11 Tips to Painting Outdoors for Beginners

Updated on January 24, 2018
Robie Benve profile image

Robie is an artist who believes in the power of positive thinking. She loves sharing art tips and bringing people joy through her paintings.

If you are used to studio painting, the first few paintings you do outdoors are going to be very challenging. These tips can help you make outdoors painting a little easier.
If you are used to studio painting, the first few paintings you do outdoors are going to be very challenging. These tips can help you make outdoors painting a little easier. | Source

Why Should I Try Painting Outdoors?

Painting outdoors, also known as en plein air, enables you to directly observe and study the many different effects of light in nature. Light makes a huge impact on the subject's appearance, affecting the color, direction, and angle. In fact, only when outdoors can an artist fully observe the effects of linear and atmospheric perspective and become proficient and successful in capturing them. As you get started, keep these 11 tips in mind for an enjoyable experience.

1. Outdoor Painting Equipment: Keep It Light

Select your equipment by focusing on effectiveness and portability. Keep in mind that fancy equipment does not necessarily improve the painting.

Perhaps the simplest set up you can use is a wooden sketchbox, held on your knees while sitting on a small, folding stool. The panel is held on the open lid. To prevent the box from sliding off your knees it’s a good idea to have a belt or strap attached to the box and looped around your waist.

Painting standing up requires a lightweight but sturdy tripod-type easel, or a wooden French easel. The easel should be well-made and not wobble once set up.

I like to use a French Easel and an airtight palette that keeps the leftover paint wet for a few days. This way I am not afraid to squeeze out more paint for fear of wasting it.

To protect from the sun, wear a hat with a brim or visor, avoid sunglasses as they can distort your sense of color.

Then, of course, you’ll need paint, brushes, mineral spirit, paper towel, or rag, and a palette.

2. The Point of View

  • To select and more easily visualize your subject, use a view-finder or some other framing device. Try studying several viewing positions, and choose the best one by making a few value studies and sketches.
  • Position your easel in a way that the painting, and possibly the palette, are in the shadows. It is very difficult to correctly judge colors in direct sunlight.
  • If you use an arm palette, hold it in such a way that it is not stricken by direct sunlight.

Painting outdoors takes you to beautiful places, and it's a totally different experience than painting from a photo.
Painting outdoors takes you to beautiful places, and it's a totally different experience than painting from a photo. | Source

3. Start Small

It is advisable for a beginning outdoor painter to work on smaller-sized paintings and to quickly render studies. These thumbnail sketches are an excellent way to paint with minimal equipment. You can quickly create complete and effective studies by portraying the basic tonal and color construction features of a subject.

How about you?

Do you feel comfortable painting outdoors?

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4. Establish the Value Arrangement First

Get started on your painting by toning the canvas first. To do this, rub in a mid-value tone over the entire surface. Then, clean out the light parts by wiping with a rag dampened with paint thinner. After that, put in the darker darks with thin paint.

This way of establishing the size and position of value masses as you are starting a painting is especially useful on a sunny day. Shadows and dark masses can change significantly in one hour.

"Schiler Park Bridge", oil on gesso panel. One of my plain air paintings, completed in about two hours. Plein air painting by Robie Benve.
"Schiler Park Bridge", oil on gesso panel. One of my plain air paintings, completed in about two hours. Plein air painting by Robie Benve. | Source

5. How to Choose the Toning Color

As the ground color for your tone, pick a color that is compatible with the subject’s final color harmony, thin it with mineral spirits, and rubbing it over the entire surface of the canvas, leaving no white spots.

When in doubt about what color to use, burnt sienna is always a good choice.

Clear out the lights by wiping them with a rag slightly dampened with paint thinner. Then put in the darker tones thinly.

This enables you to establish the tonal arrangement at the beginning, before the light changes.

6. Step Back Often

Using a stand-up easel enables the painter to step back to judge the painting from a distance.

You can judge colors and proportions more accurately when you step back

If you use an arm palette, you can keep mixing the colors as you step back.

From a distance, you can see you painting as a complete unit and you can judge and compare the individual parts.

Robie Benve enjoys painting outdoors and embracing the challenges of the changing light and often unpredictable environment.
Robie Benve enjoys painting outdoors and embracing the challenges of the changing light and often unpredictable environment. | Source

7. Apply Color Respecting the Value Masses

Mix colors and apply them directly to the value masses, making sure you use colors of the correct tone.

Variety of colors is good, but keep your colors grouped in dark masses and light masses, keep squinting to make sure your colors are not too light or too dark.

Brushstrokes of the wrong value, in relation to the area where they are applied, may break the shape and ruin the value structure of your design.

Remember that intense colors in a picture can look much brighter when balanced against areas of more neutral colors.

8. Beware of Muddy Colors

When you paint outdoors with oils, you are bound to work wet-on-wet.

Keep in mind that when applying paint over a wet layer, the brush will pick up some of the paint below, and the next brushstroke you put down will have some of that mixed in.

It is essential to frequently wipe the excess paint from the brush and to use lean brushes for the lightest, brightest colors.

If too many brushstrokes are made without wiping the brush clean, the colors will become grayed out and look muddy.

Find a group or painting class! Painting with others feels safer and encouraging. Pictured: Group of plein air painters taking a class with Joseph Lombardo in Columbus, OH. This was a rainy and cold day, we painted under a shelter at a local park.
Find a group or painting class! Painting with others feels safer and encouraging. Pictured: Group of plein air painters taking a class with Joseph Lombardo in Columbus, OH. This was a rainy and cold day, we painted under a shelter at a local park. | Source

9. Leave Brushstrokes Alone

Make brushstrokes with intent and let them be. Every single brushstroke adds something to the appearance of the painting and to the personal effect that the painter has envisioned.

Avoid blending, scumbling, and other fussy brushstrokes that will erase spontaneity and freshness from the painting.

When possible, use as few strokes as possible to paint form.

10. Use Atmospheric Perspective to Your Advantage

Atmospheric perspective allows the artist to introduce changes of color and value that make subjects recede into the background.

As you look at things in the distance, a curtain of atmosphere builds up between you and the distant objects. Colors and tonal values begin to change, in some weather conditions, quite drastically. Squint at your subject, and notice how things in the distance appear lighter in value, and duller/cooler in color.

As you paint, push a little these changes, exaggerate slightly the shifts in value and temperature in order to render depth effectively.s

It’s only through the direct study of these different conditions outdoors that artists will become proficient and successful in capturing them.

11. Enjoy the Process!

Outdoor painting is challenging to say the least, but remember that it's more about the process than the finished product. Don't expect to go home with the masterpiece of your life. Take it as a learning experience and an opportunity to make some good studies to be used as a reference for some studio paintings. This mentality will make the first few times you paint outdoors much more enjoyable!

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    • Robie Benve profile image
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      Robie Benve 4 weeks ago from Ohio

      Hi Bronwen, I love painting outdoors with a group! We scatter around and each artist picks a different subject, but knowing that I am meeting up with others to paint gets me motivated to get up and get out, plus in some more isolated locations, it makes me feel much safer than being out there by myself. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. I'm thrilled that the article made you feel inspired. I hope you give it a try! :)

    • Robie Benve profile image
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      Robie Benve 4 weeks ago from Ohio

      Hi Dbro, I know some amazing watercolor artists that paint outdoors regularly, and when they enter a plein air competition they win top prizes. Give it a try, you might end up loving it. :) Thanks for your insightful comment!

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 4 weeks ago from Northeast Ohio

      You're very welcome Robie. I couldn't have agreed with you more.

    • Robie Benve profile image
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      Robie Benve 4 weeks ago from Ohio

      Thanks Kristen, I'm glad to hear you found the article interesting and you learned something new, That's part of the wonderful experience of online writing, where knowledge and inspiration can be shared quite easily. Thank you for your lovely comment.

    • Robie Benve profile image
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      Robie Benve 4 weeks ago from Ohio

      Hi Chitrangada, thanks a lot for your positive feedback! I love that you are passionate about painting, especially landscapes, it's one of my favorite subjects too. :)

    • BlossomSB profile image

      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 4 weeks ago from Victoria, Australia

      Thanks for an interesting article. Our artists' group has en plein air events each month, but I've never joined them. Perhaps I will, after reading this.

    • Dbro profile image

      Dbro 4 weeks ago from Texas, USA

      Great article, Robie! I have never painted en plein air, but I have done drawings on site. It is a great experience. I would like to paint outdoors, but I haven't tried it yet. I paint in watercolor, but I'm sure much of the process is the same as you describe with oils.

      Your article has inspired me to give outdoor painting a try. I'm sure these paintings have a spontaneity that many paintings created in the studio do not have. I'm eager to see what changes in my work might be manifest when I paint them on site.

      Thanks for this informative and interesting article!

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 4 weeks ago from Northeast Ohio

      Robie, this hub was very informative and instructrual on how to do plein air painting. I never heard of it. But it sounds interesting. But that painting you did was beautiful. I'm sure this would encourage others to embrace the outdoors and paint.

    • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

      Chitrangada Sharan 5 weeks ago from New Delhi, India

      Great article and very helpful tips for outdoor painting.

      You explained everything clearly. A good writer and a good painter.

      I enjoy painting, since my childhood, and landscape painting is one of my special area of interest.

      Thanks for sharing!

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