If you’re thinking of escaping the stale air of your studio and trying your hand at painting en plein air (in the open air), here are some tips from three experts – all members of the Plein Air Painters of Utah – who share some lessons they’ve learned the hard way. John Hughes, Steve McGinty, and Susan Gallacher were kind enough to respond to a brief list of questions.
Q: What piece(s) of equipment do you consider most essential for working outdoors?
Steve: The proper easel is most important; otherwise it’s very difficult to paint outdoors. There are many brands and kinds of plein air easels on the market. They’re compact and simple. Prices range from $50 – $500.
Susan: My old wooden French Easel. I have been using it outside for about 30 years and still love it.
John: A checklist of supplies to bring out into the field. Without that, I will usually forget something of greater or lesser importance and wind up behind the eight ball in one way or another.
Q: How do you transport wet canvases?
Steve: You can purchase some board or canvas carriers, small suitcase-like boxes of wood that usually have divided slots. You can also make them.
Susan: My wet canvases I carry in an old wooden carrier I had built many years ago. It has slots that several panels slide into without touching each other. The only problem is it is heavy. So when I fly to paint in other areas I use a plastic Raymar canvas holder that also has slots like my wooden one.
John: I transport wet canvases in the lid of my paint box or a slot box made for that purpose.
Q: How do you keep bugs from sticking to your work?
Steve: You don’t. When they stick you pluck them out. You can do it when your painting is wet or dry. I prefer wet.
Susan: Bugs do stick to my work and I just leave them alone. When the painting is dry I scrape off large bugs with a palette knife. But, if they are small I just leave them. So what? Then one knows the painting is plein-air. It just adds to the painting’s character.
John: I don’t keep bugs from sticking to the work. I just call them eagles if they land in the sky or one of the trees!
Q: Do you use different paints, mounts, or other equipment in the field than you use in your studio?
Steve: I use the same paint and equipment; just the easel is different.
Susan: In the field, I use a more limited palette of colors than in my studio. Not so much to carry. I also paint on hardboard panels so the sun doesn’t shine through my painting surface as it does with stretched canvas.
John: Portability is the key here; the further I paint from the car the more portable the gear, also the less paint needed. One set of primaries plus white will do the job. In the studio you don’t have those restrictions.
Q: What’s the maximum size painting you will do in the field?
Steve: 14×18; I have done 18×24 but it’s not near as enjoyable. Usually I stick between 8×10 and 12×16.
Susan: The largest field painting I normally do is 18 x 24. I have done larger but with the problem of wind catching the canvas and flying away and the sun shining through the canvas (panels are too heavy if they are larger than 14 x 18 to me). There’s also the problem of time. The sun is changing the shadows as it moves, so you have to paint fast. Large canvases take too long. I usually paint in sizes from 8 x 10 to 12 x 16.
John: Generally no larger than 20×24 or 12×24, but most of the time I paint small – in sizes ranging from 8×10 to 11×14.
Q: How do you limit the weight of your equipment?
Steve: You just limit the equipment.
Susan: I limit the weight of my equipment by taking less (stuff).
John: Primaries, smaller tubes of white, 3 brushes, and a water filter rather than toting a lot of water up a mountainside.
Q: If you travel by air with your plein air supplies/equipment, how do you comply with travel security regulations? What items do you avoid carrying but buy at the destination instead?
Steve: I travel with [supplies/equipment] in my luggage and the liquids I try to get where I’m going. [Avoid carrying] paint thinner or brush cleaner. Although a good old bar of soap and water can suffice for some. They also have brush cleaner that is paste in form. [Painting] mediums can also be a problem, bought in some places of travel.
Susan: When I fly, I just buy some supplies [like turpentine] when I get there. I pack some things in my suitcase.
John: Best to call ahead and talk with security at the airport you are flying out of. Buy thinner at your destination and clean out your thinner pot so there are NO fumes present. [Pack] no palette knives in your carry on luggage.
Q: What lesson did you learn “the hard way” that you’d like to share with others?
Steve: A friend I traveled with found out that some palette knives are impossible to get through security when carrying them on. [Also,] the gorillas handling the luggage can break boxes in luggage. I pad around mine.
Susan: I learned to travel with less. When you carry heavy equipment vary far, you are too exhausted to stand and paint. I also learned to be as physically comfortable as possible so I can concentrate on painting. I take drinking water, [and] in the summer I stand in the shade if at all possible, and, most of all, enjoy my painting experience.
John: Keep an eye on your personal items going through the scanner. Don’t take your eyes off them even if you are pulled off to the side for further screening; they may disappear!
Q: What do you wish someone had told you before you began painting plein air?
Steve: How fantastic it is. I would have started earlier. I started 21 years ago.
Susan: I wish someone had told me that when painting plein air everything is not green. When I was 15, I took my first plein air painting class. The instructor always took us up the canyons to paint pine trees. All my paintings were acid unreal green-green.
John: That failure is not failure if you learn from your mistakes.
Sue Martin holds an M.A. in Theatre and has worked in public relations. As an artist, she works in watercolor, oil, and acrylic to capture Utah landscapes or the beauty of everyday objects in still life.