Oil 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 the most lousy set ups ever and had good results anyway. 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!

Oil 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. 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:
  3. 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 especially. Wrap your used brushes in a paper towel at the end of the day to take home and clean more thoroughly.
  4. Some sort of brush cleaner. Some people take paint thinner in very nice containers specifically designed for travel, but you can just use an old small jar (like a jam jar). Personally, I find paint thinner is harsh on bristles and much harder to contain. It’s the first thing to spill if your easel topples over in the wind. Instead, I like to use a small amount of linseed oil in a screw-tight container (old jam jar? small stainless steel medium container? It’s up to you!) and paper towels to wipe the brushes “clean enough”. Wipe the brush clean until you can’t get any more pigment out of the bristles, then dip it in oil and wipe again. Repeat if necessary. If the oil spills, it isn’t as toxic. I rarely encounter a situation where my brush is too muddied. I will usually switch to a fresh new brush if this happens.
  5. A palette that can travel or palette paper. There are so many different types of portable palettes! Some people use all the paint in one sitting, others have a plastic lid over their palette so they can take it home and put it in the freezer to keep the paint wet for next time. If you are seeking a non-committal set up, for a few dollars you could buy a pad of palette paper and it will be easy to use and it is disposable at the end of the session. For the best experience, I love my glass palette in a plastic container. The container is about 12 X 16, and the palette is actually a cheap 11 X 14 frame, I chose a frame with a cheap plastic edge that was very thin so it would fit in the container, I took the cardboard backing and put it directly beneath the glass so I would have a neutral mixing background. I placed this inside my palette container and now I take it home to place in the freezer to keep my oil paints from drying – really useful for anyone who has a busy life with lots of interruptions. It is great! It was about $30 to get this set up. About $20 for the palette container, and about $10 for the 11 X 14 photo frame. I like that it doesn’t blow away in the wind. It is heavy to carry compared to some other methods, but I love having a glass palette. You can also have a wood palette inside the same type of container. Or you can use any palette you like, and just clean the paints off of it with a paper towel and a small amount of linseed oil at the end of the session. Scrape the paint with a palette scraper or knife, and then wipe with paper towels. Finally, dip a paper towel in linseed oil and wipe the wood to prime it for next time. Remember to control all your waste in the garbage receptacle of your choice.
  6. A palette scraper and/or palette knife. Any shape you like. Used for mixing paints and sometimes for scraping palettes at the end of a session. A palette scraper usually does a better job of cleaning up paint from the palette, and the palette knife is great for mixing colors, so I like having both.
  7. Primed and sometimes pre-toned canvas or panel. Toning with a thin layer of oil paint in a color of your choice makes the paint run over the surface more smoothly and provides a more neutral mid-ground for color comparisons.
  8. 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.
  9. Weather protection for the artist: Water to drink, sunscreen, hat, umbrella, jacket.
  10. 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. Make sure that whatever you use doesn’t allow seeping of moist trash. You need to avoid leaking oil paints – thinners especially (which is why I have eschewed using thinners on site at all)!

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. Little amounts of your favorite mediums for painting.
  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. Shade is good for your painting too. Drying time is slower out of the sun. Colors will be more moderate too.
  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.