Acrylic Painting Plein Air Tips

We are compiling suggestions for artists who are painting outdoors for the first time with this Wahi Pana: A Sense of Place event. Below are a few tips from Wendy Roberts. Remember there are lots of artists out there that have written about this topic, so feel free to look up other artists’ guides as well.

Great paintings can come from less than perfect setups. Realize that it’s ok if you forget something or make a mistake. I have painted with lousy set ups due to lack of planning or knowledge and had good results despite it. It’s a lot more pleasant experience if you pack better, but don’t let the little things get in the way of creating beautiful paintings!

Acrylic painting on site requires these things:

  1. A limited set of paint colors. I suggest warm and cool reds, yellows, and blues, plus black and white. That will be 8 colors and will allow you a wide range of color. Since most of Hawaii is green and lovely, it’s convenient (but not necessary) to have a warm and cool green too. Some people like to have a couple of extra blues if they are painting the ocean, but it’s not necessary to have an elaborate palette.
  2. Paint extending medium. For plein air with acrylics, the sun will dry the paint so fast you can’t even blend a good gradient! I like to have a bottle of extender on hand to get more drying time so I can have soft edges and smooth gradients. I thoroughly mix it into my paint piles with a palette knife before painting, especially on a hot day!
  3. Brushes. Just a few will do. Two in each of 3 or 4 sizes is what I usually use. (6 – 8 brushes total). You can roll them up in a cloth or put them in a long skinny box if you don’t have a travel kit for your brushes. I use a bamboo roll up brush holder and I love it! It’s cheap and effective and mine is about as basic as they come – others have pockets at the bottom instead of elastic which I think would be really nice, but mine only cost about $10 and has all the basic functionality I like:
  4. Paper towels – a whole roll. You will use them a lot more in a plein air situation than at home. Use them to clean brushes. Optionally moisten them and place them beneath your paint on your palette to keep it from drying out as fast on site too.
  5. A screw-tight water jar. Along with paper towels to wipe the brushes clean. Remove most of the paint by wiping, then dip the brush in water and wipe repeatedly until it is very clean. You can leave brushes soaking for a while, but be careful that you don’t bend your bristles by leaving it for a long time. Cleaning your brushes often is better than soaking it for longer. Be careful not to discard of the paint-water in any streams, rivers, or oceans. This is why a screw tight lid is a must. It is best to take it home and dump it in your toilet, then flush to get rid of any pigment and prevent clogging pipes.
  6. A palette that can travel. There are so many different types of palettes! Make your palette at least 11 X 14 so you have some mixing space. They sell plastic ones where the paint just peels off after you are finished. You could even use a large stiff disposable water-resistant plate with a paper towel over it. These will be lightweight and try to blow away though, so make sure you keep hold of it or plan some way to weight it down so it can’t blow away in a gust of wind and splatter paint everywhere.
  7. A palette knife. Any shape you like. Used for mixing paints and sometimes for scraping palettes at the end of a session.
  8. Primed and sometimes pre-toned canvas or panel. Toning your surface unifies colors and helps paint to spread evenly, but isn’t necessary.
  9. If your paint is thick, it won’t dry fast. You need a way to protect your wet painting on the way home to keep it from being damaged. There are containers you can buy, but even a shallow cardboard box an old towel to lay beneath the painting in the back of your car is enough.
  10. Weather protection for the artist: Water to drink, sunscreen, hat, umbrella, jacket.
  11. Garbage control: Really important! A small container such as a bag or a box can help dispose of all the paper towels you use and make sure you leave without leaving a trace.

I really like packing these things into a couple of bags or a backpack to make it all easy to carry in one or two trips.

Everything else is optional. You could pack the following optional things for comfort:

  1. An easel: that’s right, I think this is optional. You can choose instead to pack a foldable tray and a chair, or you can tape it down on a piece of Masonite and hold it on your lap. You can find a nice rock to sit on. You could use the rock as a table and instead pack a knee-guard or a matte to place on the ground so you can kneel or sit while you paint using the rock as a low table. If you work larger, you will get to where you have to have an easel, but if you work small, you have options. Don’t let the lack of a nice, expensive easel prevent you from painting on site.
  2. A foldable tray and camping chair or lightweight folding chair if you prefer to sit while working. Some sites can’t accommodate these types of things because the ground is too uneven. Think about your site before you make a decision about what you bring to support your canvas and you. You can have a couple of options in your car. Scout the location quickly and decide what sort of supports you need to be comfortable while working. Remove only the ones you want from your car. Keeping some back up plans in the car means less carrying, but full options!
  3. Bottles of your favorite mediums for painting. Acrylic paint has a lot of options: texturizers, sheens, iridescent mediums, medium to thin it and make it translucent, etc… Rather than packing these small like I would for oil, I just bring the bottles so I have them on hand. Never leave these in the car or they will dry out in the heat. Even if you don’t use them, just bring them with your paints and set them aside.
  4. Snacks
  5. Phone and portable battery charger
  6. Camera for taking photos in case you want to finish up at home in the studio.
  7. Business cards. You will meet people while you paint on site. They will want to know how they can see your work. You can tell them about you, about the project (Wahi Pana Exhibit) and invite them to come see the exhibit.

Lastly, here are tips for the actual site:

  1. Choose a shade spot to set up your easel if you can. Tree shadows will move, but if it’s a big tree, that could be enough. The shade will help you to endure the sun. You could use an umbrella or a hat, but your painting will dry more slowly if it is also in the shade.
  2. Think about bathroom proximity. If you need to use the bathroom often, it’s not very fun to be far away from facilities.
  3. Think about wind. If you are getting gusts of wind, it will blow your easel over, and paintings ALWAYS land face down. It’s Murphy’s Law. So see if you can set up in a nice protected spot if it’s a gusty day.
  4. Rain: You can pack up and leave if it’s too violent, but if it isn’t combined with wind, you could perch beneath a pavilion or a tree or an umbrella, etc… and capture a beautiful rainy day painting.