In my last post I spoke about how plein air (outdoor) painting influenced me as both an artist and slow traveler. But what are the practicalities for those just getting started? There are a few things to consider if you hope to get the most out of a painting trip. When international travel is involved a bit of planning is necessary. Here are a few tips that you may find helpful:
First, scale back your expectations. I’ve seen many painters frustrate themselves because they’re too intent on making something great. My advice is to take a humble approach – in scale (size), in subject matter, and in your expectations.
Work small; something you can reasonably complete in a couple of hours. Many painters tend to work too large and include way too much information, selecting overly complex subjects. Instead of painting the entire Grand Canal, how about focussing in on a small corner, or perhaps some architectural detail – a vignette instead of a masterpiece. A painting doesn’t need to be large or complicated to be good.
And if your painting doesn’t turn out as you’d hoped, so what? Not every diary entry needs to win a Pulitzer, and not every plein air painting is headed to the Metropolitan Museum. Learn to live with your limitations! You’ll be much happier, and maybe produce better work without the self-imposed pressure. I love when I make a good painting, but when I don’t it’s still an honest record of what I saw and experienced and there’s value in that alone.
Be sure to use your supplies outdoors at home several times before you consider traveling or attending a painting workshop, especially if you don’t have a lot of experience. I’ve been leading plein air groups for well over thirty years, in Italy since 1994. I can say with certainty that the least experienced artists usually bring the most stuff. They usually end up dragging around a lot of supplies they don’t need and never use.
Go through your painting kit ruthlessly. There are many colors that I would call “convenience colors” – colors that can be readily mixed from others. Bring only the essentials, and use smaller tubes than you might otherwise use in the studio. Same with brushes. I bring only three brushes with me when I travel.
Forget heavy wood French easels. There are much better alternatives these days. Judson’s https://www.judsonsart.com has a good supply of proven options for travel easels and palettes.
I use a collapsible ultra-lightweight camera tripod with a crosspiece I adapted from an old Stanright painting easel. It weighs nothing and is perfect for holding a small watercolor block securely. I use a cut down gallon milk jug as my water container and tie it to the tripod with a small cord which nicely weights the easel.
My wife, Barbara, who’s an excellent artist, keeps it even simpler. She brings a folding campstool and holds her block in her lap. You don’t need a lot of fancy equipment to do good work. You can see a few of her beautiful drawings below:
There are many helpful tricks I’ve learned over the years that make plein air painting more convenient. My point is – you’ll need to discover what works best for you and that comes through experience. I hope you’ll be tempted to give it a try.