10 Reasons You Should Be Plein Air Painting

Plein air painting has many benefits.  Listed below are 10 reasons that I think are important.  Check them out, and then get outside and paint!  There’s no reason not to.

10. Being outside gives you needed vitamin D: The benefits of vitamin D are incredible:  Aids the immune system, reduces the risk of MS, helps maintain cognitive functioning later in life, helps maintain a healthy body weight, can reduce the symptoms and severity of asthma attacks, reduces the risk of rheumatoid arthritis in women, protects from low levels of radiation, reduces the risk of cancer, aids in recovery from TB, and reduces the risk of heart attack.  These reasons alone should get you outside painting!  http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/161618.php

9. You get some exercise: especially if you hike around a bit to find a great spot to paint.  Carting all your materials with you adds to the physicality of the activity.  Getting what I call “incidental exercise” is always a good thing – way more fun than having to go to the gym.

8. You get to see places you might not go to or appreciate otherwise. Living close to a national park, state park, or other tourist destination does not guarantee that you frequent them.  Once you start plein air painting, you may just become a regular.  There are members of The High Desert Plein Air Artists that have never been to some of the locations we have gone even though they live close, and probably pass by them on a regular basis.  In searching for new places to paint I have discovered areas that I never knew existed.  You might even discover that your yard holds incredible potential when you don’t have time to travel elsewhere.  Once you become hooked on plein air painting, you won’t look at the world around you quite in the same way – everything becomes a potential subject.

7. You get to experience your subject matter on all sensory levels – not just sight. When you are in your studio, working from a photograph, the only sensory stimulation you get is the visual from the photo.  Every other sense is basing input on your studio’s environment.  When you are out, immersed in your subject matter, you not only see it, but you are feeling the wind, sun, and temperature, you are smelling the plants and earth around you, you are hearing animals in the bushes, the wind in the trees, and you might even have the opportunity to taste some berries growing on a bramble (OK, that one might be a stretch, but I hope you are getting my point).  All that sensory input is contributing to your interpretation of the area you are painting and comes through, resulting in a richer and more inspired piece.  Paintings done in studio from photographs just seem more sterile to me.

6. You get to meet people from all over the world. I always find it interesting to see how many different languages I hear when I am out painting.  Some people have a genuine interest in what you are doing and like to ask questions.  Others will just make a kind comment and pass on by, and then there are those that don’t acknowledge you in any way.  Everyone has their own comfort level dealing with strangers.  Personally, I don’t mind talking briefly to people.  Some really like to talk, and that can get a little frustrating when you know your light is changing fast and you want to get back to painting, but for the most part that hasn’t been my experience.  I guess as an educator I feel compelled to indulge people’s curiosity.  I try to always be polite.  You just never know, some viewers might even become future customers (I usually have business cards on hand just in case).  Also, if you join a plein air group, you get to meet other artists that share your passion.  I have been so fortunate to have met many lovely people that I would probably never have known otherwise.

5. You get to join a small, but growing, group of artists that are carrying on a time honored tradition of master artists of the past. You will be following in the footsteps of great artists such as: Claud Monet, Pierre- Auguste Renoir, Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt, William Merrit Chase, Paul Cezanne, Vincent Van Gogh, Maynard Dixon, and Edgar Payne to name a few.  I am certainly not at their level of mastery, but I feel pleased knowing that I can share this practice with them.  Today, the plein air movement is catching on.  Artists around the world are taking up the challenge to paint in the open air. Plein Air Magazine is one of the best-selling art magazines, and plein air events, competitions, workshops and conventions are becoming more plentiful every year.  All these people can’t be wrong!

4. You will create memories of your experiences that go far beyond a simple photograph. They are your interpretations; you choose what is important, a camera can’t do that.  How many times have you been on a vacation or out for the day and have taken pictures of what you think are amazing shots, only to get home, view the photos, and wonder what it was that was so spectacular about the picture you took?  I don’t know about you, but this used to happen to me all the time.  I would have all these pictures taken with the intention of doing amazing paintings from them, only to look at the photos and think, “What was so great about this?”  Had I been there painting plein air, I would have been able to capture what impressed me and not have had to trust a camera to record it.

3. You will take your paintings to a different level. If you have been accustomed to basing your paintings on photographs, painting from life will probably be a challenge at first.  Photographs are already cropped down and in 2 dimensions, so translating them to canvas or paper does not require the same observation that painting from life does.  When you are outside with the world around you life- sized, you have a lot to look at and many decisions to make.  You need to decide on your composition, what you will include, what you will leave out, how you will simplify the details, and how you will interpret the 3 dimensional world in 2 dimensions on your canvas.  You will be learning to really see for yourself, and you will be eliminating your dependence on photographs. All these decisions you are making and skills you are learning will ultimately result in your abilities as an artist to soar.

2. You will learn to paint fast and make quick decisions. When you paint outside, the world around you is changing.  The sun moves across the sky and changes the patterns of light and shadow.  Clouds move across the sky, changing their shapes and the light.  As the day moves on, the colors that you see shift and change.  It fascinates me how paintings based on the same place have different color influences based on the time of day.  Monet had this same fascination when he painted his wheatstacks.  Claude_Monet_-_Meules,_milieu_du_jour

The subtleties of these shifts cannot be recorded with a camera, at least not any camera I own, and need to be experienced and observed in real life. Because of all these changes, plein air artists need to make quick decisions and paint fast.  This is why plein air artists tend to work small.  After an hour or so, the light has changed significantly, and after 2 hours the scene is nearly unrecognizable to what is was when you started.  Painting quickly loosens up your brushstrokes and helps an artist focus on what is really important in a scene.  This distillation of the scene, in the end, improves the painting.

1. Your studio paintings will improve. Many plein air artists work in their studios also.  Some days the weather doesn’t cooperate, you don’t have time to get out, or you want to work on a larger piece.  All of your outdoor experiences will come through in your studio work.  I base my studio work on my plein air pieces when I want to work on a larger piece.  Sometimes I will continue to work on my plein air pieces from my memory.  I almost never use photographs any more.  If I have taken a picture of a scene I was working on, I usually find them so inadequate that they are of little use to me.  When you do work in your studio, you will find yourself making decisions based on all of the intense observation you participated in while painting plein air.  You will know your subject matter on a deeper level, and that will come out in your studio work.  Isn’t becoming a better artist what all artists want?  Plein air can get you there.

I hope that these reasons will inspire you to get out and give plein air a try.  Consider it a challenge!  You have absolutely nothing to lose, and the potential benefits are worth any risk you might be imagining.  If you don’t want to go out by yourself, there are plein air groups in most areas.  If you live in the high or low desert area, and would like to become part of the High Desert Plein Air Artists, contact me and I will put you on our e-mail list.  We meet the 3rd Saturday of each month at various locations and would love to have you join us!

If you can think of other benefits of plein air painting that I haven’t mentioned, please share them in the comments!

If you want to be notified of future posts you can subscribe to this blog.  If you know people who might be interested in this blog, please share it with them.  I want to share the joy of plein air painting with as many people as I can, and you can help me!


Big Morongo Canyon Preserve – A Beautiful Place to Paint

On Saturday, January 17th, 2015, the High Desert Plein Air Artists met at the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve to paint.  We could not have asked for a more beautiful day!  It was clear, around 65 – 70 degrees, a slight breeze – pretty perfect for January (or any month for that matter).

The Big Morongo Canyon Preserve is an oasis in our otherwise dry desert.  It transitions from the Mojave Desert to the Colorado Desert.  The Morongo Fault creates water drainage from the surrounding mountains to form the Big Morongo Creek and marsh areas in the preserve.

The preserve is a bird watcher’s paradise.  Most of the people I met were there adding birds to their notebooks.  It was fun to see one gentleman from Canada get so excited about seeing a California Thrasher – he was positively giddy!  He had only ever seen one before in his life, and he saw two while we were talking.  For those who don’t know, California Thrashers are pretty common in the high desert.  They are often found on the ground rustling up the leaves.  They are midsized, brown and have very long curved beaks.  Click here for an image and more info – I could not get an image to download for some reason…

The preserve is a beautiful place for plein air artists as well. The preserve consists of 31,000 acres of desert land.  If you do not like to move far from your car, there is plenty of subject matter right by the parking lot.  There are picnic tables and a restroom.   If you are like me and prefer to explore an area more, there are miles of hiking trails – many of them are boardwalks, so if you have a rolling cart you can pull it easily.  There is a kiosk at the beginning of the trails with lots of information: trail maps, animal track identification pamphlets, etc.  The trails are well marked and nicely maintained. The one drawback (for artists) to the boardwalks is that there isn’t enough room to set up along them.  You can’t go off the boardwalks because it’s all marshy on either side.  There are, however, observation areas along the way where there is room to set up.  Some of the trails do go away from the marsh area and are dirt trails, so you can find areas to set up along those.

Kiosk at the trail heads
Kiosk at the trail heads


One of the many boardwalks throughout the preserve
One of the many boardwalks throughout the preserve
One of many "outlook" areas set off the main boardwalk trails
One of many “outlook” areas set off the main boardwalk trails

The subject matter in the preserve is varied.  There are expanses of meadows, giant cotton wood trees, palm trees,  mountains, canyons, a stream and marsh, and a huge variety of other plants ( I am not a botanist, but here is a list of the plants in the preserve just to give you an idea of how many plants there are in the preserve.)

There is lots of variety here.
There is lots of variety here.

For my first painting of the day, I set up where the shadow of a mountain was casting over a trail and a variety of trees and bushes.  The sunlight was skimming the tops of the foliage, bringing out the reds, oranges, and pinks of them.   I didn’t realize when I set up that I was at a major intersection of trails.  Because of this, I had lots of onlookers throughout the morning.  Several people asked if they could take my picture while I painted and others asked questions.  They were all polite and apologetic for disturbing me, and it really didn’t bother me at all.  One man was so interested in my work that he wanted to know where I sold my work, so I was able to offer him a business card with my website on it.

The scene I was painting, but I neglected to take a picture of my painting
The scene I was painting, but I neglected to take a picture of my painting

We (Holly, Susan and I), met at the kiosk area after a morning of painting and had a nice visit.  I need to be a better recorder of our outings, and unfortunately I didn’t think to take pictures of their work (sorry ladies!) They were both working in pastels and did beautiful pieces.  Susan’s was a close-up of a trail and the tangle of trees and vegetation.  Holly did a vista view with mountains in the far distance and a line of cotton woods where the tops were being lit up by the sun. I hope to get better at taking pictures of fellow artists in future paint outs.

I opted to stay after lunch and do one more painting.  For this one I set up right on the edge of the parking lot.  I tried something different that I think I will always do from now on.  I know that starting with a toned canvas is the way to go when painting, but I never seem to have the time to get it done before I head out, so I would just use a plain white canvas.  For this painting, I decided to tone it and then paint right on it without waiting for it to dry.  I laid down a mix of burnt sienna, ultramarine blue and white.  Then I wiped most of it off so the canvas board was just stained with some color.  Wow!  It worked, and made my entire painting process go much faster.    Working fast is so important when plein air painting because the light changes quickly.   This experience was a reminder to me to always be willing to experiment – one never knows when it will work out for the best, and if it doesn’t, then you just add it to your list of things to not do.

My second painting, right next to the parking lot.
My second painting, right next to the parking lot – it’s not done yet

I hope this post will inspire you to head out to the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve   – even if it is just to go on a hike.  Click here for visitor information and directions.  If you enjoyed my post, I invite you to sign up to subscribe to my blog.  Also, please feel free to comment and share your insights.


What You Will Need to Start Plein Air Painting

Do you want to take your art to a new level?  Do you want to have a stronger connection to what you are painting?  Do you want to follow in the footsteps of some of the greatest artists ever to put brush to canvas?  Maybe you just want to have a lot of fun while painting (more than usual)?  Then you need to try painting in the open air, or plein air painting.

Super!  So you’ve decided to take the plunge.  But what will it take to venture out from the safety and convenience of your studio?  Well, that depends on what medium you want to use.  If you just want to do some sketching, all you need is a sketch book and pencils, pens, charcoal – whatever you want to use.  There are also small watercolor sets that you can get that are super portable.  That might be a good way to get your feet wet.  But if you are like me, and watercolors are not your medium of choice, and you want to paint in oils or acrylics, then you will need to take more things with you.  (I am not a pastel artist, so I can’t give advice on that medium, but I would think that a lot of the following materials would be needed to use pastels as well.)  The following lists the equipment that I take with me when I go out plein air painting.  When possible, I have included websites for some of the items.

  1. Pochade Box: Pochade boxes hold your paints, brushes and panels (wet and dry).  They also are your pallet, and they support panels while you paint.  There are lots of different types, but mine is the “Bitterroot” model from Alla Prima http://alla-prima-pochade.myshopify.com/  They offer several different sized boxes from 6X8 to 11X12.  Their products are not cheap, but you really get what you pay for.  I absolutely love mine!  They are handmade here in America.
My pochade box all closed up.
My pochade box all closed up.
photo 5 (1)
My pochade box opened up.


  1. Tripod: You will need something to hold your pochade box while you paint.  My pochade box attaches to my tripod.  It’s just a standard camera tripod, and the pochade box has a place to attach standard tripods.
My tripod
My tripod

There are lots of choices out there for tripods/easels/paint boxes.  Some people like the “Julien” style easel/paintbox combination.  I had one, but they are pretty heavy and I like to be able to go away from my car, so it just didn’t work for me.  There are also “Soltek” easels that look very nice.  They are a box and easel in one, and are very light, but I’ve been so happy with my box that I didn’t see any reason to change.  The above just happens to be what I use, but you might want to do some research and see what works best for you.

  1. Paints: I don’t take a lot of different colors with me.  Usually, I have:  white, alizeron crimson, cad. red light, ultramarine blue, thalo blue, cad. yellow, permanent green light, burnt sienna, and yellow ochre.   I like to use the water miscible oil paints.  They are less toxic, don’t need turpentine or mineral spirits (you can just rinse your brushes in water), and dry a little faster than oils.  They are still oil paints, but have somehow been produced to work with water.  I see no difference in the end results between traditional oils and these – and they behave the same way as traditional oils when you are working with them.  I have only used “Grumbacher Max”, but most of the “big” oil paint companies have their own version.
  2. Medium: I use turpenoid natural, which is non-toxic and not flammable.  I mix some turpenoid natural with water miscible linseed oil as my medium.  My pochade box came with a little jar for medium that fits in the drawers.
  3. Brushes and Pallet Knives: I usually bring a #6 and a #4 flat or filbert bristle brush. I used to bring more, but I found I didn’t tend to use the other ones, so why bother?  I also bring some pallet knives for mixing paint and cleaning my pallet.  I don’t usually paint with them, but for some artists, that is all they use. These all fit conveniently in my box.
Some well used pallet knives
Some well used pallet knives
  1. Panels: I like to paint on canvas boards. For oil paints, I really like “Centurion OP DLX”. They are already primed and ready to go.  I get them through http://www.jerrysartarama.com/discount-art-supplies/canvas-and-boards/canvas-panels-and-boards/centurion-deluxe-oil-primed-linen-panels.htm   I generally use sizes from 6X8 – 9X12 (the biggest my pochade box will hold).  They are reasonably priced and do not warp (at least I haven’t experienced them warping).When painting plein air, your time is limited because the light changes pretty quickly, so you don’t want to work too big.
  2. Umbrella: I use the “Best Brella”.  It attaches to my tripod and is super useful so you don’t have to find shade to paint in.  http://www.bestbrella.com   You don’t want your painting or pallet in the direct sun because it makes it a lot harder to judge colors correctly.  It’s also a necessity if you paint anywhere that is really hot with little shade.  I live and paint in the Mojave Desert of Southern California and would not think of going out without my umbrella.  I am able to paint scenes that I wouldn’t consider without my umbrella because there would be no shade and the heat would be unbearable.
My umbrella - obviously it's not set up completely.
My umbrella – obviously it’s not set up completely.
  1. Latex gloves I don’t like oil paint all over my hands, and I’m really a messy painter! You should always use gloves –inside or out – if you paint with oil paints.  The solvents and chemicals in them can be very dangerous.  The water miscible paints are not as bad, but better safe than sorry I’d say.
  2. View Finder:  A view finder is a wonderful tool to use when composing a visual image for art.  If you are accustomed to painting from photographs, a view finder will make the transition much easier.  It can be very overwhelming when you get out into “the real world”, and a view finder helps to limit your field of vision.  If you have never used one, I strongly suggest you give it a try!
My viewfinder.  The opening is adjustable and proportionate to any size you want!
My viewfinder. The opening is adjustable and proportionate to any size you want!


You can see how it frames your composition.
You can see how it frames your composition.
  1. Sketch book, pens/pencils/charcoal: It’s so important to do some thumbnail sketches to work out values and composition. It’s a step I used to omit, but since I’ve forced myself to do them, I am much happier with my final results.
  2. Chair/Stool: I don’t have one that I bring because I like to stand when I paint, but some artists might find it convenient.  I have seen very small, compact stools that I have been tempted to buy, but so far have held back.

In addition to the above items, you should always have paper towels, comfortable shoes, drinking water, a hat, layers of clothing, sunscreen, snacks, your phone and a camera.

Because I don’t always want to paint right by my car, I pack all this stuff in a back packing backpack.  I just have to sling it on my back and I have my portable studio with me where ever I go!

So this is everything all packed into my backpack.
So this is everything all packed into my backpack.

If you enjoyed this post, I invite you to subscribe to my blog and share it with your friends.  If you have supplies that you love when you are out plein air painting, please share them in the comments so others (myself included) can learn from you!  If you have been inspired to try plein air painting because of this post, I hope you will come back and let me know how your experience went.

Next weekend, Jan. 17th 2015, the High Desert Plein Air Artists will be having our first paint out of the New Year.  If you are interested in finding out more about our group, please contact me.

New Year’s Greeting, A Focus, and My Appreciation for John G. Rand

Happy New Year to everyone!  May 2015 be your best year ever, full of happiness, health and good fortune!

A resolution I have is to work on this blog, and I have decided to focus my blog on plein air painting.  I knew I needed some direction, and since I am so passionate about painting outside, it makes sense to concentrate on it.  I want to share my passion with others and educate them.  It is a painting practice that some artists have never attempted, and if I can inspire people to take the plunge and give it a try, then I will be proud to have helped others to carry on the time honored tradition.  So, a little trivia for today…

Plein air painting is the act of painting outside, on location, from life.  It is a French phrase that means “in the open air”.  Plein air painting might never have grown into the movement that it is today were it not for American artist John G. Rand in 1841.  What did he do that revolutionized the painting world?  He invented the collapsible metal tube for storing and transporting paint!  Today, we take these tubes for granted, but back then they were new and provided a convenience that had not been realized before.  Prior to their invention, artists were confined to their studios where they had to grind pigments and mix them with linseed oil.  If they wanted to go anywhere else, they had to put the paint in a pig’s bladder.  To get it out they had to poke a hole in the bladder with a tack, and then seal it up with the same tack.  This worked, but bladders could rip and leak and were difficult to fill.  Rand’s metal tubes allowed artists to escape the confines of their studios and work on site.  Impressionists were now free to pursue their passion for capturing the effects of light on the world around them.  Thank you, Mr. Rand.  I am so grateful I don’t have to put my paint in a pig’s bladder.