Plein Air Painting Down and Dirty

After producing the Kern County Plein Air Festival for six years, I was invited to participate as a painter. This meant getting out of the studio and practicing my rusty skills since plein air simply means, painting outside or onsite. Being a landscape painter, I choose one of my favorite spots which has water, trees, and farmland, plenty of my signature elements. 

With my location selected, it was time to get my set up together. The more compact the better, because where one parks is usually a fair distance from the subject matter, and no one wants to make trips back and forth lugging supplies. I paint with a small pochade box that attaches to an inexpensive tripod. I take anywhere from 7-9 tubes of my most used colors, along with 5-7 brushes, 2 small canvas boards, a pallet knife and razor to scrap my painting surface when done. In my canvas bag, I also pack a small jar of linseed oil and turpentine, plus a handful of rags. I make it very compact so the trek to the site is easy, and if all goes well, I will also have a wet painting to carry back along with everything else. I cannot stress compact enough.

Once setup, I take a deep breath and with a brush, sketch a very simple composition. What I find helpful is to not expect anything great too soon, so I don’t get discouraged. Plein air painting is a different animal than studio painting.  I constantly remind myself; this is fun. When my painting falls onto the dirt due to a gust of wind or bugs land on the wet surface, I say, “Hey, this is fun.”  

It is also a skill that needs to develop. It can get frustrating, but so does anything that’s worth pursuing. Time is the essence since it is a bit of a race with light changing, sun, clouds, then sun again, and shadows constantly moving along the ground. I try to capture the feeling or essence of a place, not the exact details of every small detail. Editing will be your best friend. I use a larger brush to cover the surface faster with big bold marks loading up more paint than usual. I decide where my darks and lights sides are and stick with those no matter how the day changes.

I don’t always leave with a masterpiece. In fact, dirt blew all over the wet surface of this 11×14 minutes after it was signed. If anything, it is a lesson in looking and really seeing the outside. Much of the joy is in the act of painting itself.  Painting on site gives me the opportunity to concentrate on creating which leads to better studio work. 

Want to see great Plein Air paintings before you start, then visit the gallery, and check out the works of Paul Kratter, Ben Young, and Ellen Howard. Meet and greet artists from around the western US April 18-24 during the 2022 Kern County Plein Air Festival produced by the Arts Council of Kern, go to for schedules and tickets. Get out there and enjoy the outdoors and capture your feeling of place with paint.

Also, you can meet plein air artists Art Sherwyn, Patty Voje, Ellen Howard, Carol Tarzier, Laurel Buchanan, and myself as I lead a panel discussion on the ins and outs of plein air painting.

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