Plein air painting tips and tricks

Artists creating art in the park with youth
Mint Artists Guild summer workers Alexis, Michael and Eleanor enjoy painting al fresco in Palmer Park. (Photo: Vickie Elmer for Mint)

Painting outdoors – or en plein air painting – started 200 years ago with groups of French and English artists. Artist John Constable’s paintings View on the Stour (1819) and The Hay Wain (1821) were created outdoors and won gold medals at the prestigious Salon in Paris.

Impressionists Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro captured light and modern life by painting al fresco. So have many other artists then and now.

Mint Artists Guild has experimented with plein air painting, usually near our studios in Palmer Park.  Several artists tried it at home or in their Detroit neighborhoods. This year, a small group of Mint Artists created three collective abstract paintings en plein air – and we will unveil one of them at our next Art in Windows near The Alger Theater in early September.

Yet painting outdoors requires planning ahead. So we are sharing some advice.

“Be selective. As an artist, you can creatively alter the scene to achieve the desired composition,” said Jacqueline Edwards Lane, Mint’s lead teaching artist and coach. She likes to plein air paint and draws inspiration from Monet and artist Richard Mayhew. Mayhew paints landscapes, but he’s not painting outdoors much, Lane said.

Virtual Art Academy has a good step by step guide with a packing list and much more. Among its best advice: Wear a hat and protect yourself from the sun. Place all the paint you will need for the day on your palette so you do not need to carry tubes. And plan for changes in light.

Artist Sara Linda Poly with The Art League shares tips on painting near the Potomac in this five-minute video complete with bird song and mixing colors.

Draw and sketch outdoors, and choose one small area to depict, artists suggest in a valuable post from Outdoor Painter.  The site is run by the publisher of Plain Air, a magazine and digital resource for artists and art lovers, and they share a lot of tips and advice. “Don’t get lost in minutia; for example, rather than draw every tree separately, find a way to group them as a mass into one large group,” said Kathryn Stats, a Utah painter.

Mint recommends you start with a familiar place, somewhere near your home or school. This will allow you to feel comfortable and to return a few times to complete the painting. Some plein air painters finish their pieces in one morning or afternoon, but that isn’t always possible. Bring along a snack, water and an introverted friend, who may read or sketch while you work and occasionally offer a little encouragement. 

Connect with other plein air painters. Join the Detroit Plein Air Painters group, which connects on Facebook,  or join the Michigan Plein Air Painters, which has a free membership, or another group in your region. The Scarab Club in Detroit offers an opportunity to 60 artists on Sunday, Aug. 29 to go outside and paint – and your finished work could hang at their beautiful Midtown Detroit gallery.