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Method and Materials for En Plein Air Painting

I decided to write about my own love for painting out of doors which is a truly magical experience and a huge difference from inside in the comfort of your home or studio. After lots of trips and lessons learnt, my love for painting en plein air only grew stronger. There are many challenges like the weather and time but these can become small things to handle and control with practice and enjoyment!


Firstly, I will talk about watercolours. In terms of paints, I always use artist quality materials by Winsor and Newton primarily. I have preferred Winsor lemon, raw Sienna, burnt Sienna, burnt umber, Venetian red, sometimes winsor/cadmium red, permanent magenta, French ultramarine, cobalt blue, viridian and olive green. The palette has taken quite a lot of experimentation to get to this set and will take more to get even better! It is always best if you start with someone else' palette and gradually adapt it to your own needs and also depending on what kind of subject you paint. Note that I don't use cerulean for it's heavily granulating qualities - which on small scale can stand out too much - and instead, I will use cobalt mixed with viridian which gives a slightly duller version of cerulean. For brushes, I use a nos. 8, 12 and 14 kolinsky sable brushes; always buy the very best you can afford as they make an enormous difference to cheap and stiff brushes. I use Rosemary & Co, Winsor and Newton Series 7 and Da Vinci Series 35. Additionally, I have a large Raphael no. 8 squirrel mop and a no. 3 Rosemary & Co co rigger. I have a selection of smaller brushes which are kolinsky, mixed and synthetic. I tend not to use these as they usually make me fiddle and fuss; some subjects do require slightly smaller brushes to work better and easier. I always recommend the larger brushes from nos 8 -14 or 16 as they carry large amounts of water but come to a good point. You will know when you find a good kolinsky brush as they will hold large amounts of water but release it slower through a good point. Importantly, you must have the best paper you can afford as paper can determine how good a painting is - my preference is Two Rivers 300lb handmade paper. I can get on with mould made papers, but only the higher quality ones such as Arches, Fabriano Rough and Saunders Waterford; I use NOT as I don't get on with the rough version. Again, practise will help to get to your perfect paper brand. With general accessories, I have a drawing board, which is oiled to prevent water getting through, and also some drawing board clips which pinch the paper in the corners and don't get in the way too much - (I stretch paper with gummed tape if it is below 140lbs as this buckles too much for my liking). I have a rucksack which as a plastic pocket to protect a variety of untouched paper from water, also I have a jar with a wire to hang from the easel, masking fluid and an old brush coated with soap, spare tubes of paint to refill just in case ,and my brush case with brushes. My easel is a sketching easel by Winsor and Newton and is not too heavy for lots of walking. I also have a stool; I prefer to sit as I get too uncomfortable with watercolours standing up after 2 and a half hours when I have to bend slightly over the easel at its tilted position. I sometimes stand but it depends how I feel. I always set up my materials outside in the same arrangement so I am as familiar as possible in an unfamiliar location. I should also mention, I have my easel inclined at a fairly upward angle but not too steep as the washes will run too quickly. I have had experiences where the easel is so upright, it has been blown over due to the legs not covering enough space! Also, I have dropped paintings before too, and been blown away off my feet on many occasions!


My oil painting is slightly different to watercolour, as expected. Again, I use artist quality paints by Daler Rowney and Winsor and Newton. I would like to start experimenting with brands such as Old Holland and Daniel Smith as they are heavily recommended; I have never got round to it as I always find it too much hassle to order them and pick the colours with risk and anticipation. I use Titanium white, cadmium yellow (sometimes a lemon yellow or cadmium lemon), yellow ochre, cadmium orange, burnt sienna, light red, cadmium red, Indian red, permanent magenta, French ultramarine, cerulean and viridian. I have a large preference for opaque oils as when I work alla-prima, laying a colour over another needs opacity. I have my box easel by Rowney (with an 11" x 15" oiled wooden palette) which is very handy to carry all of the accessories: a large selection of brushes; a range of sizes of 1-12 (short flats are the best all round due to their stiffness but most of my larger brushes are long flats), and also some rags made of old bedsheets cut into large squares measuring about 16" x 16". I recommend a cleaning kit which I keep in the car consisting of wet wipes, an old bag to put rubbish in and paper towel to dry my hands. I don't use any mediums other than white spirt (turps would be better but I don't feel well after when I use turps for painting) With both oils and watercolour, I paint relatively small on 7" x 10" up to 11" x 15" which is probably as large as I would go when doing sketches outside. I have a soft spot for 8" x 11" for oils which seems to be the perfect size for most subjects! Most of my watercolours are done on a range of paper sizes so it does require experience to settle on one brand and a few sizes to select. I sometimes find oils impractical but again, organisation helps to overcome this. I have suffered on windy days when I had a large two foot palette when paint was smothered all over my mum's scarf due to some of the strongest wind I have ever been out in! It made us both laugh at least!


My general advice for en Plein air is to be organised and to limit all your equipment as there is usually no need for excess supplies and huge amounts of backups. For example, for watercolours, I have a Charles Roberson antique steel folding palette which has three large wells and fifteen divisions for tube colours. This helps me to make sure everything is neat and so I know where I can access things without having to think. Speaking of not having to think, in both mediums you should have a limited palette of no more than 12 colours ideally which should allow you to mix your colours without having to think heavily what colours to mix to get this tone; the mixing should become embedded permanently in your brain after a while. Additionally, there is a thumb hole which is very comfortable to hold and also a box for small tubes and brushes which the palette slides into (I mainly use it to make sure the palette stays shut in my rucksack on the journey home). Most of all, get experience which will help your confidence immensely and it will help your skills for painting and organisation. Getting experience is the key to painting, all these things mentioned are just additional helps but don't turn you into a good painter. If you keep practising outside, you will learn slowly with your break-through moment that will come eventually; I can speak from a range of experiences. Everything I have said is my experience only, but I truly believe in it at all times; keeping hope within is something you need, in other words, don't give up!

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