Painting outdoors is often called “painting plein air.” I didn’t realize until recently that there are strong disagreements about what exactly constitutes “plein air” painting. One art group insists that “true plein air painting is always completed from beginning to end on site with the subject matter before the artist.” Other groups allow some flexibility, with standards ranging anywhere from 90% to 45% of the painting being completed on site in one sitting. There’s a great article about this “controversy” by Daniel Grant in The Huffington Post . My practice is more in sync with the 18th-century Impressionists, who simply began their paintings outdoors and finished them in the studio. I often finish my paintings somewhere else outdoors. It can actually cause some humorous confusion when onlookers see that I’m painting a scene that bears no resemblance to where we are!
No matter where you paint outside, or for how long, it has its challenges. You must be prepared and also be flexible. Expect the unexpected. Weather is the primary concern. I haven’t found a way to paint outdoors in the rain or snow. I can deal with temperatures down to the mid-50s for an hour or so. Wearing the proper clothing is key, always in layers. On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve painted in extremely hot and humid weather, too. That’s when shade, hat, sunglasses, and plenty of drinking water are crucial.
The other main concern is carrying your supplies. It took me a few years to develop my toolkit and a method for carrying my supplies. (See my blog article ” 10 Tips for Pastel Painting.” ) I use an Art Comber to transport most of my supplies. It’s like a shopping cart, but it has a heavy-duty canvas container. Small items go in my knapsack.
The day that I painted “Walking Meditation,” it was a crisp and cold morning at Kripalu Center in the Berkshires, where I was staying. The brilliant sunlight got stronger as it moved higher in the sky. By noon, it had warmed up enough to convince me that I’d be comfortable on the hill overlooking Kripalu’s labyrinth. The autumn colors were a glorious mix of reds, oranges, golds, and greens. Feeling blessed for this unusual burst of warmth in late October, I was excited to get to my painting spot.
Knapsack on my back, Art Comber packed, I walked to the labyrinth and found my spot. First things first, I set up my easel. Then, I took out my toolbox and found the tape. I selected my paper and taped it down onto my support, which I then inserted into the easel. Inside my toolbox was my glove, which I put on my right hand. Finally, I looked for my pastels, and guess what? No pastels! I had accidentally left them inside my room.
This is when you realize the clear disadvantage of painting alone.
What should I do? Should I pack up everything and schlep back to my room to retrieve my pastels? It wasn’t a long walk. In fact, I could see the window of my room from where I stood. Or, should I leave everything there, unattended? It would only take 10 minutes. But, who in their right mind leaves their painting supplies unattended?
As I considered my options, a woman came walking towards me. She was smiling. “Are you going to paint the labyrinth?” she asked in a friendly tone.
“Yes, that’s my plan. But, I’m in a silly predicament. I forgot to bring my pastels! They’re back in my room. Would you consider staying here for a few minutes to watch my stuff while I go get them?”
Problem solved. Expect the unexpected, including forgetting your supplies and meeting kind strangers.
Every painting has a story. Sometimes, it’s not the obvious story of what the scene looks like, what the weather was, or how you were feeling. Sometimes, it’s the story behind the scene, what brought you there, and how you came to stay. When I returned with my pastels, that kind stranger continued on her journey, a walking meditation through the labyrinth.