Art in the Outdoors

Art in the Outdoors

Drawing & painting in the environment “en plein air” is the best exercise for your eyes. It makes ussee our surrounds more keenly than others who merely look. It’s an experience akin to the immediacy of life-drawing, and summer is the perfect time to indulge in it.

Working directly from nature enables you to collapse a 3D vista into a 2D image with your own translation. This achieves a very different result than working from a photograph. A photograph offers the scene at a remove from reality, and as a reference point always carries a distance and detachment. Furthermore, a photograph doesn’t allow you to observe true colour, space, and detail. A painting made from direct observation has a unique freshness and spontaneity.

Painting outdoors, you have to be quick – look for the essentials of what you want to record. It’s great for some alone time, but if you’re shy about painting in public, get together with others and make a fun expedition of it.

Another reason the work contains a freshness is the time limit. Just as a life drawing session is limited by the time a model can hold a pose, painting in the environment is bounded by changing light. Mornings and afternoons are best, as the light is oblique, casting shadows, and there are two hours of similar light to work with. Keep it fresh and your hand free!


Surreptitious sketching or publically painting?

Working outdoors can be done in a covert manner or with a totally carefree attitude towards rubber-neckers! A small journal and pencil can easily fit in one’s pocket, and used without the slightest hint that there’s some art going on. This method is handy when making quick visual notes, unencumbered and unobvious, perfect for when you’re hiking or visiting a city.

Being loud and proud with your outdoor painting can have its benefits – I’ve been given gifts of food while painting outdoors, there’s interest in the work, and it’s nice to be part of a lively landscape.

A sketchbook with Cretacolor 5.6mm lead holder offers many different drawing options with the minimum of fuss, and saves the hassle of sharpening pencils. It’s a quick way to change between charcoal, graphite, Nero and drawing chalks, all used down to the last nub. More varied drawing materials, such as water-soluble pencils or watercolour markers are an excellent portable and inexpensive way to render the landscape in colour; and Pastels provide paint-like qualities without the need for brushes, water jars, etc.

Watercolours provide an effective, manageable medium for painting in the environment. European watercolours developed as a portable drawing material for landscape studies. A small metal box set, brush, pad and small jar of water are almost as easy to carry as pencil & notebook, and offer a quick, fun way to paint the view. Schmincke watercolour pans (the moist briquettes of colour) are especially portable, and deliver vibrant colour down to the last speck. You can also squeeze Schmincke Watercolour from tubes into a palette to make your own set.

Loose paper tends to blow around – take a watercolour block or heavyweight paper journal with you to paint on. Da Vinci makes Travel Brushes and handy brush sleeves for painting on the go.


Acrylics can be used outdoors, but to stop them from drying almost as soon as they’re on the palette, mix a generous amount of Golden Acrylic Glazing Liquid into the paint. This will keep it wet for up to a couple of hours, in the shade. The Golden OPEN acrylics are even better for outdoor painting, giving you plenty of time to paint and without drying on your palette. OPEN dries in about 60 minutes, as long as it’s not thick, and so can be easily transported home.

Oilcolour is great to paint with outdoors, using soft brushes for layering wet-in-wet. It’s a little trickier transporting wet oilpaintings. If you paint on panels or primed paper, get some pizza boxes and transport a painting per box safely.

You can also use your easel to carry wet paintings back, though usually just one at a time. While drawing and painting with watercolour are easily done without one, acrylic & oil painting is best done with a portable easel unless you’re working small.

Helpful colour suggestions

“When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have before you, a tree, a house, a field or whatever, said the great Impressionist Claude Monet. “Merely think here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact colour and shape, until it gives your own naïve impression of the scene before you.”

Atmospheric perspective is the use of colour, texture, and tone to achieve an illusion of space in a painting. Cool colours tend to recede, warm colours to come forward. Try mixing background greens with Lemon Yellow and foreground ones with Indian or Cadmium Yellow. Broad marks with less definition sit back in the picture plane, while detail comes forward.

Boucher, the 18th Century Rococo painter, declared nature “too green and badly lit”, but he could’ve just been frustrated with the very few colours he had to play with! The main building blocks for today’s greens are Phthalo Green blue shade and yellow shade (sometimes called Helio), in combination with yellows. Useful landscape greens can also be made from blues, such as Ultramarine and Phthalo, mixed with Lemon Yellow (Yellow Light Hansa) for cool colours, and Indian or Cadmium Yellow for warm. When mixing, add just a small amount of the darker colour to the lighter colour at first, as the change in hue happens very quickly.

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