Expert Tips for Successful En Plein Air Painting
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 8 min read


  1. Choose the right equipment
  2. Select a spot
  3. Study the scene
  4. Start with a sketch
  5. Capture the light
  6. Work fast
  7. Use the elements to your advantage
  8. Practice makes perfect

En plein air painting is all about capturing the world around you, raw and unedited. It's about letting sunlight, wind, and the sounds of nature guide your brush. If you're seeking fresh en plein air painting ideas, you're in the right place. Let's get you all set up with these expert tips on how to make your outdoor painting sessions successful and enjoyable.

Choose the right equipment

First things first—you need to pack light and smart for your plein air adventure. The key is to bring only the essentials that will serve your creative mission.

  • Easel: A lightweight, portable easel is your best friend. An easel like the French Box easel is a popular choice as it's easy to carry and sets up in a jiffy.
  • Paints: Depending on your preference, you might bring along oil paints, acrylics, or watercolors. Some painters prefer a limited palette of just a few colors and mix others as needed. Remember, less is more.
  • Brushes and Palette: Bring a variety of brushes for different strokes. A mixing palette is also a must-have. Some artists use disposable palette paper for ease of cleanup.
  • Canvas or Paper: Choose a size that you can comfortably complete in a few hours. Some artists prefer canvas panels, which are less prone to damage when transported.
  • Other Essentials: Don't forget paper towels for wiping your brushes, a small trash bag, and a sketchbook for preliminary drawings. A good hat and sunscreen are also smart to have on hand to protect you from the sun.

Choosing the right equipment is the first step towards a successful en plein air painting session. Now, you're ready to take your art from the studio to the great outdoors, opening up a world of new painting ideas and inspiration.

Select a spot

Now that you're all packed up, it's time to venture out and find the perfect place to set up your easel. This is where your journey truly begins. But remember, the ideal spot for your en plein air painting isn't always the most picturesque one.

So, what should you consider when selecting a spot?

  • Lighting: How the light hits your scene is a key factor. You may want to choose a spot where the sun will not change your scene dramatically over the next few hours.
  • Comfort: Will you be comfortable standing or sitting in this spot for a few hours? Is there shade available to protect you and your canvas from direct sunlight?
  • View: What catches your eye about this spot? Is it the colors, the contrasts, or perhaps the way the elements in the scene relate to each other? It doesn't have to be a grand landscape; even a simple street corner can hold a wealth of en plein air painting ideas.
  • Distractions: Consider the potential distractions. Is this a busy area with a lot of foot traffic? Will you be able to focus on your painting?

Remember, the perfect spot is highly subjective. What works for one artist may not work for another. The key is to find a place that inspires you, challenges your skills, and offers a fresh perspective. Happy hunting!

Study the Scene

Once you've found your perfect spot, it's time to get into the groove. But hold on, don't whip out your brushes just yet! The first step of your en plein air painting journey is to study the scene. Remember, you're not just painting a picture; you're capturing a moment in time.

Give yourself a moment to soak in the scene. Notice the way light filters through the leaves, how shadows creep across the ground, or how colors blend and contrast. Observe the shapes, lines, and textures that make up the scene.

  • Light and Shadow: How is the light interacting with your scene? Where are the shadows falling? These are crucial elements that will add depth and realism to your painting.
  • Colors: What colors stand out to you? How do they interact with each other? Remember, it's not always about replicating the exact colors you see. Sometimes, it's about translating the mood or atmosphere of the scene through your color choices.
  • Composition: Pay attention to the arrangement of elements in your scene. Where do your eyes naturally gravitate? That could be your focal point.

Studying the scene is a crucial step in finding unique en plein air painting ideas. It helps you build a visual vocabulary and a deeper connection with your surroundings. So, take your time. Your canvas isn't going anywhere.

Start with a Sketch

Now that you've studied the scene, it's time to put pencil to paper. But why sketch, you ask? Well, think of it as a blueprint. It's an opportunity to explore your composition and lay the groundwork for your painting. Plus, it's a great way to warm up those artistic muscles.

Keep it Simple: Your sketch doesn't need to be a detailed masterpiece. Keep it loose and simple. Focus on capturing the main shapes and forms. Remember, this is just a guide for your painting, not the final piece.

Play with Perspective: En plein air painting offers a unique opportunity to play with perspective. Take advantage of this! Experiment with different viewpoints in your sketch. You might surprise yourself with some fresh and exciting en plein air painting ideas.

Don't Stress the Details: It's easy to get caught up in the minutiae, but resist the urge. Save the details for the painting stage. Right now, focus on the bigger picture—literally.

Sketching is an important step in the process, so don't rush it. Take your time, play around, and most importantly, have fun with it. Who knows? Your sketch might just be the springboard for your next masterpiece.

Capture the Light

Light is a magical element in painting—it breathes life into a scene and sets the mood. In en plein air painting, light is constantly changing, which can be both a challenge and an opportunity. So, how do you capture it effectively?

Observe: Pay close attention to how light interacts with your scene. Notice how it changes throughout the day. Is it harsh and direct, or soft and diffused? How does it affect the colors and shadows? These observations will enrich your en plein air painting ideas and bring authenticity to your work.

Be Quick: Because light changes so quickly, you need to work fast. Try to capture the essence of the light in your scene as quickly as possible. The goal isn't to capture every detail, but rather, the feeling and mood the light creates.

Use Color Wisely: Choosing the right colors is crucial when capturing light. Warm colors can illustrate a bright, sunny day, while cool colors might suggest an overcast sky. Don't be afraid to experiment with colors to find the right balance.

Capturing light can be a challenge, but don't let that deter you. With practice, you'll develop your own strategies for dealing with shifting light conditions. Remember, the goal is to capture the essence of the scene, not to create a photographic replica. So, embrace the challenge and let the light inspire your en plein air painting ideas.

Work Fast

Speed is your ally when it comes to en plein air painting. Why, you ask? Well, the great outdoors isn't a static studio. Clouds move, shadows shift, and leaves dance in the breeze. You need to work fast to catch that fleeting moment and infuse it into your painting.

Start with the Big Picture: Don't get lost in the details initially. Start by laying down the primary shapes and colors of your scene. This gives you a solid foundation on which to build your painting, and it also quickly secures the basic elements of your scene on the canvas.

Keep it Simple: Overcomplicating your en plein air painting ideas can slow you down. Try to simplify the scene into basic shapes and colors. Remember, you're not aiming for a photo-realistic representation, but your interpretation of the scene.

Limit Your Palette: Having too many colors to choose from can slow you down and confuse your color scheme. Stick to a few basic colors that you can mix to create the shades you need. This not only speeds up your process but also results in a more harmonious painting.

Working quickly doesn't mean rushing. It's about efficiency and focusing on the essentials. With time and practice, you will develop your own rhythm and pace. Remember, en plein air painting is not a race, but a beautiful dance with nature.

Use the Elements to Your Advantage

One of the benefits of en plein air painting is the ability to immerse yourself in the environment. Instead of seeing this as a challenge, consider it an opportunity to add authenticity and depth to your art.

Embrace the Light: Natural light is a gift to artists. It creates dramatic shadows, highlights, and color variations that are hard to replicate in a studio. As the sun moves, the light changes, offering different perspectives and moods. Use this to your advantage to create unique en plein air painting ideas.

Play with the Weather: Don't be discouraged by a cloudy day or a gentle breeze. These can bring drama and movement to your painting. The rustling leaves, the changing sky, the play of light and shadow on a cloudy day — all of these elements can make your painting come alive.

Use Nature's Textures: The outdoors provides an array of textures that you can incorporate into your painting. The roughness of tree bark, the softness of a cloud, the crisp edges of a building — each texture adds a different dimension to your painting. Observe and incorporate these textures to create a more engaging experience for the viewer.

Remember, the elements are not your enemy, but your muse. They bring with them a host of inspirations for your en plein air painting ideas. So, next time you're outdoors with your easel and paints, open your senses to the elements and let them guide your brush.

Practice Makes Perfect

As with any other skill, the secret to mastering en plein air painting lies in consistent practice. There's no magical shortcut to becoming an expert overnight, but with regular practice, you'll see significant improvements in your work. Here are a few tips to keep you on track:

Set a Routine: Try to paint regularly, even if it's just for a few minutes each day. Consistency can help reinforce what you've learned and build your skills steadily.

Experiment: Don't be afraid to try new things. Experiment with different techniques, styles, and materials. Who knows? Your experiments today could lead to your signature en plein air painting ideas tomorrow.

Learn from Mistakes: Don't be disheartened if a painting doesn't turn out as you'd hoped. Each mistake is a learning opportunity. Analyze what went wrong, learn from it, and apply that knowledge to your future works.

Seek Feedback: Show your works to others and ask for their opinions. Feedback from others can provide new perspectives and help you improve your work.

Remember, the journey to becoming an accomplished en plein air artist is a marathon, not a sprint. So take your time, enjoy the process, and keep practicing. Before you know it, you'll be coming up with en plein air painting ideas that are uniquely yours.

If you're eager to improve your en plein air painting skills and techniques, check out the workshop 'How to Paint 3Dimensionally' by David Shepherd. This workshop will not only help you enhance your outdoor painting abilities but also teach you how to create a more immersive and realistic portrayal of the scenes you capture.