You must be right out under the sky. You must try to match your colors as nearly as you can to those you see before you, and you must study the effects of light and shade on nature’s own hues and tints. —William Merritt Chase
With Spring in full bloom, the weather is ideal for finding new inspiration by taking your art practice into the great outdoors. Sketching, drawing, or painting en plein air, away from the confines of your indoor space, can be artistically fruitful...and logistically challenging. You may be endlessly inspired by the natural subjects around you, but it takes work to carry your essential tools and art supplies out into the field.
If you’re ready to heed the call of the wild, we’ve put together a list of ideas for what to focus on when creating art outside, along with a short history of outdoor painting and a guide to essential gear to make the most of your outdoor adventure. As the days get longer and the foliage grows more lush, inspiration awaits.
History of Plein Air Painting
Further inspiration for creating art outdoors can be found in the colorful history of plein air painting. Translated directly from the French, “En Plein Air” simply means painting in “full” or “fresh” air, and refers to the practice of creating finished work — as opposed to sketches and studies — in the field.
From a modern perspective, it might seem obvious that artists seeking to capture natural light, real-world colors, and shifting weather conditions on canvas would have to venture out into the natural world. But it wasn’t until the early 19th century that new perspectives on art and technological advances combined to inspire the era’s leading artists to try their hand at plein air painting.
In England, a small group of artists lead by John Constable and the great Joseph W. M. Turner began to reject contrived and idealized visions of nature in painting, and to champion a more naturalistic approach. (For a vivid depiction of Turner’s singular relationship with the natural world, see Mike Leigh’s 2014 feature film Mr. Turner.) By 1830, France’s Barbizon School, including such master painters as Theodore Rousseau and Charles Frances Daubigny, also found themselves working outdoors to paint scenes from everyday life in the French countryside.
All these artists had to contend with the difficulties of taking the tools of their trade out of their studios. Pigment powders and linseed oil had to be freshly mixed by the artist’s hand to make paint. In 1841, American inventor John Goffe Rand changed everything by creating the collapsible zinc paint tube with a stopper cap. Soon after came the portable French box easel or pochade box (see “Essential Tools For Making Art Outdoors” below), which incorporated a paint box, palette, and telescopic legs, and plein air painting was here to stay.
By 1860, French landscape painters who would soon be known as impressionists — Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir among them — were exhibiting paintings that captured the true, ephemeral effects of light on the look, feel and colors of nature, all while speaking to our mystical and spiritual connections to the natural world. These earth-shaking works could only have been created in the field. Post-impressionists including Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Cezanne brought abstract, symbolic, and experimental elements, removing all barriers to artistic representation of the physical world.
Essential Tools for Making Art Outdoors
You’ll need some tools of the trade to make the most of any plein air art excursion. Keep in mind that plein air supplies should always be simple and effective, easy to use, lightweight, and highly portable. Here’s our guide to what you’ll need to make great art in the great outdoors:
Tools for Outdoor Sketching and Drawing
Many outdoor artists prefer hardbound sketchbooks for drawing because they provide a supportive surface on which to draw, typically include 60-65 lb. heavyweight paper, and protect your work from the potential abuse of backpack transportation. A mixed media sketchbook with even heavier paper is what you’ll need to draw with wet mediums such as ink and markers (or to paint with watercolors). To save money, you can always buy paper by the sheet and use a simple cardboard backing — at least for dry mediums.
A wide range of pencils is available for sketching and drawing, including mechanical, graphite graded by hardness or softness, charcoal, and colored pencils of many varieties. A small, all-metal sharpener will keep pencils up to snuff, along with a pencil box of some kind to protect your tips (and keep things organized). Kneaded erasers work well for fine details. For more detail on choices in paper, drawing implements, and erasers, see the second half of our guide to Things to Draw When You’re Out of Ideas.
Tools for Plein Air Painting
A portable easel is the primary tool for plein air painting. French easels come in half and full sizes and feature collapsible legs and canvas arm, storage compartments for paint supplies and a palette, and space for a single finished wet painting. Pochade boxes serve a similar function but are even smaller and more lightweight. Included are storage compartments for your supplies and a hinged lid that opens to serve as an easel for your canvas. Both types of easels fold up for easy carrying via handle or shoulder strap. Tripod-based easels allow for larger canvases.
You’ll need paint in you preferred medium with a reduced selection of colors. Use a plastic weekly pillbox to add more colors without taking up too much space. Many outdoor painters prefer brushes with flat ends, which work well for landscapes, and canvases should be sized to fit whatever variety of portable easel you choose. Popular accessories include small clamping umbrellas (which keep your light consistent and protect your canvas), clip-on brush holders and shelves, and a wet-panel carrier for multiple paintings. Hot tip: Bring a pocket-sized mirror to see a reverse image of your subject and maintain a fresh eye.
Drawing Ideas for Outdoor Artists
No matter what your preferred medium or subject matter, creating art outdoors is an experience not to be missed. The key is developing your skills of observation by staying in the moment.
If you’ve gathered your materials and are ready to step out, here are 25 specific ideas for sketching, drawing, and painting outdoors when you just need to get those creative juices flowing:
When you work outdoors, the artistic possibilities are as endless as the sky. Pack a bag, head out and have fun. A brand-new creative world awaits!
Cover image by Skillshare student Cassie L.