I'm a beginner when it comes to plein air painting. I've been doing it for about 6 years and have made it an important part of my artistic growth now for about the last 4 years — but I'm still very much a beginner.
With that in mind, I have picked up some very useful tips on making plein air painting easier. OK, maybe not easier, but certainly a tad less frustrating. Here are my top 10 tips...
1) If you're just starting out, start out small.
I dived in headfirst and initially tried painting on larger canvases — DON'T! You're just going to be spending time filling in space and not bettering your painting skills. Time is short in doing plein air work, so until you feel you can do it with authority, I'd recommend not going larger than 11x14 (that's inches not feet, and that's pushing it).
2) Time goes by fast so get the important stuff down.
And by that I mean the shadows. Shadows are the most dominate element in defining form and they change quickly. Record them on your canvas first and that way you won't end up chasing them later. Also, start with the darkest shadow or element in the scene. It will allow you to judge all of your values back from there.
3) Setup your colors on your pallet the same way every time you go out.
There's no time to lose, including hunting for your colors. If you lay them out the same each time you paint en plein air, eventually you'll barely have to look down to see where they are — saving you precious time.
4) Wipe that messy brush after every stroke.
It's very easy to get mud when painting en plein air because the urgency of it tends to override things you might normally do in the studio, like keeping your brush from contaminating colors. To avoid this, I've made it a habit to wipe my brush after every stroke.
5) Plein air painting is about an impression.
Hence the term impressionist. Don't waste your time with unnecessary details. Edit the scene down to its most important elements in value, color and shape and record it with your brush. Initially, think of plein air painting as sketching, except with a brush and color rather than a pencil. As you progress, you'll get better at telling the story with less detail and more economy of brushwork.
6) Stop looking for the perfect location and just paint.
I've wasted entire days trying to find a spot that "inspires" me. In the beginning, painting en plein air should be about learning, not about producing a masterwork. You can paint anything you see, so just stop stalling and pick something. If you have a difficult time separating out an area to paint from what you see in front of you, get a viewfinder. It'll help you frame-out an area to paint.
7) Try to not setup with direct sunlight on your pallet or canvas.
I realize this isn't always possible. Sometimes you can use an umbrella if shade is unavailable (though, I've found an umbrella can be difficult to work with if a stiff wind sends the umbrella and the easel it's attached to, flying). Harsh sunlight on your canvas and pallet will cause you to misjudge your values, so when you take your painting indoors, it can look much too dark. If you must paint in direct sunlight, mix your values lighter to compensate.
8) Morning and evening light moves fast. Want to add a bit more time?
Paint the scene backlit. Shadows won't appear to change as quickly when you're painting a scene that is backlit. You also won't have to worry as much about setting up in the shade because your canvas will shade itself and your pallet (at least in a typical plein air setup).
9) Don't forget the practical items.
It's easy to remember your easel, pallet, brushes and colors (well, for some anyway). But don't forget things like grocery bags, paper towels, a hat, bug spray, etc. Make a checklist before you go out and have it handy from then on to make sure you aren't missing anything. Or better yet, setup a backpack with everything all packed and ready to go on a moments notice.
10) Stop being afraid of doing it.
Yes, it's tough. Yes, you might be embarrassed if someone sees. Yes, you likely won't feel good about any of the paintings you produce for a long while. But please, take my word for it and understand that it can be fun, rewarding and relaxing — that's right, I said relaxing. Use it as an opportunity to not only better your skills as a painter, but to connect with nature and enjoy the sounds, the smells and the solitude (if that's what relaxes you) that can come with painting en plein air.