The call of the great outdoors
I’ve always had great admiration for those hardy artists who devote much of their painting practice to en plein air (basically painting outdoors). Whether sun, rain, hail, wind, sleet or snow they’re ‘out there’ weaving magic with their brushes. The impressionistic freshness and vitality borne of being in front of the subject always shines through.
In recent years there’s been a growing interest in artists who work en plein air. Among my favourites are Haidee-Jo Summer, Adebanji Alade, Anthony Bridge, Dave Pilgrim, Valerie Pirlot, and Andrew Tozer. All work differently of course, but they share a freedom and surety of approach which is humbling.
I love working outside, but it’s been mostly reserved for holiday forays when I’ve got time to get into it, far away from life’s distractions. Oh, and it’s always in fine weather. I know, I know – it hardly seems in the spirit of things, but what can I say? I likes me comfort…
Even being a fair weather painter isn’t without it’s challenges. I find bright sunlight is troublesome, and not just because of the sunburn. When such a strong light falls on the palette and painting, I find judging tones accurately becomes difficult. I often end up with a painting that turns out darker than intended – looks fine outside, but a bit murky when it’s back indoors. Working from natural shade is the obvious solution, and where it doesn’t exist, a white umbrella. Unfortunately I’ve still not found an umbrella which suits. Frankly, clamping one directly to an easel or pochade box doesn’t seem a sound solution when wind is involved and a ground spike is less than useless on hard rock.
Oddly, one of the biggest pitfalls I find when working en plein air is psychological. I may have the potential to paint well, but once set up outside it’s like my ability slinks off and hides somewhere dark. My response is to start rushing and make basic errors; I can feel very pressured.
Because I want to expand my plein air work, I’m making deliberate efforts to slow down, to take my time to really get a feel for the subject before randomly pitching in. As for being ‘on show’ or providing the ‘entertainment’ I have to say that I’ve only ever encountered kind comments and genuine interest from onlookers. Any fear of negative encounters is entirely in my head, and I shall be rid of it.
All tooled up
I guess everyone who works outside takes a while to evolve the ideal mix of kit to suit their style. As I work in watercolours and acrylics I have developed solutions for both which work best for me. There’s nothing revolutionary here, but I hope you’ll find this run down useful.
For wobbly watercolours…
- At its heart is the wonderful Herring Compact Palette. I must have had mine for close on twenty years now. It’s the full pan version with a dozen W&N colours. It lies very nicely balanced in the hand and has very generous mixing wells. Excellent. Over the years I’ve collected all manner of kits and boxes, some really lovely like the teeny-tiny W&N enamelled Bijou box, but I always come back to the Herring. Perfectly practical and practically perfect.
- I carry three sable travel brushes. A 10 and a 6 Da Vinci, and a 4 from an unknown manufacturer. I did try a travel sable from Rosemary’s, but was disappointed. The handmade brush itself, an 8 or 10, was very nice but the metal tube handle into which it was set was woefully narrow. Inevitably the brush became damaged beyond repair. The Da Vinci brushes are well made and screw back into generous tough plastic handles scaled to suit the size of the brush.
- A tube of Schminke masking fluid.
- Masking tape for dividing pages in my largest pad.
- Rubber bands to stop pages lifting in the wind.
- A Sainsbury’s yoghurt drink bottle for water and a small plastic cup (from an M&S pan-a-cotta).
- A range of hardback pads. I usually make sure I have three sizes available back at ‘base’ to give me options when it comes to lugging them around. Inevitably I use heavy-weight Saunders Waterford Not; by far my favourite paper. It’s robust, stable and very tough and forgiving, and I love it.
Most times I’ll squish most of the above into a very small shoulder pack from the National Trust, but occasionally I’ll use a larger day sac to accommodate one of the larger pads.
…and awkward acrylics
Having used both oils and alkyds outside, last autumn I switched to acrylics. To be honest I’m having a love-hate relationship with them. I love their versatility, easy clean up and oil-like qualities, but I hate their alarmingly short drying time. Turn your back and they set in minutes.
While indoors their open time can be fairly generous, this shrinks drastically on a hot sunny day with a light breeze. I’ve tried slow dry medium, and a stay wet palette (the small Mastersons offering) but now prefer to carry a small spray bottle of water to keep the palette workable. Just a light spray on the palette every now and then keeps everything mobile.
The stay wet palette did work very well, but as I wanted to save unused paint for the next day’s painting I found I had to be careful to carry it horizontally to prevent the paint slumping together and dribbling out through the closed lid – no fun when walking over miles of cliffs.
I like to work on panels and the solution which best suits me is to carry them in a pochade box. So handy: an easel, wet painting carrier and paint box all in one. Downside? They can be heavy and bulky.
Sometimes if I fancy working on a larger panel I will bung all my paints into a rucksack and take out my Herring Versatile Easel. This lovely bit of kit is so light at 4.5lbs but remarkably stable. And it lives up to it’s name. There are so many configurations when setting up it will cover most eventualities. I also have one of their earlier incarnations which has a box attached, but the mechanisms are less robust and don’t lock. It was a great easel, but this new version trounces it.
Worth the weight
When walking any distance weight is everything. I found this to my cost when I insisted on taking my french easel down to Cornwall. Don’t get me wrong, it was a brilliant work platform, but at around 16lbs when empty the novelty soon wore off after trudging a couple of miles!
Here’s a selection of the boxes I’ve accumulated. They have all been used, honest – I’m just a very ‘neat Nigel’ by nature. From top to bottom there lurks that portly french easel. Then, to the left, my 12.5″ by 16″ Mabef. To the right is a nice handmade box by William Dorsett. The next is a 10″ by 8″ I made myself around twenty years ago. Finally, in the front, a small box for 7″ by 5″ panels (although no commercial boards actually seem to fit without trimming – really annoying).
Hmm, looking at that lot, maybe I have a bit of an addiction to pochade boxes and might need intervention… Good job I didn’t carry through with my obsession for this cabinet-made American beauty: the Alla Prima Pochade. I was sooo tempted, but ultimately it was a little too rich for my pocket. That and the fact that Ben Haggett, their maker, no longer ships to the UK because of many instances of in-transit damage caused, it’s thought, by HM Customs. Shame.
So, my current favourite is the Mabef pochade, which weighs in at 10.5lbs when full. At the time of writing Jacksons have an offer on this same model as part of their plein air month promotion. I can really recommend it.
I love its flexibility and in particular I like the simple clips which firmly hold the panel either portrait or landscape. They can be moved to accommodate a range of panel sizes too. Far better than the usual set grooves which hold panels on three sides and hamper edge to edge painting.
The box arrived with a custom modification courtesy of my wife – an additional grooved wooden spacer. This now allows me to safely store smaller panels too.
It has a great capacity for paint and brushes. When using it with acrylics I fasten drawing board clips covered in Velcro to the palette where they grip a plastic water pot similarly furnished with Velcro – prevents messy accidents!
In common with other larger boxes this one can be mounted onto a tripod. Originally I pressed my camera tripod into use, but at 7.5lb it is rather heavy. So I recently bought Mabef’s own wooden tripod from Jackson’s. At around 3.5lbs it’s lots lighter and with a wider top plate it’s far more stable too, reducing the pressure on the tapped bush. To make it even more portable I attached a brass loop so I can attach a carry strap if I need it. Although using an existing camera tripod is tempting, I’d advise getting one of these. As a sneaky bonus I’ve found it’s also compatible with my telescope, so that’s the dolphin/bird watching taken care of.
As to additional kit, there’s always the need to dress appropriately for the weather. Even on fine days I’ve been caught out by surprisingly uncomfortable chilly breezes. For the baking sun I’ve usually got a long sleeved shirt, sun cream and a daft hat to hand.
Depending on where I’m going I may take a rucksack containing water, wipes, kitchen towel, food and drink etc. and to bring ease to my grinding knees, a comfy seat too.
I think working en plein air qualifies as a ‘Marmite’ activity, you’ll either love it or hate it, I’m not sure there’s an intermediate state. If you haven’t already done so why not get out there and give it a go. It’s an experience well worth the effort.
Have fun 🙂