for more than 3 or 4 hours. My plein air paintings are quite different than my studio work as they are very simple. If I like the way a painting is going in the field, I will sometimes work on it more back in the studio.

Alan Wylie – Acrylics
I usually paint no more than two hours on any piece as I usually keep to smaller sizes, 8"×10" and 11"×14". The pieces for me are the finished works and are never touched in the studio.

Maria Josenhans – Oils
I've pretty much made a rule for myself: Never try to continue or touch-up a plein air painting after I've left the site - unless of course I want to completely ruin the painting.

Marilyn Timms – Watercolours & Ink
I work towards the most finished piece possible and, sometimes, I finish it on the spot. I may do a little tidying up and detailing back in the studio. I will sometimes use the plein air piece and its digital photo as a study for a large or more detailed painting.

Alfonso Tejada – Watercolour
I like to work on one piece at a time and try to finish it on the spot. If I cannot finish it I try to return the next day at the same time as when I started the previous day to reset my experiential perception and keep going . If I do not return in 3 days after I consider my piece unfinished and store it.

Michael King – Oils
I always am out to capture the experience of painting from life. I paint for the reference of the experience. I rarely, if ever, continue to work on a piece in the studio.

How do you protect your work - and yourself - from the elements?

Michael King – Oils
For protection, I take the usual suspects; rain poncho, sunscreen, water, etc. Since I am painting in oil, I have no need to protect it from the elements. Rain just beads off the oil paint, and bugs can be picked off when it is dry.

Maria Josenhans – Oils
I've got a small umbrella and it's not for me, it's for shading and protecting my painting and palette. For myself I've always got a wide brim hat, sunscreen, and jacket.

Bob McMurray – Oils & OPEN Acrylics
If it is windy I use bungee cords to anchor my french easel to something heavy. If the weather is more extreme with heavy rain or snow a retreat is in order, often to my van where I may wait it out or do some sketching.

Sigrid Albert – Watercolour, Pen & Ink
I don't go out when it's too cold or too wet. But my watercolour sketchbooks can handle a few drops of rain. As far as I'm concerned, that is the additional charm that comes from drawing outside.

What tools and mediums do you work with? What are some advantages / disadvantages of working with them outdoors?

Jim McFarland - Acrylics
One of the issues with acrylics is they dry quickly especially on a hot dry day. So to be successful with acrylics requires you to paint so the quick drying is an advantage. It is easy to paint over the dry paint, plus what you do not like in your painting, paint over it.

Sigrid Albert – Watercolour, Pen & Ink
I use hardcover sketchbooks like Moleskine for a surface to sketch on. For bigger work, I have a Winsor & Newton Bristol Watercolour Easel. I enjoy using Pitt Artist Pens because they come in all kinds of colours, sizes, and also as a brush pen. It is not water-soluble, so I can go over it with watercolour or other water-based paint afterwards. I have a Koi 24-Pan Travel Watercolour Kit with a water-reservoir brush. I love the selection of 24 colours and it’s easy to transport.

Bob McMurray – Oils & OPEN Acrylics
With oils I use Stevenson Alkyd Gel to mix with the oils and retain the firmness of texture while accelerating their drying time. Within an hour or two of laying paint in this manner, I can paint over the original paint without disturbing it. The advantage of OPEN Acrylics is their ability to blend on the canvas in warmer weather, they remain open longer and do not dry up as quick as regular acrylics. They also dry much quicker than oils for transporting later.

Maria Josenhans – Oils
I work strictly in oil. It can get a bit stiff when working in the winter but that's nothing that a bit of Linseed Oil can't fix. I've got a great pochade box for working 6"×8" or 8"×10" made by Alla Prima Pochade. It holds my paint, medium, brushes, palette, and up to 4 wet panels. It's a fast, easy and convenient set-up that I always have loaded and ready to go.

David McHolm – Oils
I prefer Oils on every level. Like most painters, I have worked in every medium, starting with watercolour, then acrylics, always oils. Each medium will talk to you, so my advice is to try them all.

Marilyn Timms – Watercolours & Ink
I work on surfaces that are lightweight, easy to pack and portable like watercolour paper taped to foam board, a good quality coil-bound watercolour sketchbook or small gallery wrap canvas. I prefer watercolours for their spontaneity and flow – I feel so at home with them.

Alfonso Tejada – Watercolour
I work in watercolour and for me it is the easiest and less messy way to work with outdoors. I work on foamcore holding my watercolour paper in a vertical position. In my demos I use Bond paper or Bristol because the water is absorbed on the paper immediately, allowing for little blending time with the watercolours. I like that because it forces me to work faster and not have me second guessing my work.

Michael King – Oils
I work in oil colours as I prefer the working characteristics of it. Thin washes provide outstanding areas of transparency and richness while creating random patterns as it drips and dries. I use a pochade box, specifically the Alla Prima Pochade Box, to paint outdoors with. It works great for me as it has two drawers for paint, mediums, and has storage for four 11x14 boards.

Alan Wylie – Acrylics
I always paint in acrylics on location. They dry fast, which allows me to overpaint quickly, so it doesn't take long to establish a fairly strong image.

What are your top 3 "must have" art materials for working outdoors and why do you like them?

Alan Wylie – Acrylics
A comfortable chair, a flask of hot tea, and long johns in case it gets cold.

Marilyn Timms – Watercolours & Ink
Mijello watercolour palette, Arches 140lb watercolour block 12"×16” and my Winsor & Newton Watercolour Easel.

Michael King – Oils
A good Pochade Box, fantastic brushes (hog and synthetic) and Gamblin Paint.

Bob McMurray – Oils & OPEN Acrylics
A rolling supply box with an extendable handle and a covering sleeve with numerous pockets. A French easel, Pochade Box or other paint box to serve as my work area, and a good camera to capture the light and shadows.

Janice Robertson – Acrylics
I couldn't get by without my portable easel, a lightweight fold up stool and a collapsible water container.

Have you modified any of your tools to make them work better for travel / in an outdoor setting?

Maria Josenhans – Oils
I cut down the handles of my brushes to make them fit more easily into my paint box. I also cut down disposable palette pads to fit into my pochade box for an easier clean up.

Bob McMurray – Oils & OPEN Acrylics
I've modified the manner in which the Sta-Wet Palette is prepared to offset the liquidity of the OPEN Acrylics. I have also used a bungee cord to keep my french easel from accidentally opening or tipping over. A 16"×20" canvas panel sits on top of my rolling carrying box and serves as a small table. Plus, in a pinch, it can be painted on.

Michael King – Oils
The only modification I have ever made was to my pochade box so it could hold a 16"×20" panel. I have even been able to tweak it to mount a 16"×20" board due to my experience last year with the Opus Outdoor Challenge.

David McHolm – Oils
I have built canvas-carrying boxes that can hold a couple of canvas to a rack. Almost like a dish drying rack. I also leave the picture on my french easel which is designed to hold the picture while being carried.

What do you carry your supplies in and how do you transport your work home?

David McHolm – Oils
I've gone through about 5 French Easels since starting this plein air thing and I still prefer a good wood French easel over these more technical easels. The French Easel works for me because that one box holds everything I need for a painting day.

Janice Robertson – Acrylics
Everything except my easel can fit in a backpack. If there's not much walking involved with the location for the day, I also have a plastic toolbox with wheels that can carry a lot of stuff.

Maria Josenhans – Oils
I carry all my plein air gear in a regular daypack/backpack. To transport my painting home, if it doesn’t fit in my pochade box, I have these awesome wet panel carriers from PanelPak. They make it easy to carry 2 panels face to face with a spacer in between them. They are completely encased and protected with this.

Sigrid Albert –Watercolour, Pen & Ink
I like to ride my bike around Vancouver and quickly grab my sketching bag. So I have a small, light-weight travel backpack and a few ziplock bags to keep my watercolours, sketchbooks and pens from rubbing off on each other.

Michael King – Oils
My pochade box has a built in storage unit so all I need is that and a backpack to carry all my supplies.

How do you adjust your process when painting / drawing outdoors versus painting in a studio environment?

Maria Josenhans – Oils
Painting outside is such a completely different experience than studio work. The most pronounced difference to me would be my shift in colour perception. I become the sole translator of everything I see. There are no intermediaries to sway my perceptions nor aids. It is all a very personal experience - no one or nothing to blame when I don't get it right, but even better when I do.

Marilyn Timms – Watercolours & Ink
Plein air painting is a richer experience for me in many ways since the atmosphere seems to ingrain itself into the surface somehow, so the work is fresher, vibrant and more fun. The studio feels more like work to me.

Michael King – Oils
Outdoors provides a sense of urgency that helps me focus on the important aspects and not the details. The studio environment takes that sense away and I find I have to keep reminding myself how important the impression is and not the fine details.

Sigrid Albert – Watercolour, Pen & Ink
I do a lot of looking at what's in front of me and trying to jot it down as fast as possible. In the studio, I do more abstract work, and I take my time, I plan it, I think about it a lot. I will go back to a painting or drawing over many days. But outside, I get to finish it on the spot and I don't question much.

Bob McMurray – Oils & OPEN Acrylics
Painting outdoors differs from studio painting in a number of ways. You are in direct contact with your subject matter outdoors - you can feel the heat or cold, hear the wind or the birds, smell the essence of your location, touch the texture of the elements of your painting - you are there in three dimensions.

Alfonso Tejada – Watercolour
I work better with natural light and I like the feeling of the surrounding noises and life taking place while I am working. It is as if you become part of the place you are working in, no matter where it is, I prefer this anytime.

David McHolm – Oils
Because of the nature of painting outside, you tend to paint faster, more spontaneously, with more intuition than in the studio where you tend to mull over every detail and brush stoke. I think the most interesting adjustment is finishing a painting you started outdoors. It’s the memory of that time that I believe gives your studio work more life.

What is your advice to someone who hasn't worked outdoors before?

Alan Wylie – Acrylics
Always start by doing a couple of thumbnail sketches to establish the proportions and design structure. Just remember that while you're painting, everybody watching thinks you’re already amazing because they cannot even draw stick people! Therefore you are amazing!

Bob McMurray – Oils & OPEN Acrylics
Don't be disappointed if you don't get a masterpiece - be happy with the experience of looking, seeing and expressing yourself. "Experience is what you get when you don't get what you want."

Alfonso Tejada – Watercolour
Do not expect to create a masterpiece in this outing and do not be afraid to let people see your work. Strangers will never be ungracious or insulting of your work. They admire what others dare to do and they appreciate the challenges that you are taking with working outdoors

Jim McFarland – Acrylics
It is better in my opinion to be out in the real world, painting, than locked away alone in your studio. People see you, talk to you, and share the world that you are enjoying and painting. Sometimes they will even want too purchase the images that they have shared with you.

Sigrid Albert – Watercolour, Pen & Ink
Just take the plunge, get sketching on your own, love it, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. I also run a Meetup group called "Vancouver Urban Sketchers" (www.meetup.com/Vancouver-Urban-Sketchers). It's a friendly community to share information and find buddies to sketch with.

Maria Josenhans – Oils
I don't think I'll ever get over being self-conscious when working in public, but I'm OK with that. Just get out and paint... now!

David Mcholm – Oils
Come join a group like Men in Hats and build a routine and practice. Don't be afraid to ask to join someone and paint with them. Most plein air painters enjoy helping someone get started.

Marilyn Timms – Watercolours & Ink
My advice would be to travel as light as possible, relax and soak up the scene a little before you begin to paint and, finally, tell yourself it is just a sketch. It takes time to get comfortable out there but you never will if you never try.

Janice Robertson – Acrylics
Start with a thumbnail sketch to decide on your composition. Keep it very simple and don't add too much detail. Working small is best for most people, unless you are a very loose painter.

Michael King – Oils
Just pack up your stuff and paint. Make the mistakes and move forward. Possibly find a mentor or group (like www.pleinairbc.com) and paint with them.

Learn more about these artists and their work!

Maria Josenhans www.mariajosenhans.com
Bob McMurray www.artists.ca/rmcmurray
Alfonso Tejada www.alfonsotejada.com
David McHolm www.davidmcholm.com
Marilyn Timms www.timmsfineart.com
Sigrid Albert www.urbansketcher.ca
Janice Robertson www.janicerobertson.ca
Michael King www.michaelking.ca
Jim McFarland www.jimmcfarland.ca
Alan Wylie www.alan-wylie.ca

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