Pack up & Paint! A Plein Air Guide for Beginners

Pack up & Paint! A Plein Air Guide for Beginners

Posted by Curry S. on Jan 28th 2020

The weather is getting warmer making now the perfect time to pack up and paint! Plein air painting has been growing in popularity and shows no signs of slowing down. Interested in learning more? Keep reading for some basic tips and tricks to get you ready for plein air painting!

Claude Monet | 1875 | Woman with a Parasol | Oil on Canvas

What is Plein Air Painting?

Plein air is the act of painting outdoors. This centuries-old style of painting was made into a popular art form by French impressionists. "En plein air," which translates to "outdoors" in French, allows artists everywhere to experience drawing and painting in the landscape of their choice. Whether it's on a beach, at the top of a mountain, in a never-ending field, or on your favorite block in the city, plein air is possible for anyone with an appetite for adventure and art. All that's required is a box easel or a canvas pad, and some portable paint.

Plein air has been made famous by painters such as Claude MonetEdgar Alwin Payne, and Winslow Homer. There are endless amounts of incredibly talented plein air painters today, including Kathleen DunphyJustin Vining, and Carl Judson, aka the Guerrilla Painter.

Winslow Homer | 1865 | The Veteran in a New Field | Oil on Canvas

What Supplies Do I Need for Plein Air Painting?

Edgar Payne | 1923 | Fishing Boats in a Harbor | Oil on Canvas

Less is More. It can be easy to get carried away with shopping when trying something new. Below you will find our VBL™ (Very Basic List) of supplies that will help you get through your first plein air outing without dragging you down.


Easel or Canvas Pad

Paint Brushes (you only really need four, bring eight at the most)

Palette Knife

Solvent/Oil and Acrylic Mediums

Acrylic or Oil Paints

Canvas or Panel


Cloth Rag (for cleaning off brushes)



Bug Spray & Sunscreen

Trash Bags

Water for both cleaning your brushes and hydration!

A reliable bag to carry all of your supplies

Things that will make your life easier but might add a little extra weight to your pack:

A Wet Panel Carrier (if you're using oil paints and they are not dry, you can transport them using this without damaging the painting)



Extra sketchbooks for compositional sketches

Multi-tool (just in case you run into any easel mishaps!)

Things to Keep in Mind:

Light Source - Differences in lighting can make or break a painting, whether you're inside or outside. Make sure you're aware of your light source, how fast it's moving, and what direction it is in to have the best possible outcome for your plein air paintings. Here are a few different types of light sources you'll run into when painting outdoors:

Direct Sunlight

Overcast Light

Streetlights & Night Conditions

Justin Vining | 2018 | It’s Almost May | Oil on Panel

Limit your Palette - Yes, the great outdoors is filled with endless color and shades. Part of the fun is seeing what you can create when you limit your palette. Not only does this cut down on how much you're carrying around, but it will help expand your knowledge in mixing colors and creating the best possible palette for each of your plein air outings. Here are the colors plein air artist Kathleen Dunphy uses in her palette:

  • Gamblin Titanium White
  • Gamblin Cadmium Yellow Lemon
  • Gamblin Ultramarine Blue
  • Rembrandt Permanent Red Medium
  • Rembrandt Naples Yellow Deep
  • Rembrandt Cold Gray

Kathleen Dunphy | 2015 | Hope Valley Gold | Oil on Linen

Common Mistakes:

Mistakes will be made, no doubt about it. Here are some common mistakes you can try and avoid during your first few plein air experiences. If you do make one, don't sweat it! You're outside creating art, that seems like an okay day to us.

Not having a plan - A plein air outing won't be successful unless you have a clear plan of action. We're not saying this to stress you out, just make sure you're organized, crossing your t's and dotting your i's.

If you go too big, you'll have to go home - Light is very important when it comes to plein air. Think of the sun as your clock. If you're trying to fill up a canvas that is too large and the light is moving quickly, you'll have to try again another day. Make sure you're giving yourself plenty of time!

Don't start small - Paying too much attention to detail and not enough on basic shapes will cost you,Try squinting to eliminate details and see values more clearly.

Not seeing the big picture (literally) - Try not to pay too much attention to the tiny details when you're starting. Begin by sketching all of the shapes you see. Feeling overwhelmed by the small stuff? Try squinting to eliminate those and see values more clearly.

Not mixing enough paint - Paint is important to successfully paint. Who knew? Take that limited palette and mix plenty of what you'll need to get yourself from point A to point B.

Click here and here for a more in-depth look at common plein air mistakes!

Claude Monet | 1873 | Poppies | Oil on canvas


Place to Paint by Sennelier:

  • An Interactive map showing favorite plein air spots all over the world! Add your own or explore your hometown.

Plein Air Podcast:

  • Plein Air Magazine publisher Eric Rhoads delves into the world of plein air painting and the outdoor painting movement

Plein Air Convention:

  • A one-of-a-kind experience featuring a faculty of some of the world’s top plein air artists. The convention and expo include classes, demonstrations, social activities, exhibitors, and on-site painting at the resort and surrounding areas!

Great Places to Paint:

  • M. Stephen Doherty shares some favorite places to set up an easel with Larry Bleiberg for USA TODAY.

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