• Joel Popadics

"Not So Plain" Plein Air Painting


Painting Plein Air in Yosemite National Park

I have a rather large stack of "Plein Air" sketches from my travels. I've painted and taught on locations ranging from the Sierra Mountains in California to the easternmost reaches of Maine to the Oracle in Delphi, Greece. I call them "sketches," but they are really smaller watercolors, created on the spot with enough information on which to base larger paintings.


Early in my career, we called it "paintin' out." Just wondering, now, when it became fancy and we started calling it en Plein Air painting - the French phrase en Plein Air literally means "to paint in the open air." Corot, Harpignies, Millet and many other artists from the French Barbizon School, along with the Impressionists, were among the first in the history of art to study nature in this way. They were known to have said, "Out of the studio and into the light!"


Throughout the years, I painted alone, as well as with students – with old friends and new. Perhaps, closest to my heart were the times I set up my easel with my sons, Luke and Andrew. A few summers ago, Luke and I watercolored on location at Pemaquid Point, Maine. Seventeen years prior, I painted a lighthouse there, where Luke took his very first steps for his mom. A really cool moment for this artist/dad! In the quiet, fishing village of Cutler, Maine, one of the most remote points in the United States, I peacefully painted in a cove, watching fishermen come and go as the water receded at low tide. When I returned to New Jersey, I was delighted to discover that it was the same spot where my good friend and teacher, John Phillip Osborne, painted over 50 years earlier.


I've known artists who paint on location with the sole purpose of creating a finished work ready for a frame. My objective with Plein Air has always been different. As with travel, painting is a process, and Plein Air brings that process to the fore. Sure, I admit to occasionally doing something on the spot that's frame-worthy. But, more often, the purpose for my sketches leads to a larger, more ambitious effort in the studio. In fact, many Hudson River School artists, such as Thomas Moran and William Troast Richards, based their masterpieces on watercolor studies completed on location at the Grand Canyon, or deep in the Adirondack wilderness.

I try to hold on to my studies from the field. I treasure the work I do on location, especially when I might not get back to the area for a while. The sketches, which I keep for myself, are sentimental - vivid reminders of the day, memories of friends and family I painted with, and sources of valuable reference for years to come. They are also a gauge that measures my progress. And sometimes I just paint en Plein Air for the exercise and to improve my craft.


I'm surprised by the number of landscape artists who have little or no experience painting outdoors. They rely heavily on photographs and I can spot their work immediately - overly dark shadows and sunlight areas that lack color richness. As a teacher, I've heard all sorts of excuses. I get it, Plein Air painting presents a challenge, as conditions are constantly changing. Plus, we deal with nosy onlookers, but there's so much that we can learn by painting from life.


In and of itself, Plein Air painting is a journey. Not unlike life! Here's a few tips and advice from my experience as an artist.


First of all, you'll need a portable easel. These days there's lots of options. Aluminum and wooden tripods are lightweight and easily assembled. I prefer the French easel type because it can accommodate a large palette, has a spot to store things and they're sturdy in a strong wind.


I have a backpack for my materials which includes paper towels, Kleenex, a pocket knife, pencils, eraser, Mr. Clean Magic Eraser and pair of pliers to open a stubborn tube of paint. A canvas art carrier is another option, Cheap Joe's sells a good one that has a slot on the bottom for your palette. You'll also need insect repellent and a hat with a bill for glare and protection from the sun. Water proof boots will keep your feet dry in the morning dew. Finally, bring enough paper for several sketches and don't forget a container for your water.


The best time to paint is during the "golden hour," when the sun is at a 10 or 15 degree angle to your location. It occurs twice a day - at sunrise and sunset. During the golden hour shadows are long, easier to paint and dramatic in effect. The low lying sun casts filtered light across the landscape for a very colorful scene. I have a terrific app on my phone called Sol which lets me know when the golden hour occurs in my area. Click here to read my blog about the app.


The best places to paint are local, state and national parks. They're usually scenic, well-maintained and have public facilities. If you plan to paint on private property, always gain permission first. If you're self-conscious about painting with people looking over your shoulder, get over it or setup in a secluded spot. Most importantly, paint whatever excites you and enjoy the location that you've chosen.

Shade from an umbrella for my watercolor painting

Situate yourself so that your paper isn't in the bright sun. I prefer to work flat so I always set up in a shady spot. When there's no shade around I use an umbrella; Shadebuddy™ sells a really good one for painting.


A viewfinder will help you spot and compose a good composition. You can construct one from a piece of cardboard. Cut a small rectangular aperture in a piece of cardboard that's in the same ratio as your paper. Then hold it out at arms length when you begin your drawing.

On a sunny day, the light and shadow patterns will constantly change. But, it's important to stick with your original idea. If you try to paint the shifting light, you'll end up frustrated and have an overworked watercolor. We all want to paint outside when it's nice and sunny, but don't ignore a gray day. The light stays the same on an overcast day which is why it's great for learning tree shapes and texture.


I follow the example of teachers and artists before me, and I use these sketches for my ideas. It seems I'm always in a hurry, eager to put down my ideas and recollects on paper, perhaps to finish a few that I've started on location. I don't want to wait too long; I want to work while the scenes/recollections are still fresh in my mind. While doing this, I consider my family, my colleagues, and others who have helped, along the way.

Do you paint outside on location? I love to hear about your approach. Leave your comments and suggestions in the comment box below.


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