View Full Version : Need beginning Plein Aire tips

01-08-2006, 03:30 PM
I am at the point where I really want to work from my own photos and field sketches. I am not ready to invest in a plein aire set up but I feel like I could start by taking my camera and a sketchpad and making field sketches. My question is: What should I take - like a 6B pencil, or some conte's for value studies? Also, where do you go to look for inspiring views and what do you look for in the way of landscape studies? I live in a place where there are many sweeping panoramic views or closer forest studies, I am not sure how to begin, where to drive to or what to look for. What time of day do you go out for field studies - early morning, late afternoon, what light is best? The landscape outside is so huge, how do I pare down what I see to find the best composition for a painting? I know this is a lot of questioning and a lot to ask, but any help is appreciated.

01-08-2006, 04:07 PM
I often sketch on my lunchbreaks this way. These are the things i bring with me.

First thing first - get yourself a viewfinder....it can be a precut mat in a neutral grey colour (up to a 5 X 7 size is manageable to travelling with). I have a pre-made viewfinder made by the colourwheel people that has an adjustable window so you can scale it to the size of paper you are using.

Looking through this viewfinder will help you find your composition and eliminate the overwhelming feeling of where to start.

Then a sketchbook and medium. I prefer to sketch in ink because once it is dry, it isn't going to smudge all over the place. I use a sketchbook so prefer to not use smudgy anything in it because soon the book looks horrible. If I want colour i use either coloured ink or coloured pencil.

OR - I take my cigar box pochade (the article is in the Plein Air forum) out and do pastel work in that. It's compact and holds a range of colours and tools so i can paint anything I want.

Hope that helps.

01-08-2006, 05:14 PM
Take my advice and if you have a choice, do NOT go out in the middle of the day...there are no shadows to speak of then and the light is apt to be flat. Very early or late in the day are good and sometimes the most mundane landscape can be magically changed by the shifts in light and shadow.

I liked using a pen too....seemed faster somehow and easier to write with and I made lots of notes to remind myself of various aspects of the scene. I have old sketches done this way that still bring the scene back to me after years and years. You can do your shadows, etc. with crosshatching, dots or squiqqles. In this way, I captured an amazing number of scenes with just the pen and a sketchbook....this was back before the advent of the digital camera and regular photography was still relatively expensive and hit or miss without a zoom lens.

Last, look in unexpected places like back alleys, overgrown vacant land, etc. You'd be amazed at the neat compositions you can find in the oddest places. And be sure to have fun!

PS...Cori's advice about using a viewfinder would be great, too.

Kathryn Wilson
01-08-2006, 09:56 PM
Start on a small scale - find a tree, bush or flowering plant that really speaks to you. Use the viewfinder - good suggestion there -

Pad of Canson, Art Spectrum or Wallis paper and a small set of boxed pastels. I started just sitting on a bench with the pad in my lap and sketching what I saw. Go to a local arboretum or garden - benches all over the place, solitude for the most part and spectacular trees and plants.

The light will change on you so you have to be a swift painter - early morning light or afternoon after 2:00 is ideal. I always take a digital camera and take a photo of what I am painting in case the light changes too much.

Hope that helps!

Deborah Secor
01-08-2006, 10:33 PM
I taught a class on drawing last fall and I suggested that my students get a sketchpad (any size) and find whatever pleased them to use to draw--pencil, pen, charcoal, anything. Then go outside a draw! The point is as you do this you will start to see all the problems, but you'll also start to see how to do it, too.

I suggest a viewfinder to help limit your vision. The world is overwhelming at first, so use two matboard 'corners' and a couple of stout paper clips or binder clips. That way you can hold both of them up until you have the format that pleases you, clip them together that way, and then look for an anchor spot. Let's say you're looking at that big vista. Maybe there's one tree or a rock in the foreground that sticks up right in the lower lefthand corner. Plan to place that corner in that location. Then you can put down the viewfinder to draw when you need to, and pick it up to use it again and find the same view.

I also find that it helps to have marks at intervals along the edge of the viewfinder so that you can compare. Let's say you have a mountain range out there, and as you look through your viewfinder you notice that it goes off the righthand edge at about three-quarters of the way up. That not only helps you find where to put it on the page, but where to return the viewfinder when you look through it again.

I also suggest a red viewing filter. Yes, red cellophane will do, but you can also get a nice plastic one to use. When you're looking at your view, place the red filter over the opening of the viewfinder and notice the values of all those colors. It reduces everything to grayscale--well, technically to redscale! That way you can find the darkest darks and lightest lights to use as you draw.

I like the 3-in-1 viewfinder that's often advertised in art magazines. It's got different formats that you can move closer to your eyes, or away from them to change the view, and a hinged window so you can flip the red filter in place. No matter what you use, just go start drawing! You'll find the best time of day, the most interesting light, the view you love. When you have that experience in place, and then are ready to get into painting with pastels plein air, it will be much much easier to do. You'll have figured out how to compose from reality, how to record what you see, limit your vision, translate colors to values, and since pastel is a drawing medium it won't be that big a step to them!

Whatever you do, go outside and draw or paint! You cannot replace that experience, trust me. Have fun! :D


01-09-2006, 05:38 AM
and as Richard McDaniel says in his book - don't forget the scenes that are right outside your doorway. You don't have to drive miles and miles to find something to draw outside. The point being, draw whatever is at hand even it is "only" the daisies growing beside the driveway.

and Deborah's tips are all good ones!

Now go draw, and the painting will come in it's own good time.


01-09-2006, 08:48 AM
I haven't worked outside very much, but I recommend carring a baseball cap or painter's hat in addition to the above suggestions. I don't like sketching with my sunglasses on, and the contact lenses I wear make my eyes more sensitive to sunlight. Find a shaded area to do your sketching if there's one available.

When I take pictures to work from, early morning and late afternoon/evening offer a more interesting range of colors and shadows. I get better pictures if I can keep the camera lens in the shade.

Ink pens and conte crayons are manufactured in landscape colors, or try black w/gray scale pens. I'm comfortable with plain old pencils, and I don't mind carrying a can of spray fixative with me. I can't stand a smudgy sketchbook either.

Everything I carry for sketching goes into a backpack.

Take a small cooler with munchies & beverages- you'll be glad you did.

01-09-2006, 11:54 AM
Peggy, I recently have been getting into McDaniels work. Are his books good? I am tempted to get one from Amazon. If they are, which do you recommend?

01-09-2006, 01:09 PM
I have both his books and recommend both of them. I love his work.

01-09-2006, 11:13 PM
So many great tips here! Shari, I'd suggest you start in your own back yard. It's best to start where you're most comfortable, and until you know exactly what you will need to pack, you can run inside for whatever you've forgotten....or for that hot cup of coffee! lol

One pastelist in our plein air group uses a lightweight aluminum easel and a set of Polychromos, plus a folding chair. Another uses a drawing board with a pastel pad and a small box of pastels, and brings a towel to sit on the ground, rock, bench, or whatever she can find.

When I take my pastels out to play en plein air, I use a 12x16 box which opens to 24x16. I set it on a folding chair, and stand at a french easel or aluminum easel with paper pre-affixed to a drawing board, or a Wallis or LaCarte pad. I use a separate, small cardboard box to hold my "working palette".

You may also want to try a search for pastel info in the plein air forum.


01-10-2006, 02:29 AM
I really appreciate the great ideas everyone has put forth here. There is so much good advice. I look forward to a day without fog and wet so I can start trying this. Jamie, do you love your MV's?

I am going to the Yucatan soon and I am thinking of just bringing a sketch pad and some Caran D'ache watercolor crayons and doing little studies with those. Is there anything else that I should take? I don't want to pack a lot of stuff and I will mostly spend my days snorkeling but I want to try some field studies while I am there.

01-10-2006, 07:29 AM
Shari, if it's hot there, you may want to consider a different medium. Those waxy crayons will get very soft and possibly melt in heat. Do you work with them a lot?

I still haven't had a chance to try the MVs even though they're sitting in my studio. :( I've been working on an oil painting and didn't want to get distracted. I'm going to do a pastel this morning, and then hopefully open up the MVs and start making the color charts this afternoon. :)


01-10-2006, 12:49 PM
Not much time today, but one of the best tips I ever had was....do not spend hours casting about to find the"perfect view". It is easy to spend the entire morning or afternoon driving from spot to spot, thinking something better might be just aorund the next bend. Allow yourself a set time to find something, and at the end, SIT DOWN AND PAINT.

2. Early morning, and later afternoon, will give the best light effects with the most atmosphere.

3. Always try a little thumbnail sketch first, to sort out the composition. Alongside it, write a sentence to remind you what first took your eye about the scene.

4. In your thumbnail, try to have a good UNbalance of light and dark areas. have either more darks, or more lights - this will greatly affect the atmosphere of the finished piece. Squint at the scene to simplify it into its main light and dark areas. keep squinting and scribble in the tones, linking shapes as you work.

If the sun moves and the shadows change and the scene changes dramatically, do not keep changing your picture. Stick with what you had in your thumbnail. Stop painting if everything changes! Otherwise you will just confuse yourself - and your viewer.

Have fun.

01-10-2006, 01:14 PM
Great tips, Jackie! Long time, no see!

01-10-2006, 08:22 PM
Wonderful pointers Jackie, I am going to print this whole thread out and read it several times until I totally get it. I am such a woos though, I don't want to go out in this weather!! Its not even that cold, just gloomy and foggy.

01-11-2006, 12:30 PM
My only experience with plein air led to this tip- but it is very helpful where I live:
Don't set up all your stuff when there are terribly curious PET goats around. They will at least TASTE of everything. Wallis is digestable...

01-11-2006, 12:36 PM
I've got a short article I've written that you might find helpful:


Also, check out Albert Handell's book, "Painting the Landscape in Pastel." It's full of tips about plein air painting.