I wrote this article with my fellow PSNJ members in mind.

My interest in plein air painting sparked early on when local art schools, such as the Art Center of New Jersey in Summit and the Montclair Art Museum, offered plein air classes for beginners, mostly in oil (2004) and some in pastel (2006). Over the years I became quite comfortable in painting on location on my own, more so in pastels.

While dedicated plein air destination trips are still on my bucket list I mostly paint locally and, when my sightseeing trips allow, indulge in few short plein air studies (I shared that experience on this blog in 2012. Awesome). On a typical season I may average 6-10 outings and wish for many more. I’m constantly on the lookout for peaking blooms and foliage, favorable weather conditions and optional locations and compositions near-by.

Quick studies while traveling, spring 2012
Left: Glacier National Park, Lake McDonald;
Right: Yellowstone National Park, Lower Falls

We all know the benefits of painting from life. Outdoors it can be overwhelming at times – there is so much to look at and take in – but once settled on your composition and spending your painting session looking at it, you will see and notice more than any snapped photograph would enable. It is a multi-sensory experience and the sum of many moments: Sun rays may highlight a rock or a roofline; A waterfowl may land in the water; A light breeze may carry the scent of bloom; Birds, flowing water and falling leaves may add a soothing background; A passerby may stop to admire your painting. It’s not all “fun” of course. Clouds may obscure the sun, a gust of wind may blow your easel, a fog may roll in and cut your session short and summer insects can be a nuisance but it’s all part of the outdoor experience – a mix of challenges, hard work, excitement, some frustration and pure bliss. 

So, how can you get more comfortable painting outdoors?

  • Have a “plein air bag” ready to go with selected pastels, grounds, support and other supplies. If you already organized your studio palette by hue and value create a similar, smaller version, with just enough variety of hues, values and hardness. If you are like me and prefer to keep your pastels in their original boxes, opt for few plein air sets and half sticks. Check your bag before you go, replenish missing supplies and adjust your selection to seasonal palettes and locales.
  • Opt for a light weight plein air easel or a tripod/pochade box combination. I use an old Winsor and Newton aluminum portable easel, which comes with its own carrying case and shoulder strap and a small folding table or chair.
  • Shade is paramount. Find a shaded spot or, for more flexibility, use a portable plein air umbrella. Some attach to your easel. I prefer those you can stick in the ground, such as ShadeBuddy. Preferably have both your painting surface and palette lighted equally.

Left: Painting at Greenwood Gardens, Short Hills NJ, summer 2015
Right: Painting at Christina’s Garden, Florham Park NJ, late summer 2017

  • Pastel boards can save you carrying a heavier support. If you prefer pastel paper opt for a light weight board that is easy to carry and re-use or attach your paper to a pre-cut foam core that fits into your carrying bag. I often use the Artmate light weight corrugated board. With several layers of newspaper padding and same size glassine paper attached to the top, the board is ready for painting and carrying a completed work. On sightseeing trips, I may paint on my lap using a bound pastel paper with glassine inserts.
  • When you arrive on location and identify a desired composition look around and try few options where to set up. By moving few feet and changing your viewing angle or direction you may improve upon your view and composition. As in the studio you may adjust your composition by moving elements around, eliminating some and adding others. Follow your usual process but be open to spontaneous response to what is happening in front of you.

""Morning at the Iris Garden"

Painting at Presby Iris Garden, Montclair NJ, spring 2014

  • Set realistic expectations. Your main goal is to record your impression of the scene with enough information about elements and lighting in your composition. Occasionally you may complete a painting worthy of framing. Other times you may either complete your painting back in your studio or use your plein air study as reference to another studio painting. Many of my recent paintings had started on location and were completed years later in my studio.
  • Other than squinting your eyes you can use a piece of red cellophane to easily identify value masses. Some ready-made viewfinders, such as the Picture Perfect “3 in 1 plus” are fitted with red cellophane inserts. There are mobile apps available as well, which I haven’t had a chance to use yet and will try soon. ViewCatcher is a handy viewfinder accessory. I often use my camera to test a desired composition but be aware that the viewing angle is much wider than you would see with your own eyes standing in the same spot.

Painting at Reeves-Reed Arboretum, Summit NJ.
Left: Spring 2012;   Right: Summer 2017

  • Before you start, and while you are painting, take as many reference photographs of the scene, it’s surrounding, the changing light, and any other details you may need back in your studio, should you choose to develop your composition further. Also take few photographs of your painting process and your completed painting with the scene as your background. It’s great for social media and a good reminder of your original intent. Personally, I get a “kick” from comparing my plein air paintings at their “raw”, on location state to their fully (and occasionally over) developed, studio completed version. That being said, as my skills develop I’m becoming more open to accepting some of my looser plein air creations as finished paintings. I often share these “before and after” and “painting progressions” on my website and blog.

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Painting at Verona Park, Verona NJ, fall 2016

  • When lighting conditions change drastically, you have a choice to make: either stick to the original plan, adjust to the new conditions, or abort. Sometimes you can wait it out, other times you may either start a new painting or simply call it a day. As for minor changes, avoid “chasing the light” and stay consistent.
  • You don’t have to travel far in search of prime locations. Paint those places you know best and frequent often, such as local parks and gardens, home town markets and squares, your favorite walk or hike, even your own back yard.

Painting in my own back yard, Livingston NJ.
Left: summer 2014;   Right: Spring 2017
Below: around the corner from my house at Bear Brook, winter 2016

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  • If possible scout locations ahead and assess conditions and accessibility. Locate attractive view-points where you might set up, follow-up on bloom or foliage progress and water levels, check for favorable lighting conditions at different times of the day, check for proximity to parking and restrooms. It is easier to do when painting locally. Also, check out those popular locations off their main season. You’ll be surprised to find other painting (and photography) opportunities.

Painting at South Mountain Reservation, Essex County, NJ.
Left: Painter’s Point, 2011;     Right: Campbell Pond, 2013 ;
Below: Hemlock Falls, 2011;   

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  • Stay safe. Local parks and arboretums, frequented by visitors and foot traffic, are usually safe. In remote and secluded locations consider painting with a buddy or a small group. Pay attention to your surrounding and, when applicable, be mindful of poisonous plants and animal teaks. Stay off main traffic areas and stand on stable ground.

wb8_MB_2016-10-15Q 80_acr_sRGBLSH Painting with fellow PSNJ members at Paterson Falls, Paterson NJ, fall 2016.  

  • Between walking around, selecting your composition, setting up, painting for 2-3 hours and packing up to go you may spend up to four hours on location, and that’s without getting there, so bring a snack and plenty of water and dress appropriately.
  • Don’t leave trash, pastel dust or your own gear behind. Laying a small tarp or a large garden bag under or near your easel will keep you organized and protect your gear from ground moisture and dirt.
  • Whether painting on your own or with a group, enjoy the process. Pastel being a dry medium is great for the job. You may need to carry few more sticks, and possibly add more layers back in your studio, but the ease of sketching and comfort of not needing to mix colors or carry back a wet canvas are worth the outdoor experience. Just go out and paint!
    Oh, and remember to share it afterwards 😊


Left: Painting at Branch Brook Park, Newark NJ, spring 2014
Right: Painting at Verona Park, Verona NJ, summer 2017.  

Some Plein air Resources: