Plein air painting – the act of painting landscape out of doors – can be daunting at first. In this post I explain why the increasing number in plein air painting events is taking away some of the fear, and offering practical support as well as the opportunity to meet other like-minded painters.
Art For Good
On Sunday 1st September 2019, I awoke at 7am, threw on some jeans and jumped in the car – it was too early to worry too much about driving down the meandering, unknown ‘A’ roads and country lanes to Sennen. I had signed up for ‘Art for Good’, an attempt to break to World record for the most number of plein air painters painting in a single location. The location was the coastal path from Sennen to Land’s End, and the aim was to raise awareness for the need for proper investment in good footpaths to connect the 2 locations, as ‘desire lines’ on either side of the existing, over-trodden path were damaging the coastal terrain.
The coming together of nearly 1000 painters, of all ages and abilities, was an inspired, and inspiring spectacle, and the reason why I was motivated to travel 152 miles to be there.
Questions to ask yourself prior to painting en plein air
Painting ‘en plein air’ can be a nerve-wracking prospect for the uninitiated. Unless you are blessed with living somewhere particularly paint-able and you’re able to walk out of your house and pitch yourself up at a great location for painting out of doors, you have to take into consideration a number of factors:
- Where can I paint?
- How will I get there?
- What should I take and what should I leave behind?
- Will I be sufficiently comfortable?
- Will I be able to bring everything back?
When you are less experienced you need to add to that ‘do I have the confidence to paint in this place?’; in a public place, with passers by wondering what you are up to, with the feeling that someone might be looking over your shoulder, even when things are going desperately wrong. This is where plein air events can really offer safety in numbers, and can be a fantastic ‘way in’ to becoming a regular plein air painter.
What was so good about Art for Good?!
‘It struck me that with the arts being ‘cut’ through education and a society with a tendency to ‘look down’ rather than outwardly at conservation issues, there was an opportunity for a gentle and positive statement about ‘art for all’ and using creativity for environmental awareness,’ explained Anthony Garratt, landscape artist and the brains behind Art for Good. ‘There is a trend for ‘mass activities’ these days, whether they be political, flash mob, or entertainment. It then got me thinking about how painting can connect you with the landscape. I tutor at The Newlyn School of Art; often taking students out into the wilds to paint or draw on site. Without exception, people form an emotional bond with the landscape through the action of painting, and it made sense for me to try and use this bond to make an environmental statement. With the help of Newlyn School of Art, who then put me onto the National Trust, there was born a concept; using a line of people from all walks of life and experience to make a statement about creativity and the positive impact it can have on our attachment to environmental issues’.
‘Art For Good’ cost just £2 to be part of, and motivated me to make a journey I would not have made otherwise. Without the security of the organised event I would not have had the confidence to travel all that way, especially at that time on a Sunday! All participants were allocated a car park, so it really was a case of just following the signs and then carrying painting equipment down to the coastal path. I hadn’t anticipated quite how long the walk would be and it was a struggle to bring everything I wanted! But now I know for next time; where I can park and how far away the best viewpoints are.
‘Generally I like the solitude of painting alone, but it was both fun and slightly odd to be in company with so many,’ Debbie Mackinnon, a Sydney based, professional landscape artist told me. ‘ I usually wander and walk about until a location speaks to me and I can visualize how I might draw/paint it. This was a highly organised event to connect and celebrate plein air painting as well as helping to raise awareness about the erosion on the footpath. It was great to have the numbers to draw in the media and so cool that it was beamed around the world. Friends in Australia saw it on TV there!’ Media coverage does not always come with the territory with plein air painting, but for Art for Good, it added extra novelty.
As with any coming together of a group of people, there was a real sense of camaraderie – everyone had a big smile on their face – and for some, it was an opportunity to connect with artist friends only previously known via social media. ‘I’d only been there five minutes when Anita Reynolds, a follower on Instagram called out my name! She was one of the High Vis officials and simply recognised me…talk about small world,’ professional artist Mike Staniford told me, who accompanied Debbie Mackinnon all the way from Sydney. Putting real faces to names encountered on social media is another pleasure for painters who work largely in isolation – the social media support network all of a sudden becomes something a little more real.
The sun beat down on us and the scenery was breathtaking – the vivid blue of the sea was unreal, and the power and beauty of nature was all around us, right from the crashing of the waves to the technicolour of the lichen on the rocks.
‘We hope that the Art For Good movement will grow annually and intend to create Art For Good events every year or two, each time for a different environmental cause. There are many ideas and collaborations on the boil and we look forward to having a line of painters linking one end of the country to the other in a glorious painterly mass… perhaps not next year though!’ – Anthony Garratt, Art for Good
I was thankful to have made a packed lunch, as many painters dissipated after about an hour and I would not have felt as ease to leave my painting gear on the coast while I went to grab a sandwich. It was also a luxury to have portaloos situated not too far away. It doesn’t take long to realise that as a plein air painter, parking (or proximity to bus-stop or train station), food and loos become so important! Added to this is dressing for the occasion – check the weather forecast and if there is any hint of rain on the horizon bring waterproofs. Warm comfy feet always help me paint for longer (so think good walking boots!), and layers can help you keep warm or allow you to peel off if it gets warmer. Also – ALWAYS remember suncream and your mobile phone! This post by Haidee-Jo Summers lends a whole lot more practical advice for plein air painting.
Then of course there is the actual painting. There was no restriction on medium at Art for Good, and I saw everything from watercolours to pencils to oils, acrylics and pastels being used. It’s important to be selective about what you need and don’t need – again there is a great list of materials and equipment in this post by Haidee-Jo Summers.
Having an intention for the painting you hope to create
I find it helpful to think about an intention before I go out painting. It might be to only use big brushes, or certain colours, or think primarily about a certain kind of composition, i.e. mainly trees, a seascape or architecture. Having an intention can help you navigate your thought processes through what you will actually need and what you can afford to leave behind. It’s something I have in common with Mike Staniford. He told me, ‘I seek angles in my work. Lines that lead the eye to the distance, or cut diagonally across the landscape. My job as a painter is to give you my personal take on a landscape and I’m not necessarily trying to create a factual reality. Hence I’ll change colours, add to the drama and edit out the parts I don’t want. The sense of place in this far West Penwith region has caught my attention and I’m already planning to be back for a longer stay next year.’ With every return comes another layer of familiarity, allowing you to investigate the area further, either geographically, or in painting terms.
Emily Faludy, another experienced plein air painter, also echoes these sentiments. She told me, ‘Write down one thing that you want the scene to be about – what is the feeling, or the story? Reference this as you go through the work, to stop you getting distracted with details which don’t aid or add to what you are trying to say….Everything changes so fast when you are painting outdoors that you could end up painting one time of day on top of another, endlessly. Or, worse, several times of day together in the same image! Learn to set rough limits – I’m rarely on the same piece for more than a couple of hours, and usually less than one. You can always come back again when the light is the similar another day.’ It’s true – think of your painting as a means of communication. When you do this you’ll inevitably have to think about what it is you want to say, and stop before the message gets lost.
Learning from the painters around you
Painting alongside others for many, just feels good. It lends added security, the potential to make new friends, and to learn. As Mike explained, ‘It seemed to me like there was a real collective spirit in the air and whilst I’ve painted with small groups before, 937 other painters generated a real sense of artistic spirit. I love painting alone and the last couple of weeks have allowed me to find some staggering remote nooks and crannies on this quite breathtaking Cornish coastline. But just being around other artists is reward in itself and sharing our ideas and executions of the day’s output was fantastic. Painters are a very critical bunch and rightly so but I also think we’re a very egalitarian lot when it comes down to it. I don’t particularly seek comment or criticism when I’m in progress but the event offered up a kind of level playing field and I was more than happy to share my work.’
British Plein Air Painters
More recently I attended the ‘British Plein Air Painters’ organised Paint Out in Bath. The British Plein Air Painters are a group of artists that include Adebanji Alade, Peter Brown, Fred Cuming, Benjamin Hope and Haidee-jo Summers (along with 23 others) who exhibited together at the Menier Gallery last autumn, and to promote the event organised two free ‘paint outs’ in London. The success of these events led members of the group to begin organising more paint outs across the country, this one was organised by established painter Valerie Pirlot.
The Brit Plein Air paint outs are very popular and relatively casual, although well thought out. Practicalities such as how to get the meeting place, parking situation and timings are all stated on the events page of their website. The artists who attend are again a mix of abilities, although they all take painting seriously and clearly know about the event either through word of mouth or via social media. ‘Not only is it great to paint alongside other artists but you also pick up tips. It might be to do with equipment, colours another uses, mediums or brushes. Or even how others transport wet paintings’ explained British Plein Air Painter Mo Teeuw. Through these events I have met a number of painters whose work I have admired on Instagram and seen how they work – their choices of easel, paints, and how they carry everything! (There were lots of Pochades like the ones by Richeson that I am most covetous of, and backpacks such as these which I will certainly be saving up for, along with a tripod, as the wooden field easel, while brilliant, affordable, and has lasted me a good 20 years, is starting to become a little cumbersome!) Another popular item among the troops was the smart wet panel holder, taking the trouble out of carrying multiple panels back to the car. (NB: We are currently conducting an online survey as research for designing a new wet panel carrier, click here to help us by answering 7 simple questions)
The intention is always to meet up at the end of the day and share the work made. This can be a little intimidating as the majority of artists are full time painters, however it’s optional to take part. I very nearly didn’t show mine in Bath but then when I did I received a lot of encouragement and positive feedback, so now I feel it’s worth sharing work at such opportunities always. After all, when else can you show your work to a large group of like minded painters who love doing what they do as much as you do?
Trying your hand at Plein air Painting at an Event
‘Painting outdoors holds a very special appeal for me. Nothing beats being amongst the elements but it’s the weather you have to be wary of. It changes and before you know it, not only is the landscape changing before your very eyes but you’re in danger of being blown off a cliff! My advice to painters is go prepared, assume the best but plan for the worst. The famous audacious British painter, David Bomberg believed you should not paint what you see in front of you but what you feel surrounds you. And that means being out in the elements!’ – Mike Staniford
If you have never painted out of doors before and feel a little nervous about it, I strongly recommend seeking out an event to sign up to. The locations are chosen by artists who know what constitutes good subject matter, and have thought through practical issues. There are a mix of those with competitions and exhibitions attached, as well as those that are ‘just for fun’. Along with Brit Plein Air and Art For Good, James Colman’s ‘Paint Outs’, largely around Suffolk and Norfolk are worth investigating, as is the annual Pintar Rapido competition (which includes an exhibition in Chelsea of all the plein air works made the previous day), Create Longridge and County Wexford’s ‘Art in the Open’. But there are loads more – especially in America! – so it’s worth investigating online and also joining Facebook groups such as UK Plein Air Society and UK Plein Air Painters to keep your nose to the ground on what’s happening. You could also think about organising your own meet ups with friends or social media contacts in the local area.
‘I remember first googling ‘plein air events’ and being surprised that there was so much around,’ Emily Faludy recalls from her early plein air painting days. ‘…I don’t think I realised that there was a ‘scene’, it was just something that I’d taken up doing, so I was delighted to find other people for whom this was important, too. The first event I attended was ‘Paint out Norfolk’ in 2017, where I was incredibly surprised and delighted to win the ‘Oils’ category. It was a huge confidence boost and the whole event really inspired me to keep on working outside. Since then, I’ve been to all sorts of places on events, from inside Windsor Castle (‘Windsor and Eton en plein air’), to the beaches of North Norfolk (‘Paint Out Norfolk’) and recently, even Ireland (‘Art in the Open’). It’s a fantastic thing to get to see and interact with places I would never have thought to go to myself, and painting in such a variety of different situations really helps me learn what interests me’.
Continuing the Journey – when you have built up your confidence
Talking to Debbie and Mike, who are a quite a bit further along their plein air painting journey than I am, it’s clear that with confidence and experience the potential for getting hooked on it is real, and especially so if you give it time and dedication. I asked Debbie what the magic was.
‘Generally I love plein air painting as an add on to my studio practice,’ she answered. ‘It’s the randomness and unknown that attracts me. Sitting outside for hours means rapidly changing light and conditions and then finding those moments you love to include in the work. My work is made up of a collection of moments, I may move about to get a better view etc , I could never get that energy from working from a photo’.
‘Art For Good was a great beginning to our visit to Cornwall. Mike and I walked the cliff path and across the moors hauling our art materials to remote spots. West Penwith has a special energy – wild and pagan. Saw standing stones, Bronze Age settlements and the drama of the coast. I made a concertina sketchbook of Hedgerows and rock walls which I will complete away from the subject. I like mixed media and the opportunity to be loose and expressive. I’m not seeking a photorealist representation, much more a feeling of weather, place and season. The colours of Cornwall in Sept are wonderful, we don’t get much in the way of Autumn colours in Sydney so I loved the bracken, heather and gorse. The coast is dramatic in all weathers and it’s hard not be be inspired by that and the stunning turquoise of the water. How to paint without cliche? Always the challenge. Cornwall is full of art and artists so we had a chance to visit some great galleries and look at paintings especially interested in journeys to abstraction. Especially enjoyed the beautiful Tate St Ives, Barbara Hepworth Studio and Cornwall Contemporary with David Mankin’s Sightlines. Stumbled across a little gem -Yew Tree Gallery near the Coast at Pendeen, Delightful spot with some great work.’
The great and inescapable fact is, the more plein air events you participate in, the more plein air painters you’ll meet. And the more you’ll meet the more likely you will build up knowledge of where’s good to paint, what techniques and hacks are worth trying, and also who might be around to accompany you on painting trips in the future. All added to the depth of experience and the sheer journey you will embark upon with your painting.
There’s nothing to lose and so much to gain.
Debbie Mackinnon is on Instagram @debbiemackinnon
Mike Staniford in on Instagram @mikestaniford
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Featured image: British Plein Air Painters Paint Out at Flatford