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An Officially Unofficial Guide to Plein Air Painting


“Plein air” is a style of painting outdoors that was popular in 19th-century French impressionism. These artists worked primarily in oil paint, but you can do plein air with virtually any medium. One of my personal favorites is watercolor. Though it can be daunting to try a new art style, especially if you aren’t in your own space, it is easier than you might expect. Keep in mind, there are no expectations of perfection. Many artists use this technique to sketch, brainstorm ideas, or keep a journal of things they see and places they go. From one non-expert to another, here is my unofficial guide to plein air watercolor.

Before you go out, you’ll need to gather your materials. 

  • Pens and pencils- I like a regular mechanical pencil for sketching, and I sometimes use a fine point pen and/or a white gel pen for finishing details.
  • Paints- I use a portable Lukas watercolor set with 12 colors. 
  • Brushes- I use Mimik Kolinsky travel brushes. I have a set of 4 different sizes, but will usually just use one or two. Another good alternative is a watercolor brush pen, which you fill with water so you don’t have to bring a water cup.
  • Water bottle and cup
  • Sketchbook/paper- I am trying out a new Handbook brand sketchbook, but I also like Strathmore visual journals. 
  • Paper towel/rag
  • Optional items:
    • Masking tape- I use Scotch brand washi tape to leave a white border on the page.
    • Wax crayon/oil pastel- For making a wax resist to leave some areas white. This is my first time trying this; I’m using a transparent oil pastel.
    • Folding chair/picnic blanket

Once you find a spot with a nice view, the first thing you’ll want to do is take a picture. That way, if the light changes or you run out of time, you can finish your painting from your reference photo. I find this also helps me visualize what will be within the frame and what I should leave out. I had a hard time choosing what to include and ended up covering both pages in a sort of panoramic view.

Now that I am set up, I will start with a sketch. I sketch lightly in pencil, then lightly erase the whole thing so that my lines are still visible, but won’t show through when I start painting. Then I used my oil pastel to create a wax resist for the cherry tree.

Now we can start painting! I like to start with a wash, where I wet the paper and then apply color. This technique is good for filling large areas with a fairly uniform color, so I am using it for the sky, the buildings, and the windows. Just be careful that each wash is fully dry before you do the next one, because otherwise they will bleed together. For example, if I hadn’t let the sky dry before painting the buildings, I would end up with a murky light green where the sky and buildings meet. At this point, I started to get cold, so I moved inside.

After the wash, I will add some details. I added some texture to the grass, varied the color of the windows to look more like an actual reflection, and added the lines and awnings on the windows. I also attempted (somewhat successfully) to scrub away the wax resist with my eraser so I could put details on the cherry tree. This was my first time trying the wax resist technique, and it didn’t turn out exactly how I wanted, so I ended up finishing the tree with white gouache. I also noticed that because this particular pastel was very sticky, it gummed up my brush a bit. 

Finally, I did the finishing touches with a white gel pen, 0.2 Micron pen, 0.5 Micron pen, and a dark green Flair pen. Some people would call this cheating, but I always enjoy adding outlines when I paint buildings, and I think the lines give a lot more character to the drawing. Plus, this isn’t something that’s going to hang in a gallery; it’s just for my personal enjoyment. All in all, I think I spent a little less than three hours on this project, but you could easily spend more or less time, depending on your preference. 

I hope this has inspired you to try some plein air of your own or another new style! Happy painting!


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