I previously wrote about how to get started in painting with So You Want To Paint and this motivated me to just sit down and start a book I’ve had in my head for the last few years called The Imaginative Logician which I’m writing in blog form to try out a new way to produce my books. The Imaginative Logician is less of a book teaching you how to paint and more of an autobiography on how I learned to paint. It’s a very personal book where I tell the story of my adventure in painting by way of a sequence of essays and matching exercises that show how I learned to paint. It will take a long time for me to write this, and doing so will hopefully improve my skills at the same time. I’ve found that trying to teach something, even if you aren’t really qualified to teach it, helps you learn it better.
In the meantime I’m going to lay out the gear I’ve started using to paint outside, and also what I think is a good starter kit for someone who wants to do it. I find painting outside, aka Plein Air, to be the most fun way to do art. In fact, I go to the Plein Air Convention in Monterey every year now to hang out with other plein air painters. It’s an awesome conference and beats the pants off every developer conference I’ve ever been to. Only strange thing for me is I end up being one of the youngest people at this conference. Painting outside seems to be a dying practice, and this convention is a good indicator of it. I think the average age to the Plein Air Convention is about 55-65 years old and probably skews as high as 75. It’s also mostly female which is an interesting counter to the mostly male programming conventions I’ve gone to in the past.
Why You Should Paint Outside
In the two years I’ve been painting outside I think I’ve seen a total of two other people doing it. I live in San Francisco but I’ve painting all over the world and you’d think I’d see more than just two folks doing it as well. I know there’s plenty of people who do this, but I think most of them are older and professionals. The older crowd probably is losing mobility and find it easier to simply paint from photos or range closer to home. The professionals all seem to do a little bit of outside painting, but mostly paint from photos and invent landscapes, if they do landscapes at all. Given the quality and portability of digital cameras, computer monitors, and the internet it’s becoming less important to paint outside so fewer people are doing it.
I believe though that there’s some really beneficial artistic qualities to trying to capture a landscape or cityscape from life. First, when you’re outside it changes your environment and that stimulates your creativity by simply changing your surroundings. If all you did was go outside and do exactly whatever kind of art you do now that’d probably give you about the same benefits. If you’re not so into landscapes but want a change of pace to break you out of a creative slump then try just going outside and doodling or paint like you normally do. Sit on a lawn with a towel and some of your supplies and hang out. Getting out of your studio will probably help you on its own.
Second, the outside natural world doesn’t give a fuck about your process. Nature is a complex beast that does what it wants. Trees will be in places that are not artistically pleasing. Light will change as the Sun moves adding time pressure. Flies will land on your damn canvas while your painting. I have no idea why flies like oil paint but they’re crazy about the stuff despite the nasty chemicals in them. Painting outside is one of those challenging frustrations that’s really fun and kind of similar to live coding for programmers or climbing without ropes for climbers. At a certain point the pressure of the difficulties related to painting outside forces you to cut the bullshit in your setup and get looser in your style simply because you don’t have the time or energy to paint forever. Once you can paint outside for a few hours then painting in the studio becomes even easier.
Third, despite all of this it’s really fun and because not many people do it you can socialize with folks as they come up and watch you. Painting, like many artistic activities, is solitary and can get lonely. When you go outside to paint there’s always people who will watch up and are fascinated by what you’re doing. Little kids are the best because they don’t give a shit about your artistic license. They come up fascinated and then blurt out, “Hey where’s the house?!” It’s hilarious, and it’s a lot of fun. You get to enjoy some sunshine, can take some food to eat, hang with random people, but plug in some headphones and you can tune out to paint and focus if you want. I find that this again gives you a new perspective on your painting and can get you out of a creative slump too.
Ultimately it’s all about having fun and painting outside is lots of fun. Bring some food and drinks, some friends, enjoy the weather, and try to paint something even though it’s many times a hilarious lesson in frustration.
Why I Like Painting Outside
I like painting outside for the challenge of it and the romantic aspects of it all. As I said before the challenge is that a landscape is really complicated so all your tendencies to be exact have to get tossed out along with all the other bullshit that weighs you down. Gone are the grids to exactly draw everything because it’s really hard to put a grid over the whole expanse before you. Gone are the 9, 10, 15 color palettes and huge tubes of paint and now you have 3-6 colors that are tiny. Gone is the panic over keeping all your color “clean” and instead you just rinse as best you can and wipe real good before diving back in. Gone is the desperate attempt to copy everything “exactly” because it’s all too complex, and anyway that doesn’t make a good landscape painting.
Another challenging aspect of painting outside is the fact that you have to simulate and exaggerate human vision properties more than you would with a studio still life or portrait. In a still life or portrait your depth of field requirements are about 12″ inches from the front of the setup to the back wall. This means that you have fewer opportunities to play with atmospheric perspective, blurred edges for focusing, and a feeling of depth. Even with an interior painting you don’t get atmospheric perspective and hardly any chances to play with depth of field. In a landscape of a cityscape you have endless chances to warp and play with the way the human eye sees because of the vast expanse or the complexity of what’s before you. Now you can finally play with altering edges to add depth or changing color to move things back and forward in the painting’s depth of field.
In a romantic sense there is something about just hanging out, paints on the palette, a tiny canvas up, and going for it. You can do a bit of planning, and that helps, but really you just have to try and try until you start getting better at them, so it ends up being an addictive gambling habit. You pull the plein air level 10 times and on the 10th time one good painting comes out. Yet the rest are each nice little memories of where you were that day and were fun to paint even if they might suck. There you are, out in the air, cranking out turds and loving it anyway because, let’s face it, if you’re going to paint a turd, might as well go outside.
Oil, Watercolor, or Pastel
I’m going to cover watercolor and pastel painting outside in totally separate articles because the gear needed for those is different enough that they need a whole article on their own. The processes and many of the tricks of painting outside with them are also different enough that it’s better to do a nice focused article on each instead of trying to cram them all into one giant article. Each has their advantages and disadvantages
What You Will Need For Oil Painting
To get started painting outside you need to get equipment that’s similar to what photographers use, and in fact if you can find photo equipment then usually that’s better priced and higher quality than the similar “artist” versions of the same thing. For example, if you get a photography tripod then you can spend about $80-$150 and get a decent one. If you try to get an “artist” tripod then usually you’ll get gouged for a piece of junk with a few exceptions. A quick list of what you need to get started is:
- A tripod.
- A paint box with an easel, aka a “pochade box”.3. A set of small cheap brushes, ’cause they’re gonna get wrecked.
- Some small little canvas panels to go in your box.
- Oil paints.
- A palette knife.
- Turpenoid or water if you water soluble oil (WSO) like I recommend.
For a tripod, go to the local camera store and look for any cheap carbon fiber tripods. Lately there’s been tripods that sell for $80-120USD but are light and made of carbon fiber like the $800 ones you can buy. A good simple metal choice is Mefoto A0350Q0K Backpacker Travel Tripod Kits (Black) but you’ll want to hit a store to find one that works for your height. The key is that it has to be stable when extended to about your upper chest area. I’m 6’2″ tall so that means I need a taller tripod then you do.
For a paint box, you have two choices. For getting started one one move just get the Guerrilla Painter 6 by 8-Inch Thumbox Oil and Acrylic Plein Air Kit. This kit comes with a decent little self-contained kit including the box, some tester panels, a carrying bag, sealable medium cup, brushes, and a bunch of really dumb marketing material you can ignore. If you want to go smaller then I actually got the Guerrilla Painter 5 by 7-Inch Pocket Box Oil and Acrylic Plein Air Kit which is slightly smaller but possibly a little easier to use for some folks. Both of them will attach to your tripod without much work, but you do have to assemble some screws and other things to get it all together.
If you want the absolute BEST you can get, then Alla Prima Pochade is my main kit these days. This is literally the very best designed piece of equipment I own. It has everything nearly perfectly designed. I can carry 6 panels in it, all my paints, palette knife, solvents, brushes, everything in one tiny box, and have an extender that lets me take 8×10 panels if I want. It is a marvelous design, and it’s also coated in magnets. Magnets! If you’ve ever had to find a place to put your knife then this is the best feature ever. I just stick it to a magnet and I’m good. Here’s me using it the other day:
If you want good brushes then you can just go buy some moderate quality synthetics and cut the handles so they fit in your box. It’s fine to cut the handles and you really only need a few, so get about 4 of some different sizes you like. Another option is to get Rosemary & Co.’s Pochade Set, but even these I end up cutting the handles on the longer ones. They are a decent price though and will last a while, so I can recommend them if you want higher end. Still, if you want just a good set to start with then get the ones you like and cut the handles. The Guerrilla Painter kit I mention first already comes with brushes so skip this.
Once you’ve got this little kit then you just need to get yourself something to paint on. I recommend that you get some of the Fredrix Cut Edge Panels to start out. These are basically compressed cardboard with decent canvas glued on, so not the very greatest support, but solid enough to work on, and cheap to start out. If you want better panels that are still lightweight then go get some of the Raymar Art Feather Light Landscape Panels which are really high quality and not much more than the Fredrix Cut Edge ones. Get the size that fits whichever kit you bought and stick with it.
If you need to take solvents with you then you can get a little jar that fits in your box, or you can get a Guerrilla Painter 10-Ounce Brush Washer to take it with you, or get the smaller Guerrilla Painter Mighty Mite Jr Brush Washer to fit in your box.
The Guerrilla Painter kit already comes with the little Mighty Mite brush washer, but I have to warn you that the lid has a defective piece of cardboard that comes off because the glue resolves in solvent. Yes, not kidding. That means it leaks a little and when you unscrew the top the cardboard comes off. It’s really annoying, so what I did is I took out the awesome washing metal insert inside the cup and took it to a little store to find a small plastic jar that fits it, fits in my box, and has a good lid. Really you just buy the Mighty Mite to get that nice washing insert.
If you’re using WSO paints, then you just need a regular collapsible bucket like you would with watercolor paint or acrylic. These are available at your local art store in many different forms, so just ask for one. You can also get a simple plastic jar or just about any small container and put the water in it then take that with you and seal it up when you’re done. The advantage of WSO paint is you have more flexibility in how you clean your brushes and what you need to take with you, so they have great for painting outside and also for traveling on the plane if you want to paint on trips.
Other Random Things
Honestly, the best way to figure out what you need is to try setting up your kit in your house or back yard and paint something. You’ll quickly find all sorts of things you might need, and then you can run and get them to keep painting. Once you’re done with a first painting inside, just take all the things you had to collect and put them into a “Go Bag”. Then try to paint outside with your kit and go bag and keep track of things you wish you had. Eventually you’ll get it down to a minimum depending on what you’re doing and where you’re going. I can usually just go painting near my house with the above stuff plus this:
- Paper towels. I recommend the Viva brand of paper towels as you can use them to wipe your brush or canvas for longer so you use fewer of them.
- A camera or the one on my phone.
- A wide brim hat. I need to keep the sun off your face to avoid a sunburn, but also because it messes with my sense of color.
- A small garbage bag for the paper towels. I use one of those biodegradable ones, but I just toss the towels on the ground while I work if they won’t get wet or leave paint anywhere. Then when I’m done I pick them all up and put them in the bag. If they will get paint on everything or get wet then I put the bag in my jacket pocket and put them in there while I paint.
- Some polyurethane gloves or other non-latex gloves. One big problem with painting outside is if you get paint on your hands it’s hard as hell to get off because you’re generally not near a water source. It’s easier to just wear gloves. One nice thing is if you don’t use many paper towels then when you’re done you can grab them all in your gloved hands, then roll the gloves out inside-out and over the wad of paper towels in your hands, effectively using the gloves like little plastic bags. Then you don’t need to take a bag.
How To Paint Outside
There a bazillion of books that will tell you how to paint landscapes while outside. I recommend you get a subscription to ArtistsNetwork.TV if you want to have a ton of videos on every painting subject for $19.99. Artists Network has a huge 450+ video collection of art instruction videos, and usually each one is about $10-60 in price, so if you watch one video a week then you’ve paid for the subscription easily. You can watch many of the videos on there to learn more, but search for “landscape” to get a good list of videos. I think one of my favorites is this one with Carol Hillock painting in a boat as a good demonstration of the kinds of painting you can do outside in weird fun places. Another good one is this one by George Allen Durkee where he paints a complete painting of a bridge outside and shows you how to do it. Take a look at his setup if you want to see some old school paint crusted ancient painting goodness.
The best way to learn to paint outside though is to just go do it. I think a lot of artists are just panic stricken about being “wrong” and plein air painting is the cure for that stupidity. You can practice in your apartment all you want, but eventually just grab your gear, and go a few blocks from you, don’t be picky about the spot, setup and paint what’s there. Just keep trying it and as you do you’ll find little things you shouldn’t be doing. You’ll ditch crap you don’t need, bring things you do, lighten up, get different gear, and pretty soon you’re as obsessed with the perfect setup as me. It’s a lot of fun to just go and give it a shot.
To do this here’s what I recommend for your first outing:
- Pick a place you are familiar with that is within walking distance of your house or where you work.
- The best times to go are 8am-10am, or 2pm-4pm. Plan to leave so that you get there about 30 minutes before then to setup.
- The night before pack your stuff and put your paints out on your little palette the night before and let it sit flat. You can leave the paint on the palette for a week or two actually, so no need to worry about it moving around or drying. Oil paint’s good like that.
- Take some food or coffee with you, and when you’re ready to leave grab your stuff and go there.
- It really doesn’t matter what the scene is the first time, just pick one you’ll be able to handle.
- Setup your stuff and then using very thinned paint do a simple sketch of it with a simple color, or lay down a single color to be the base harmony and use a paper towel to carve out the big bright shapes. If you don’t like what you’ve drawn just wipe it off and do it again.
- Kick back for about 20 minutes and while you’re waiting for this very thin underpainting to dry, drink something, eat a bit, and stare at your scene possibly doing sketches in a notebook so your idea is in your head. If you’re going to eat then you probably should have worn gloves while you painted so you can take them off and have clean hands.
- After the underpainting has dried a bit (it should feel a little tacky) then try to paint the simple shapes, starting with the darks and then adding the mid-tones, then the lights. Another tactic is to start with the sky, since that sets the harmony for everything, and then work “back to front”, so that the things in the back can be covered by things in front and make them go back. Remember that things in the back are going to be lighter, have less yellow (so bluer or violet usually), duller, and have softer edges then things in front.
- Think in a sequence of planes going front to back. Blur the edges of things to see how that makes them seem out of focus where you want.
- Other than that, have fun and enjoy it. Don’t worry if it sucks. It probably will, but that’s not the point. The point is to get outside and try to paint something difficult and yet still enjoyable because it’s a different experience.
There’s way more to it than just these 10 things, but this will get you out there and starting. Once you do it a few times then you can start trying to learn more about it and how to be efficient or how to paint landscapes better. I have this list of books for those of you who want to start doing even more research on this, and I still study many of these resources now:
- Johannes Vloothuis has two awesome resources for you. First is many books and videos from Northlight on landscape painting. He also runs a site improvemypaintings.com where he does live classes on various subjects like trees, water, mountains. These classes are great because he does a video lecture explaining it, then does a demo in pastel, oil, acrylic, and watercolor. Then, if you miss a class you get to download the completed and edited video. All for around $20-30. He also sells all the past courses he’s done so you can just start going through all of those and learn nearly everything you need.
- Richard Schmid’s book Alla Prima II is the best book on oil painting there is out there. It’s more for folks who have a basic understanding on painting, but it’s so full of information on every kind of painting that you should get it no matter what you like to paint.
- The “landscape painting” videos on ArtistsNetwork.tv has a ton of videos, and many of them show the instructors actually outside showing you how to do it. If you get a subscription then you could spend lots of time just watching those and learning a bunch. Many of the Johannes videos are on there too so you can try his videos before buying other ones.
- Richard Schmid has a series of videos with him painting outside in different seasons that’s very instructive too. This set of DVDs is exceptional because he demonstrates painting outside, but also painting landscapes in the studio from photographs, which is rare for such an accomplished artist to admit and demonstrate.
- Bob Ross’s 3 Hour Workshop DVD Look, you laugh but this three hour DVD taught me how to paint with a palette knife. He’s mesmerizing to watch as he takes a damn knife and uses it to crank out tons of trees from imagination better than I can do while I’m looking at one. It’s also just fun to watch, so get it if you want a light fun introduction to random types of scenes you can paint like trees, mountains, seascapes, and other things.
I think those three resources are a hell of a lot. Frankly many of the books on painting landscapes are all pretty similar, and you just have to find any at used book stores and read them. I prefer these three though because they are very thorough and videos tend to be better than most books for painting instruction. Richard Schmid’s book is the exception to this rule as it’s so full of information.
Painting outside is my favorite thing these days and I hope you give it a try and start to enjoy it too. It’s definitely improved my painting skills as the demands of painting outside strip away all of the bullshit pretension and obsession you have with studio painting. You are simply required to just paint and worry less about exactness and correctness, and then you realize that this makes for better paintings anyway. It’s also the kind of skill that’s easy to acquire by just doing, so get out there and do it.