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  • Writer's picturetheunexpectedtype

a quick guide to painting en plein air

The Unexpected Type is rooted in outdoor adventure, so it only makes sense that my artwork starts to morph towards an outdoor process, too! You all know that I've been using all natural pigments to create my watercolor paint and it has been such a rewarding process that jumpstarts my creativity. SIDE NOTE: I'm launching a pigment kit to make your own paint at home summer! To be the first to know the launch deets, sign up for our emails :)

As some of the land begins to open up and we slowly all are creeping into the outdoors, Nathan and I took a safe & socially distanced road trip to camp in the wild near Idyllwild. It was such a game changer to be able to get out in nature again. This time, I brought my paint along with me and painted the view from our campsite. It was so lovely to sit outside in the warm spring air and paint, also known as painting en plein air. En plein air is a French expression meaning“in the open air”, and refers to the act of painting outdoors with the artist's subject in full view. Some things I love about it:

  • You get to truly see what is in nature and in front of you, rather than what a camera can pick up. Don't get me wrong, I love painting from photos but when you're there you an inspect colors, use light and feel emotion from the landscape

  • You're painting in the moment. Painting while your emotions are raw and in the moment is a way to bring life into your work!

  • You actually develop a sense of painting urgently and instinctively as you work to finish your piece because everything is changing: wind, light, colors and objects. If you don't keep up, you may end up painting two completely different scenes.

I'm sharing a few tips below on how to start painting this way if you're looking to get outside with your artwork this summer.

Pack Light

You don't need the full studio for this. I packed my favorite paper, 2-3 brushes, my small vials of pigments, watercolor binder, my travel watercolor palette and a palette knife. I pack everything in a storage container or bag and am on my merry way to go paint. Our campsite had a picnic table, so it was a great spot to paint outside, but if yours doesn't you might want to bring a portable table or easel.


This is a way for you to experiment all around, so why not try a new medium? When painting en plein air, you'll want to be able to work quickly, so oils may not be a first choice. They are absolutely appropriate and you can use them, but they dry so slowly that you'll need to paint wet-on-wet and be careful when transporting work since it will still be wet. Try using fast-drying mediums like pencils, pens, watercolor or goauche! This makes layering easy and fun. You'll also want to consider using large brushes or pens so you can quickly cover surface area and mass in shapes. You'll want to focus more on blocking shapes in rather than lines and details first!


I'm a firm believer in leave no trace, which means you leave your campsite exactly, if not better, than you found it. You clean up all of your trash and ensure nature is left at its best. For my water container, I bring along a mason jar so I can easily store water in. Since mason jar lids are great, you can pop on the lid to keep water contained. Another tip for staying kind to the environment while painting out in nature is bringing some old linens or small towels to wipe your paintbrushes on. I adopted this method in studio to reduce my use of paper towels.


Half the fun of painting outdoors is finding cool objects to collect or paint. For example: some cool rocks, wildflowers (safely picked, of course), pinecones, sticks, etc. These are great for painting AND using in artwork to create fun textures. If you're collecting rocks, those can be ground down and used to make pigments or you can toss in some sand into paintings to make them more 3D!


The coolest part about painting en plein air is that your landscape can rapidly change and your painting just might change right along with it! That's the beauty of it the process. It might be frustrating but honestly it's a beautiful part of the process and will help strengthen your art skills to assess what you're capturing and help translate it more effectively. Trust the process and go with the flow!


As summer approaches, it's going to be HOT and to avoid any damage to paints, your canvas and for your health, try to stay out of the direct sun while painting. You'll be more comfortable in a slightly shaded spot or small umbrella to avoid heatstroke. Bring plenty of water and snacks, too!

Have any other questions about your first time painting en plein air? Drop them below!

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