This week I held a plein air workshop in Summit and Basking Ridge. The weather was great, although a little hot, but we painted all morning in 2 great locations: the Deserted Village in Summit (Watchung Reservation) and Pleasant Valley Park in Basking Ridge. My demos were primarily in pastel, with a bit of watercolor here and there. Working plein air is excellent for practice and for creating studies to be used in larger studio works. It improves your ability to observe (see) color and forces you to focus on perspective, proportion and form/value, just the same as painting still lifes in the studio from life.
It may be a bit frustrating at first, especially for beginners, but if you persevere and warm up with quick sketches, you’ll soon be on your way to reaping the learning benefits of working live. I advise my students not work larger than 11×14 and to complete several studies rather than one large painting. My preferred media for plein air include pastel, watercolor and acrylic. Oils are ok but require an investment in equipment (plein air easel or pochade box) where the others you can just use paper and a drawing board. I use an inexpensive aluminum easel and foam board because they are light weight. I limit my colors and bring only those that I know I will use and that I consider my “favorites”. If I’m working with paint, about 5 tubes (3 primaries, dark neutral and a white if it’s acrylic or oil, if watercolor, just 4 are needed and water and the white of the paper take care of the whites). If I’m using pastel, I choose about 15 colors that I know will work in the environment I plan to paint–if the woods are my subject, lots of greens in warms and cools, reds to neutralize them, a few really dark darks and some bright warm lights.
I am not a plein air purist by any means. I see the value of plein air for practice and studies, but don’t by any means feel it is the only way to paint a landscape. Many subjects, particularly those of urban or industrial nature, would not be logistically possible to paint on location (think of the view from the fast land on the NJ Turnpike in Jersey City). Rather than forego those subjects because of the inabilty to paint them live, I take a series of reference photos and use those purely as a departure point. From there, what I learn painting any subject from life takes over and I can use imagination and creativity to make something new and hopefully more interesting, rather than to document exactly what was there.