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  • Writer's pictureDanny McShane

Outside or In: Why "Plein Air"?

Updated: 3 days ago

I've been very surprised by how different the experience of painting and sketching outside is from doing the same indoors. Different enough to feel like a whole new activity most of the time, with much more going on than just the painting. Here are some of the things I'm finding out.

Spot the umbrella...

1. It's a bit harder.

I can technically paint better indoors, with more subtlety and control, and more tools at my disposal to avoid and help correct an error if I want to -straight edges, a hair dryer, paper towels and limitless water. And coffee. And a very stable platform to work on and room to set everything down. And all the time I need. Being outside needs some more organisation, preferably three hands -and a better memory (or checklist!). My first plein air was frankly abysmal, and I was really quite taken aback by it... but I realised that I'd still had a good day out.

Look, no umbrella.

2. Nothing is Guaranteed.

A minute ago this WAS a painting.

Especially not the weather. Wind is usually the biggest bugbear if I'm trying to use an easel, especially with a half imperial sheet (22x15") where a little wind goes a long way. Finding a sheltered spot will often determine the composition on the day.

Rain is the natural enemy of watercolour of course, and sudden showers can obliterate a painting -I've had them washed clean off the paper in the time it took to open an umbrella.

Failing to come home with a painting doesn't mean the day wasn't enjoyable, exciting, amusing and thoroughly well spent though.

Sunlight! Just before the ponies arrived...

Bright sun, especially when it's coming and

going, can play tricks on your eyes and your sense of colour and tone -leading to some surprises when you get

back indoors and look at your

If you have the luxury of a car, especially one with a high tailgate, it can make a practical shelter with a 'roof' as well as the wind break effect - even if limited to roadside locations.

Painting under a high tailgate
The Mobile Roof

3 Things Move!

What orange ship?

Obvious I know, but light, shadows, people, trees, boats, cars, animals can all get up and wander just as you paint them. So painting from 'life' is often painting from memory... short term memory... of where your subject was or how it looked when you started painting it. So you learn to paint figures where they were, and to think what you need to get down on paper fast, developing a kind of shorthand in marks that can help you if they move off. Or if a van parks in front of your view, or if the ship sails (surprisingly often!) or the shadows disappear. The trick is working fairly swiftly and decisively and this might influence the style you develop if you paint outside a lot.

4. There can be Beasties

In all sizes, from ponies and cows, to dogs and cats and squirrels,

Being buzzed.

and bees and wasps (attracted by colours) and flies in your paint, and midges... and maybe the odd helicopter. Carry insect repellant in summer (not effective against helicopters!).

Painting Dalgetty Castle from the rear lawn I was surprised by munching sounds as grazing ponies stealthily sneaked up behind me. I let them pass and added them to the painting.

Sneaky ponies, Dalgetty.

5. You don't usually attract attention.

Painting in the street, tucked in between poles and a wall
Urban camouflage

Shy painters might be apprehensive about painting "in public", but the reality is often more pleasant and encouraging than you'd expect. Folk seem to be very mindful of your privacy and usually ask politely if they can look or even take a photo (why?? -but it happens). Standing and being busy possibly projects more of a hurdle to potential interruptions and you can usually position yourself to send the appropriate signals. Some artists wear earphones to further discourage conversation but I don't mind chatting. I've enjoyed every encounter so far.

What crowds?

Anther option is to go where people aren't. Your garden, for example, and less frequented places or at less frequented times. Mid-week painters have an advantage over those who only have weekends available, but early mornings and mid afternoons can help avoid crowds (unless you want to paint a crowd, of course).

Painting with friends or a group of artists is a different experience again and may be more appealing with 'safety in numbers'. It does tend to attract more attention, alhough you may feel less exposed individually. The only downside is having a mutual schedule to keep, especially if you're very fast or very slow.

6 Being Flexible

Usually I set out to paint at my favourite size, half an imperial sheet, at 22x15". This needs an easel or a tripod, and a fair amount of paint so a bigger mixing palette, brushes water pot, etc. and the downside is it's a bit more wind-sensitive and takes longer than a smaller size or a sketch. So I'll also carry some 16x12" or A4 paper and a sketchbook as well. This way, for a little extra weight I can opt for a quicker simpler painting or sketch if I need to (or even do more than one thing on the day).

Painting tripod on rough ground
Standing room only.

To be honest I'm still more comfortable painting sitting down though I'm gradually acclimatising to standing, and sometimes there isn't an option.

Flexibility extends to subject choice and composition too -quite literally 'setting sail to suit the wind' if you think of a sheet of paper as the sail. I've painted inside walled gardens and courtyards simply because the walls could keep the wind at bay.

7. Being organised

On a couple of levels. Not forgetting anything (he writes, having this summer on different occasions forgotten my paints (!), my camera, my water pot, water itself, a palette knife to remove a painted sheet from a paper block on site -because I'd forgotten to remove it at home in the first place, a pencil and the tripod.) So a simple checklist is handy, and can live in a sketchbook cover. Just remember to use it!

In the field, having an order you set your kit up can let you get going quickly and form habit memories that speed things up. And having kit that simply works for you -being ruthless with any that doesn't -is worth some critical thinking. There will be points where you'll ignore some of the advice we've all read and do what works best for you instead -it's your painting, your time, your experience and your pound. So have it your way :o)

I've posted descriptions of my typical urban sketching kit and my tripod based plein air painting kit separately. I possibly carry more than some watercolourists do though I do actively resist the temptation to carry "nice to haves" and try to keep things as simple as possible while giving myself options. I'd count it progress to carry less, not more.

There will still be plenty of times you could use a third hand, or a willing assistant (never had either of those, but love the idea!).

Planning ahead for where the sun might be or when the light will be optimum, or start to fail is really just a case of giving yourself time on site for the way you like to work. And at the end of the day (!) you'll work with what you have and enjoy yourself.

8 Clothes

Full PPE?

No, I'm not advocating special clothes. Just observing that I do seem to end up wearing a bit more paint than a grown up might expect, so it makes sense to pitch your jacket or shirt at the washable working clothes level. Accessible pockets never go wrong either. Temperatures can feel a bit chillier when you're standing fairly still for a few hours, often in exposed locations, than they would if you were out for a walk. And it can rain, or spit or drizzle a bit -not enough to stop you, but to be worth dressing for. And in the absence of hair I need a hat for the sun, and my ears need sun protection so it has to be one with a brim - either a bucket hat if it's windy or a sun hat for ultimate shade and to cut some of the glare on the eyes as white paper can be a bit merciless. Sunglasses aren't really compatible with judging light and shade and colour in watercolour but might be OK for line sketching. An umbrella can be a life saver, whether a white painter's one that will diffuse bright sunlight without making a shadow, or a standard anti-rain one, though it is tricky holding a palette, an umbrella and a brush -but if the worst comes to the worst you can protect your painting while you pause to hold it through the heavier showers.

Finally, fingerless mitts -like cycling or shooting gloves, can be useful in the cold if you can't paint wearing full gloves .

9 Why do it?

Is all this worth it? I don't think it objectively improves my painting skills, nor does it let me produce my very best images. But both of these are 'final product' considerations and I'm very much a painter because I love to paint - I most enjoy the time spent painting- more than I enjoy finished paintings. In painting for myself I might seldom look at a completed painting again - I'd almost rather paint another than go looking through finished works. And I don't think this is so unusual, although for those who make a living from painting the end result is critically important. The experience of painting isn't transferable or negotiable, in the same way 'sentimental value' isn't negotiable. We can speak of the romance or soul or character or authenticity of a work, but all that's really there is pigment on paper, and how it got there doesn't really show. Knowing the artist enjoyed painting it, or struggled against all but overwhelming odds to bring the painting to life might add some interest to it, but you have to be given the information independently of the image -it simply isn't in the painting. Ideally I'd hope you couldn't tell where I painted an image, or whether I'd painted from life, from imagination, from memory, or from photographs.

So for me, the point of plein air is the experience of painting this way. It's simply great fun doing it. I like getting out and about, seeing interesting places, chatting to people, and trying to paint something atmospheric. I like being in these places and being around these things, and getting to know a subject over a couple of hours looking at it, and seeing it subtly change even as it's being observed. The observational experience probably does inform my future paintings as I get a better understanding of what can be changed and still be credible.` I can 'invent' shadows where there are none, or exaggerate a colour within the bounds of possibilities that I've seen first hand outside.

When I look at a plein air painting of mine I don't see the painting, so much as remember the experience and time and place of painting it. I find that's reason enough for me. The finished paintings can look after themselves.

Happy painting, wherever you do it!

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Mar 18
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Thanks for an encouraging read, Danny. I do love your paintings, and I'm delighted by your obvious enjoyment of painting outside, your straightforward acknowledgements of the difficulties and for caring more for the experience than the results. It's nice to be reminded there's more to painting than producing sellable paintings, and that real artists still paint for love of it! Keep up the good work !

Jean Brodie

Danny McShane
Danny McShane
Mar 18
Replying to

Thanks very much, Jean! I must admit I find painting its own reward and count it a privilege to be able to get on with it for its own sake in any way I choose. I'm not sure I'd like to be a professional painter with all the ancillary (non-painting) work that entails, though sometimes a bit of discipline helps and it's always nice to be paid for something you love doing as long as it doesn't change how it feels to do it. Painting 'for someone else' instantly reduces freedom to do what I like on a whim or take risks with an image inasmuch as I might have to paint another if it goes wrong. But the o…


Sep 13, 2023
Rated 1 out of 5 stars.

Joyful, thanks for sharing

Danny McShane
Danny McShane
Sep 13, 2023
Replying to

Thanks! I think that's the key to it :o)

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