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Painting Outdoors with Gamblin Paints
Opus Resource Library

Nothing can replace the authenticity and freshness of stepping outside into the field, taking it all in, and capturing the feeling of being there with your art.

Whether you’re a beginner or you want to expand your skills and techniques, this short guide from Michael Chesley Johnson contains the must-have tips for painting beautiful landscapes outdoors. Michael works in oil, pastel, and gouache in the American Southwest, coastal Maine, and the Canadian Maritimes. From seas to desert mountains, he’s seen it all and painted nearly every landscape, and has all the tips and tricks you need to get started plein air painting.

plein air painting with  Michael Chesley Johnson

Many of us might agree that painting in the studio is so much easier. In the studio, you can paint any time of day, regardless of what’s happening outside your window. Weather that would strike fear in the heart of the postman causes you no concern. Plus, you can start up a pot of coffee, put on your favorite playlist, check your e-mail, take a nap, monitor the laundry—well, you get the picture.

But without the outdoor experience, your paintings will always lack a convincing sense of sunlight and natural colour harmonies. Plus, paintings made “in the wild” possess a wonderful, exciting energy that those made from photos just don’t have.

And if you’re a landscape painter, don’t you just love being immersed in your subject matter?

Plein air painting is simply painting from life, outdoors. 

You can stand at an easel or you can sit in a chair, on a stool or even on the ground. You can paint under the open sky or under a picnic shelter with a view. You can paint from the front seat of your car—or even from inside your house, looking out a window. It can be as simple—or as complicated—as you like.

Always go out with a goal. Having a goal gives you a more successful—and more enjoyable—experience.

Here are 3 simple goals to get you moving.

Exploring Outdoors

Goal 1: Explore

If you’re new to an area, you’ll likely have a more satisfying experience exploring a bit first. Rather than packing a full painting kit, choose to make small sketches. Imagine the Grand Canyon. You have to break the canyon down into small, easily-digested bits. For example, a pencil study of some of the nearest cliffs and their beautifully-twisted trees. Then, make a few color sketches of the rocks and canyon walls. Over time, you will build up a base of knowledge about the canyon and how light and color work within its majestic walls. Later on, you’ll be able to more easily create paintings that captured the scope and beauty of the canyon. You’re main goal when starting with a new area is to gather reference material.

Sometimes, you may want to go out and collect references for a specific studio project. Although the process is similar to exploring a new area, it has a focus. For example, the season can change the entire mood of your subject. The bottom of the creek, when the water is low, displays a beautiful, warm glow when the light hits it just right. The waterfall, after a good rain, trickles over rocks in a very pleasing way. Plan to visit your area several times during different seasons like late winter, early spring, or mid-summer. Try to make several small studies of the waterfall when the flow was just right, and also of the creek when the water exhibited that beautiful glow. Once back in the studio, you can combine all these references into a single large oil painting.

plein air painting with  Michael Chesley Johnson

Goal 2: Practice a skill or solve a problem. 

One of the best ways to improve as a painter is to identify a skill that needs improving or a problem that needs solving. For example, you may have trouble depicting a sense of strong sunlight. Although we can’t exactly match the value of strong sunlight with oil paint, we can create the illusion of its luminosity with the skilled control of color temperature and value contrast. To achieve this skill, in the field and with your subject before you, you can carefully observe these qualities of light and learn to create this illusion

Goal 3: Aim to create a finished painting. 

Probably the most difficult goal to achieve is that of creating a finished painting on-location. Why? You need both your skill and your powers of observation at their peak. Many artists save this goal for plein air painting events, where the sponsoring organization requires finished paintings for sale or auction. You’ll want to be in top form for this. You’ll need plenty of sleep the night before, followed by a hearty breakfast with strong coffee (or tea) and then a short hike to relax, and only you might be ready. Plus, as mentioned in  Goal #1 , you may need to have been observing and sketching beforehand, preferably on location, so decisions about subject and design come almost automatically.

plein air painting

Remember to always take only what you need , and keep it ready to go .

You can find plenty of excuses to not go out and paint: “It’s just so much stuff!” “I can’t carry all that!”

Sure, when you first start out with plein air painting, you may not know exactly what you’ll need in the field. It’s a guarantee that you’ll take more than necessary the first time. Starting with a good supply list will help, and experience will show what you really need and what can be left behind.

Another excuse is: “I’m not quite ready.”

We can totally relate and know there’s a certain amount of prep that needs to happen before you go out. But if you keep your gear ready to go at all times, this will cut down dramatically on the fuss of getting things together. Keep a shoulder bag with the full kit plus a fresh panel or canvas ready, so you literally can “grab and go.”

plein air painting

What should you take when headed out into the field?

While technically you could paint with a variety of mediums, oil colors serve as an ideal choice for hitting the right color notes of the landscape. You can mix just about any color from a limited palette, and since oil can be handled opaquely or transparently, you can achieve a variety of effects. It’s a versatile medium that is useful everywhere, from deserts with pale, muted colors, to woodlands with intense, rich greens, and to the sea, with its incredible range of blues and purples. The downside, of course, is that the paintings will be wet. But a wet panel carrier will get your painting home without smearing Phthalo Green all over the car seat.

plein air painting with  Michael Chesley Johnson

Suggested supply list:

  • A palette of oil colours. Notably important, a set of cool and warm duos for your primaries. Michael has some great suggestions on how to dial in your color temperature and masterfully control a well-rounded palette in his Color Thermostat article

  • Thinner: Gamsol

  • Medium: Solvent-Free Gel (Gels “stay put” on the palette and eliminate the need for messy cups!)

  • Panels or canvases. Since light changes quickly, you have enough time only for a small format, up to about 12×16. You might be a faster painter and thus go larger, but when you’re first starting out, keeping the format on a smaller scale can be helpful

  • Selection of brushes. The less you bring, the less you need to clean later: we recommend flats #8 and #4, and two of each so that one set is for light colors and the other for darks

  • Painting knife: Good not just for cleaning the palette and mixing paint but also for applying paint and scraping down 

Other important items:

  • Field easel

  • Wet panel carrier

  • Lidded metal container for Gamsol

  • Small sketchbook and pencil, for making preparatory value sketches and exploring design ideas

  • A viewfinder to help plan your painting composition
  • Paper towels and small trash bag

  • Multi-tool with pliers + screwdriver, for opening paint tubes, tightening easel parts

  • Umbrella – Useful for keeping the direct sunlight off your painting and palette so you can judge color mixtures more accurately

  • Hat, sunblock, water bottle, snacks. Very important!

You might be a little fearful of going it alone in the field. In that case, find a friend to paint with, or a group to all to out together. Also, painting with others generates a certain, wonderful energy and camaraderie. But if you do decide to paint on your own, make sure you take a cell phone and tell someone where you’ll be and when you’ll be back. Also, be aware of your surroundings—it’s so easy to get caught up in your painting. And finally –  have fun!  This is the most important thing to remember.

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Article Resource: Gamblin Artists Oil Colours