You must be right out under the sky. You must try to match your colors as nearly as you can to those you see before you, and you must study the effects of light and shade on nature’s own hues and tints. —William Merritt Chase
Sometimes, escaping the walls of your house, classroom, or studio can be exactly what you need to find inspiration for your art. Taking your art practice to the great outdoors can be artistically fruitful, but outside drawings can also be logistically challenging. You may be endlessly inspired by the natural subjects around you, but it takes work and forethought to carry your essential tools and art supplies into the field.
While creating outdoor drawings and sketches tends to require fewer materials, you may choose to paint in the fresh air, also known as plein air painting. Translated directly from the French, “en plein air” simply means painting in “full” or “fresh” air, and it refers to the practice of creating finished work—as opposed to sketches and studies—in the field.
If you’re ready to heed the call of the wild, we’ve put together a list of ideas for what to focus on when creating outdoor drawings and paintings, a guide to essential gear to make the most of your outdoor adventure, and a short history of outdoor painting.
What Tools You’ll Need to Make Art Outdoors
You’ll need some basic tools of the trade to make the most of any outdoor drawing excursion. Keep in mind that plein air supplies should always be simple, easy to use, lightweight, and highly portable. Here’s our guide to what you’ll need to make great art in the great outdoors:
What You’ll Need for Outdoor Drawing and Sketching
- Hardbound sketchbook with heavyweight paper
- Drawing pencils
- Pencil sharpener
- Kneaded erasers
Many artists prefer hardbound sketchbooks for outside drawing because they provide a supportive surface and protect your work from the potential abuse of backpack transportation. These sketchbooks also typically include 60–65 lb. heavyweight paper. However, if you plan to draw with wet media, such as ink or markers, or if you plan to paint with watercolors, you will need a mixed media sketchbook with even heavier paper. To save money, you can opt to buy paper by the sheet and use a simple cardboard backing to provide a supportive surface—at least for dry media.
A wide range of pencils is available for sketching and drawing, including mechanical, graphite, charcoal, and colored pencils of many varieties. You’ll want a small, all-metal sharpener to keep your pencils up to snuff, along with a pencil box of some kind to protect your tips (and keep things organized). Kneaded erasers work well for fine details.
What You Need for Plein Air Painting
- Portable easel
- Paint brushes
- Clamping umbrella
- Clip-on brush holders/shelves
- Wet-panel carrier
A portable easel is the primary tool you will need for plein air painting. French easels come in half and full sizes and feature collapsible legs and a canvas arm, storage compartments for paint supplies and a palette, and space for a single finished wet painting. Pochade boxes serve a similar function but are even smaller and more lightweight. They include storage compartments for your supplies and a hinged lid that opens to serve as an easel for your canvas. Both types of easels fold up for easy carrying via handle or shoulder strap. Tripod-based easels allow for larger canvases.
You’ll also need paint in your preferred medium, typically with a reduced selection of colors to enhance portability. You can also use a plastic weekly pill box to transport more colors without taking up too much space.
When it comes to brushes, many outdoor painters prefer those with flat ends, which work well for landscapes, and canvases should be sized to fit the portable easel you choose. Popular accessories include small clamping umbrellas (which keep your light consistent and protect your canvas), clip-on brush holders and shelves, and a wet-panel carrier for multiple paintings.
Take Your Art Practice to the Great Outdoors
Watercolor Painting En Plein Air with Erin Kate Archer
25 Outdoor Drawing and Painting Ideas
Regardless of your preferred medium or subject matter, creating art outdoors is an experience you shouldn’t miss. If you’ve gathered your materials and are ready to step out, here are 25 specific ideas for outside drawing, sketching, and painting when you just need to get those creative juices flowing:
- Fall foliage
- Old houses
- Dirt roads
- Hiking trails
History of Plein Air Painting
Today, it might seem obvious that artists seeking to capture natural light, real-world colors, and shifting weather conditions on canvas would have to venture out into the natural world. But it wasn’t until the early 19th century that new perspectives on art and technological advances combined to inspire the era’s leading artists to try their hand at plein air painting.
In England, a small group of artists led by John Constable and the great Joseph W. M. Turner began to reject contrived, idealized visions of nature in painting, and to champion a more naturalistic approach. (For a vivid depiction of Turner’s singular relationship with the natural world, see Mike Leigh’s 2014 feature film Mr. Turner.) By 1830, students at France’s Barbizon School, whose leaders included such master painters as Theodore Rousseau and Charles François Daubigny, also found themselves working outdoors to paint scenes from everyday life in the French countryside.
All these artists had to contend with the difficulties of taking the tools of their trade out of their studios. Pigment powders and linseed oil had to be freshly mixed by the artist’s hand to make paint. In 1841, American inventor John Goffe Rand changed everything by creating a collapsible zinc paint tube with a stopper cap. Soon after came the portable French box easel, or pochade box, which incorporated a paint box, palette, and telescopic legs. Plein air painting was here to stay.
By 1860, French landscape painters who would soon be known as impressionists—including Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir—were exhibiting paintings that captured the true ephemeral effects of light on the look, feel, and colors of nature. These earth-shaking works could only have been created in the field. Post-impressionists, including Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Cezanne, brought abstract, symbolic, and experimental elements, removing all barriers to artistic representation of the physical world.
All these artists had to contend with the difficulties of taking the tools of their trade out of their studios. Pigment powders and linseed oil had to be freshly mixed by the artist’s hand to make paint. In 1841, American inventor John Goffe Rand changed everything by creating the collapsible zinc paint tube with a stopper cap. Soon after came the portable French box easel or pochade box (see “Essential Tools For Making Art Outdoors” below), which incorporated a paint box, palette, and telescopic legs, and plein air painting was here to stay.
By 1860, French landscape painters who would soon be known as impressionists — Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir among them — were exhibiting paintings that captured the true, ephemeral effects of light on the look, feel and colors of nature, all while speaking to our mystical and spiritual connections to the natural world. These earth-shaking works could only have been created in the field. Post-impressionists including Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Cezanne brought abstract, symbolic, and experimental elements, removing all barriers to artistic representation of the physical world.
Ready to Get Out in the Field?
Travel Sketching – Painting Plein Air in Watercolor and Ink with Camilla Damsbo Brix.
Cover image by Skillshare student Cassie L.