Elora Plein Air Festival – Tips for Plein Air Painting

“Shade and Shadows,” Plein Air Watercolour, available for sale

I had an amazing weekend in Elora, Ontario participating in their Plein Air Painting Festival. For 4 days artists from all over Ontario and Canada came together and created art inspired by the village and its surrounding countryside. The weather was cool with a mixture of sun and cloud and spring flowers were in full bloom. It was a perfect spring weekend for painting!

I finished five paintings over the course of the 4 days (much fewer than I intended) and had an amazing time. There is something special about being outdoors and creating art. For me, it is an almost spiritual experience. If you have never tried it, I highly advise you to take your supplies outside and give plein air painting a try!

I’ve put together a few tips on Plein air painting for beginners. Enjoy!

Pack light, but don’t forget the essentials

You don’t have to have expensive “travel” equipment to paint plein air!. You can easily put together a kit with supplies you own. Try to limit yourself to only the essentials. A large, unorganized pack becomes cumbersome very quickly when schlepping through the countryside or forest. Keep it to paper, a small palette, water bottle and a few favourite brushes. If you don’t want to invest in (or carry) an easel and chair, a small board and a picnic blanket works wonderfully.

To avoid forgetting anything, try making a reusable checklist or having a bag ready and stocked for plein air painting. Be sure to double check your supplies before you head out. There is nothing worse than hiking to a scenic outlook to remember you forgot your water or brush!

There are many articles about specific supplies for outdoor painting. My friend Ralf who is an avid plein air painter describes his kit on his website here. I have written a basic blog entry about my mini travel kit as well. If plein air sketching or urban sketching is your thing, there are any amazing supplies built to be light weight and convenient for plein air painting. But remember that you don’t necessarily have to go out and buy specific items to get started.

(Keep tuned in for more detailed posts about what to pack for a Plein air Adventure.)

Quiet your inner critic

Try your best to free yourself from harsh inner criticism! You are challenging yourself to paint outside your comfort zone using limited materials and surrounded by distractions. It is a huge challenge to adapt to painting with changing light, weather and time limitations. It will take some time to get the hang of it, even if you are super confident with your chosen medium.

Remember, even if a piece doesn’t turn out, it could be used as an excellent study for a larger piece and at the very least, you will have learned valuable lessons from the process.

Find a scene or subject that reflects your personal style and what inspires you

Try to find an element of your surroundings that reflects your style and what inspires you. For example, if you love painting light – look for light, if you love painting textures – find interesting textures. Take some time to analyze what elements are present in your most loved and successful paintings and try to find them in nature. I often get caught struggling with subjects like sweeping landscapes or architecture. I have realized that, while the scene or subject is beautiful and interesting, if it doesn’t speak to me or relate to my style of work, my painting wont be successful. While sitting on a marsh on a grey day during the festival, I was struggling with a landscape painting and i remember saying to myself, “I am not really a landscape painter” and it dawned on me that while the marsh was lovely, it didn’t really speak to me and painting did it no justice. After that, I loosened up my style and sought some more unconventional subjects where I could focus on light and colour.

Don’t try to find the perfect subject, but the perfect subject for You!

Start slowly and take your time!

I am often so excited to get painting and worried about changing light that I tend rush my sketch and splash colour on to my paper without much planning. This results in a lot of sloppy paintings with careless, unfixable mistakes, especially in watercolour! While there is something amazing about a fresh, spontaneous piece of art, I believe that a little planning and a detailed underdrawing goes a long way!

Try and take a few minutes to just look at your scene without even lifting your brush. Be sure to take a minute to really view the scene and explore your composition. Look for challenging areas and give some advanced thought to how you will tackle them. Having a well thought out plan of action can really help you succeed both inside and out of the studio.

Be mindful and enjoy the experience

Don’t focus too much on the art you will produce, but try and be mindful and enjoy the experience itself. To me, painting outdoors refreshes me like yoga or meditation. The key is to focus on being mindful and present. Give yourself permission to just enjoy painting for the sake of it. Treat plein air painting like a vacation from your studio and enjoy the sensations of painting outdoors. I know you will be amazed at how you feel after.

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