I love the outdoors. Sports were never my proverbial cup of tea. In my growing years, my experience with sports was sitting on the curb, waiting for everyone else to get chosen while the team captains rolled their eyes when they got to me.
Not just me. It was me and Lisa, and Missy who were consistently picked last for every team in every sport every year of elementary and middle school.
But I didn't mind because the outdoors (and Missy and Lisa didn't seem to either), perhaps because of our affinity for less competitive activities and a proclivity towards beauty – the trees, the flowers, the butterflies – that seemed to beckon us to come and enjoy their offerings, no athletic prowess needed.
As a girl and then into my tween years, running, walking, being outside became a wonderful outlet, a way to think, process, and exercise.
Today, I still sneak out for these outdoor excursions in the early hours of the sunrise, letting those first beams of light hit my skin and awaken my mind and heart. The days get longer and so do my evening walks. It is a beautiful time of year to be outdoors, this lovely transition from spring to summer.
Have you ever brought your watercolors outdoors and painted plein air style?
I haven't, at least not in any way that was intentional. Occasionally, I'd paint outside while traveling or on vacation, but nothing consistent.
That changed this year as the American River Nature trail where I walk and run began to be a place of inspiration for a series of paintings and YT videos earlier this year.
The practice was to go and photograph what I was seeing and then go back to my art table and paint. My grandpa did this a lot. In fact, he would take entire trips dedicated to collecting material for his next art collection, bring all the photography back to his home studio, and start painting. Sometimes Grandpa would sketch on location, but the painting was done in the control of the studio.
And the control is exactly what I am learning to let go of as I paint outdoors!
There are so many things outside of my control from the weather (it was QUITE breezy last night), to the bugs (yes, IN my paintings), to having less-than-ideal areas to sit and paint.
It's a bit of adventure painting outside, but the experience is worth the inconveniences.
Wait, What? Things Look Different Outside
Plein air painting, the fancy way for saying painting on location outdoors, has been around for hundreds of years. Having an indoor studio – whether one's studio is an art table or a room – is a bit of a luxury in any era. There weren't many homes with dedicated spaces for creating art before our time.
But now with the convenience of indoor spaces with air conditioning (which I love!), there is a tendency to stay inside where it's cool and bug-free.
But, I'm discovering benefits to painting outdoors that I don't get in the apartment:
• Seeing things as they are (colors, light, details), that the best photos cannot capture
• Catching the nuances of the lighting as it moves around, the depth of shadows
• Experiencing the other senses that go into our work besides simply the visual: the smells, the sounds, the sensations of the wind and other elements on one's body
Last night, as the sun was just starting to set and casting its light through the yellow-green leaves of the trees, there was a sense of calm and peace in the air. The breeze was pleasant, steady but not too intense. A few birds sang back and forth to another. I painted away and sensed a different sort of calm and beauty than I experience in the studio.
Cyclists zoomed by as well as a few joggers talking to one another, but aside from that, it was quiet and calm. I noticed colors in the trunk of the tree easily missed in a photo. The details of the ridges of the trunk, a very old and tall tree, suddenly sparked my imagination and interest.
We see things differently when we move out from our controlled environments and into another area. Whether that is painting in a local coffee shop or outside, something shifts in us when we take our paints and move with them.
It sounds complicated, taking one's art on the road, but it doesn't have to be. Watercolor lends itself well to painting plein air style.
The most important thing is to keep things simple and easy. Everything I bring with me can be put into a tote bag.
Here is my list of seven essential things to bring me with for Plein Air Painting. To ensure I don't forget anything, I keep the list in the notes section of my phone.
• Pad of paper – I use the Canson spiral bound 9x12 pad, but I've used a 5x7 in the past that is even more travel friendly! The paper is textured, 140 lb., good for painting and not buckling
• Paint, already on the palette
• Paper towel or cloth (for cleaning up)
• Paintbrushes. 2-3 sizes
• Micron Pen / Pencil
• Water bottle
• Container for water (I use a Tupperware whose lid I have lost)
Keep the watercolor paint on a palette that could fit into a ziplock bag.
Watercolor paint can be activated simply by adding water to it. It travels very nicely because, once dry, it doesn't smear or go anywhere. I like to add the paint to my palette and let it dry the night before – if I am adding fresh paint to it.
Trying to bring tubes of paint with me has the potential to get messy. And if I smear paint on my hands, clothes, etc. there is not usually a place to wash up, contributing to the chaos of painting outdoors instead of a more peaceful experience.
To make things simple, I've dedicated one bag to being my art tote bag for the summer. Except for a bottle of water, everything is in there, ready to go at a moment's notice. My goal is to paint outside, plein air style, once a week this summer. Where might you paint to expand your creative experience? Maybe it's a nature trail nearby or a park. Or consider taking the paint with you on vacation and carving out a few thirty-minute sessions for painting.
I'm hoping to get better at watercolor sketching, specifically in creating more dramatic shadows as I paint outdoors. I'm tracking my progress by keeping all my plein air sketches in a single sketchbook. We'll see how it looks as I continue painting through the summer.