Plein Air Without Pain

© Margot Schulzke 2009

Some of the following applies to travel workshops; other items apply closer to home.

*Be comfortable. Provide for your own creature comforts so you will not be distracted by the lack of them. Sun screen, a brimmed hat to keep the sun off your head and out of your eyes, sun glasses, sturdy walking shoes, water to drink, a snack, bug repellent, a folding stool, and of course, a French easel—in which are stashed your paint tubes or pastels, etc.

*Be safe. Painting alone is great if you feel you are in a secure situation; however, you may be wise to have a painting buddy. Stay alert to changing circumstances. A cell phone is good if it works where you are, and you put it in silent mode to avoid interruptions while you work. If working in a city situation, you may want to leave your purse at home, put your valuables in a money belt and wear it under a loose shirt. Be aware of changing tides, poison oak, and snakes in the grass – all that fun stuff.

*Be equipped. One plein air artist I know works out of the back of a camper she has especially fitted out for that purpose; it is a traveling studio she can back up to a canyon rim—and does.

*A lightweight board with securely clipped-down pastel surface, or small canvases with a canvas carrier (will usually handle two canvases at a time). Or masonite panels preprimed for oil, in slots in a wooden box, or premounted, pretoned pastel boards

*Smaller size surfaces are appropriate for outdoor work; the light changes too rapidly to work on large scale in most cases. 8x10, 10x12, to 12x18 or 16x20.

*If you will be in a windy area, you need to secure the board to the easel; large bungie cords help. Attach gallon jugs of water to bungie cords to weight down your easel. I take along a roll of paper freezer wrap and masking tape to protect pastels; they can be stacked with freezer wrap in between.

*Steer clear of bright sunlight on your surface or on your palette Try to find an area in light shade, such as in cast shadow from a building or a tree. A beach umbrella (neutral toned to avoid color distortion) with clamp to attach to your easel is good if no other shade is available. Plan ahead for moving sun and shadows.

*Selecting subject matter: Value contrast is a virtual must; look for masses of light and shadow. Early day or late afternoon light is best, midday light is flat. Winter light is generally good, however, as the light has moved far enough south to model form throughout the day.

*Select subject matter that implies distance: overlapped forms, especially if diminishing in size, foreground, middle ground and distant background, linear perspective. Something in the subject should suggest scale—trees, figures, buildings.

*Remember you will almost always have to make adjustments to what you see, just as you would in the studio. You may need to distort forms, stretch cast shadows, add figures, move or tilt a distant line of trees or hills, intensify or change color.

*A camera is a powerful ally. Take one along: you will probably want a record to use to make final touches in the studio. An extra battery is a good idea. A week’s interval in spring or fall can change the scene dramatically.  Keep the camera out of hot sun and hot cars. Record the scene as you begin, at intervals, and as you end your day’s work. ###

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