Painting Outdoors


Dear Artist,

It’s been my experience that plein air requires a different mind-set than indoor work. Small inconveniences that do not occur in the studio can make or break the effort — a cool wind on the neck or a lightly primed canvas that lets the light through — minor irritants, but important to anticipate and prepare for. I recommend building up to the activity, finding comfort with your own methodology, not expecting too much. It’s the time-honored “field sketch,” and it’s noble. It’s better to have a small diamond than a large piece of glass. At the same time, and I’m not trying to influence your style here — try for the “big picture” in the first few strokes. I find that very often it’s the grand gesture made early on that holds the thing together. Don’t be afraid to keep it simple and broad; there’s always time for detail. A few minutes of Zen-like consideration before the first stroke will generally pay off too.

Most of my outdoor paintings are unabashed two-steps. The outdoor part attempts to be joyously cursory — as fresh and fluid as possible, first impressions, happy accidents — with lots of canvas, paper or panel showing and unrealized areas just left. It’s really a set up for what’s coming — the second thought — the work around the fortuitious strokes, the tightening and figuring out — back in the studio or in the cabin later in the evening.

There’s another quality to outdoor work: Communion. Try a boat. An evening drift on a river or lake in a floating easel, going with breezes and currents, softly turning this way and that, trawling for visual interests and suggestions that bubble up from the mysterious subconscious; clouds, reflections. Hands down, it beats dragging in fish.

Crepuscule in Flesh Colour and Green: Valparaiso 1866 - James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903)

“Crepuscule in Flesh Colour and Green: Valparaiso” 1866
by James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903)

Best regards,


PS: “He is only an eye, but my God, what an eye.” (Paul Cezanne commenting on Claude Monet) “Let the beauty we love be what we do.” (Rumi, 1207-1237)

Esoterica: Whistler’s palette (not his mother’s). In some work he was supposed to have used only these earth colors: White, Yellow ochre, Venetian or Indian red (Venetian for oranges and Indian for violets) Ivory black, Raw umber, Raw sienna. Also Permanent blue. This limited palette, while difficult, can be expected to bring quality control and surprising range. It’s good training too. Less is more.

The following are selected correspondence related to the above and other letters. Thank you for writing.


Vaporize self-doubt
by Jos Wilson, Glasgow, Scotland

As you say, outdoor work is tricky business. To me it has been a matter of releasing myself from the confines of the real world. In other words, it’s what I can get out of what is before me that is important, not trying to get it right as nature made it. It took me a long time to come to this conclusion — after perhaps hundreds of outdoor failures — overworked, stiff, poorly planned pieces. This commitment to what is right for the panel at the time has become my religion. I stick to the same size — small ones, as you have suggested in other letters, and frequently do five or six in one location at one sitting. It’s sort of a matter of inhaling what is around and then putting the essence down.

There’s another factor. I think artists should operate in isolation from one another. Sometimes it takes two or three paintings, independent of someone looking over the shoulder, to gain the full confidence and casualness needed to vaporize self-doubt. If the self-doubt gains sovereignty, and it can be subconscious, habitual and nagging, it shows in all areas of the composition, and the results are disappointing.


At the end of your nose
by Cole Paterson, Montana, USA

I was studying the art of southwestern US artist Augustus W. Dunbier (1888-1977) and came across one of his quotes on plein air painting: “If you can’t paint it with all of this hanging out there at the end of your nose, how do you expect to do it better back in your basement.”


More on the secondary easel
by Marilyn Brown, Arkansas, USA

I liked your concept of the secondary easel. I think that it is hard for most artists to really take a noncritical, objective view of their own work. Most don’t give themselves the praise they deserve for their own work but are quick to praise other’s work. Finding fault is not the reason for a self critique. First find the good parts and give yourself a pat on the back for what seems to be working, then see if it needs fine-tuning. My secondary easel is a large mirror in my studio. When I put a mat on my paintings and view them in a mirror I get a total new perspective of the work. It is like I am critiquing a student rather than myself. ( I like the idea of that cigar and drink but had to give up my smoking habit due to a ton of bricks falling on my head, a heart attack, but I will take my vodka & tonic)


Going for it
by Barbara Lachapelle, Arizona, USA

My husband and I will be spending some time in Provence this summer where I have decided to paint. Art has been a love for as long as I can remember, having lived some 13 years in France when younger and studied art history, etc. at the Louvre. No more time to waste, now I must paint… “Begin, and the work will be completed.” (Goethe) I love your quotes!

You backpacked in central France (delightful photo) with a palette of 5 colours. Any suggestions on paint colours to begin? Nature’s palette in Provence is so wonderful! I have many questions as to logistics: canvas stretching, drying medium for oils, return transport of canvases… I would certainly appreciate any input… We have rented a room in a 17th c. “Mas” (Provencal farmhouse) surrounded by a garden of almond, fig and olive trees… little villages abound nearby with open air markets; all the ingredients of Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence will be at the rendez-vous… just bring “An Eye”… We are very excited!

(RG note) I stopped using oils while traveling many years ago. Hanging paintings up to dry in the VW bus while trying to sleep in there was just too much. I recommend acrylics for the road. But if you use oils I suggest a drop or two of Cobalt dryers in with the medium of linseed oil and turpentine mix. I carry three sizes of stretchers with me, and a bundle of primed grayish canvas. I staple the canvas on with a staple gun, do the painting, then take them off and use the stretcher again and again. When dry I mail the roll of paintings back to myself in Canada or to my dealers. They restretch, frame and hang the ones they like. With regard to color — this is a very personal and localized thing — I mentioned Whistler’s palette only because it’s making me crazy right now. When you get to the lavender fields or the sunflowers in Provence you’re probably going to need Cobalt violet and Cadmium yellow.


by Judy Lalingo, Ontario, Canada

I have often tried plein air painting, with unsatisfactory results. Sketching with pencil is one thing… when I’ve tried the painting route, my main problem is bugs. Insects of all kinds seem to flock to my paints, to my canvas, my paper, to me! My last attempt a couple of weeks ago furnished me with a mediocre watercolour sketch and a neck full of black fly bites. Ants, spiders, flies, bees… all love to pester me when I’ve laid out my palette. I get itchy just thinking about it. Any solutions to this?

(RG note) Spray around the edge of the canvas or paper with Deep Woods Off, also on yourself and your equipment. It’s not necessary to mix it with your paint. A product known as “Oil of spike lavender” is a turpentine substitute which may help to keep certain flies away. Mosquitos and no-see-ums that sacrifice themselves in your impasto add authenticity to the work.


A mirror of integrity
by Milan Heger, Seattle, Washington, USA

I had a major correction in my approach. It had to do with integrity. I realized that when I started to sell more and more, it started to shift the focus. So when I realized that, I had a serious conversation with myself about my integrity. Now I am relieved, living in true love to the essence of my art again. My art is the focus of my work and not any other ill-motivation. Every artist may need a mirror.


The other side
by MiaCara Rose, New York, USA

I am totally discouraged. My art, creations, uniqueness was exhibited at The Fashion Institute of Design in New York City… (other artists would die for an exhibit here) this past week-end. I mortgaged my home for this one… not a sale… lots of connections, but yet another feeling of despair… I’m getting tired, drained, physically and creatively exhausted… I met a lot of great people and that’s always the greatest gift one can receive. At one point, I was ready to donate all my work to the organization which sponsored me. The MHA, Mental Health Association. It was a big event… not too organized as far as the artists and their work, but lots of speakers from all over the US speaking on The Mind Aid Conference — the people who were tossed off to psychiatrists and medications and labeled unnecessarily. The title of the show was The Art of the Archetypical Creative Mind. We all certainly were interviewed as ‘survivors.’ There were many speakers and doctors (some MDs and psychiatrists) debating on what to do. How mental illness was addressed and how it should be addressed. I was one of the speakers. I was on prescription medication for over 35 years and without any support, family or doctors, I made the decision to Let go and Let God… I went thru total withdrawal without fear of many heavy anti-psychotic drugs, medications, bronchodialators for asthma and pain pills. I can say I am successful at everything I’ve ever undertaken, and in a state of peace and harmony within and without. I know that I am not totally alone, and that God has guided and held me all the way, with love. That’s all I have left. I guess that’s all that’s necessary when you’re at the bottom. That should pick anybody up in time… this too shall pass.

PS: My counselor advised me to go back to school. She knows where I’m happy. I’m doing well. Art 101… guess I go backwards. I never had any art instruction before this. I love the energy that’s bounced off the other art students… the sharing, the laughter, the inspiration, the new energy and life that they bring to me and I to them… it’s a brand new feeling… yet again. The land of milk and honey I still dream and hope for.


If you don’t know you can’t then you can
by Bonnie Hamlin, Warren, MB, Canada

I was teaching a workshop on advanced watercolour techniques. I would do a 5-10 minute demo and then get the class to try it. Everyone (20 students) was doing extremely well. But there was none of the hypnotic chit chat that usually goes on with a group painting together, just silence. No one seemed to need reassurance, so I thought “yikes, they are bored”. So I went to a more difficult level. Still the same, so I went even harder. Then I asked someone how long he had been painting and this was his first time!

The entire class was using watercolours for the first time (3/4 were painting for the first time). They had no idea that they might not be able to do what I was asking. I had been asked to teach advanced watercolour techniques, so I didn’t suspect anyone would be at a beginner level. There were no “I can’t do this” air waves or whatever. They were all doing fantastic work! I am still totally fascinated by what happened, 21 people in a room with the belief that they could do whatever I asked (as far as painting technique was concerned). There was no pecking order, no glass ceiling. I’ve attended workshops as a student, so I know what I was asking was way beyond the level of a beginner.


Keep the channel open
by Deborah Putman, Vancouver, BC, Canada

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open… No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.” (Martha Graham)

You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate YOU.



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