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'En Plein Air' working

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Taking a rubbing from interesting patterns in the rock.
Lately I have been doing more work ‘En Plein Air’, which simply means, in the outdoors. The idea of working outside can be daunting at first for budding artists and sometimes it’s hard to know where to start when putting together an equipment list or a ‘strategy’ for the day’s art-work.

If you plan to work somewhere that is easily accessible by transport, then you can take almost anything. If, however, you plan to do a bit of a ‘walk in’ or want to ‘work on a walk’ you need to plan and make the most of it through collecting visual information, as you will also need to consider taking a comfort kit (all the usual kit you would take as a walker out for the day is recommended).
So, what you plan to achieve ‘En Plein Air’ will dictate what you need to take with you by transport or on foot and how much time you have or plan to spend on the artworks.

There will also be environmental factors to consider, the weather (paints will set quicker in hot and windy weather), animals, especially insects that have a tendency to fly into your canvas whilst painting and sometimes you will have onlookers who will inevitably be intrigued by what you are doing (be aware and stay safe!).

‘Working on a walk’

If I am planning to create some works whilst on a walk I make the most of a very simple equipment list. Traditionally in ‘En Plein Air’ working, artists would have used Oil Paints but my ‘working on a walk’ kit will often consist of a pencil case with some choice charcoal pencils, graphite pencils, oil pastels, rubber, sharpener and a sketchbook or roll of paper. I will usually have a camera (sometimes only on my phone due to weight considerations) and I quickly collect visual information through sketches, photographs and taking rubbings of interesting surface textures (with paper and oil pastel) as I often don’t have a lot of time to create an artwork there and then. These photographs, rubbings and quick sketches will then be worked on or from, in the studio.

If you have more time, a simple portable watercolour kit, brushes and distinguishable bottle of water (not your drinking water!), container, palette, sketchbook and any other choice mediums is also fairly feasible on a short walk (you can even buy equipment that is designed for portability and working outdoors). All dirty water will be put back into the bottle it came from so that I can dispose of it safely later and I recommend a separate, distinguishable, water bottle for drinking and for artwork, as nobody wants to drink dirty paint water by accident! I will often use disposable plastic bottles like cleaned out milk bottles and squash bottles that I am not worried about ruining with dirty paint water. I take all waste products home with me to dispose of safely to prevent harm to the environment.

The great thing about working in this way is that you are freed from creating a ‘final piece’, but it gets you to look more closely at the landscape you are in and working with natural and changing light. I often catch myself looking at the landscape and in my mind cropping it, finding compositions and thinking about mixing colours.

‘Working from near transport’

If you have the advantage of working from near transport links or your car, you certainly have more options, you may even have more time. You may still need to be self-sufficient depending on where you are in which case the ‘Comfort Kit List’ would still be advisable. Working near to transport or a short walk from the car I can be more ambitious. I can often manage my large tool kit (which contains a wide range of tools and media), a canvas board, easel (recommended), stool (optional), windbreaker or weights to stop the easel and canvas from taking off in the wind (I check the weather forecast). I find empty cleaned out jam jars and cleaned out milk bottles useful for water that I will use to clean my brushes and then return with for safe disposal, a plentiful supply of rags for a multitude of tasks and cling film for wrapping wet paintings. You can get portable kits with space to store wet canvases if you find this easier but it depends on how ‘big’ you want to work. Just note that cling film can shift and smudge works so make sure you take it off as soon as you can and make any corrections before the paint sets. I don’t recommend wrapping for acrylic works that will probably be dry before you get back and will set with a cling film pattern, if you can get the cling film off afterwards! I take all waste products home with me to prevent harm to the environment.

My ‘En Plein Air’ Comfort Kit List:

Drinking water and a Flask with a hot drink (often tea!)
Food and emergency food
Warm and waterproof layers as appropriate for the weather forecast
Sun cream and hat (for hot sunny days).
Navigation equipment if I’m planning on doing work on a hike/walk (know how to use navigation equipment!)
Mobile phone with camera
First Aid Kit/ Any medication you need
Wipes or cloths to clean your hands with or gloves
Emergency Shelter
A rucksack/bag to put it all in

Important: Tell someone where you are going and how long you will be, take a mobile phone (will you have signal?), never trespass or break any laws or codes and make sure that whatever you do, that the safety of you and others are paramount. Always take waste products and water home with you for safe disposal to prevent harm to the environment.

And most importantly, enjoy the experience!