Urban Plein Air – Keep it Simple

View from the South Balcony, Salmagundi Club, 47 5th Avenue, NYC - acrylic, 8x10 in.

If you are going to paint in the city, whether it’s NY, Boston, Philadelphia or even London or Paris, you need to be organized, plan ahead and take a minimal amount of supplies. I am fortunate that the Salmagundi Club, the oldest arts club in the US, allows me to paint on their balcony–giving me access to water, bathrooms and when the dining room is open, coffee and snacks! However, on days that I have painted in the parks or other areas of the city, I have to plan my route and research the place I will be painting ahead of time to ensure that I will be able to work comfortably and for the most part, undisturbed.

What Makes an Ideal Location

Well, besides having a view of something you really want to paint, simple things like shelter, access to a bathroom and close proximity to public transportation. By shelter, I mean a place where you can paint with your back to something like a wall or tree, so that you don’t have an audience of onlookers lingering while you work. I teach and do lots of demos, having people watch when I’m doing a demo is fine, but when I’m painting, that’s my time and I don’t want to be disturbed. If people have to approach you head on, they are less likely to stand there and expect to chat. I also use the direct approach, if I see someone coming who looks like they are interested in what I am doing, I smile at them say hello and wish them a good day. I will give them a glimpse of what I am doing and then excuse  myself to get back to it before the light changes, most people will move on.  I also keep a stack of business cards with me and direct them to the galleries I work with to see more of my paintings if they are located near where I am painting.

What Makes an Ideal Kit

For me, the simpler the better. I am used to working with a very limited palette, so I try to limit the number of colors I take with me regardless of medium. For oils or acrylics I try to limit it to about 6 or 7 tubes of paint, I can actually get by with 4 if I have to (3 primaries and a tube of white).  I select the colors based on the type of landscape I will be painting. For example, if I am going to be painting in a city park, I’ll take 2 yellows and 2 blues so I can get a nice range and variety of greens. If I’m in an area with a lot of brick buildings, I’ll take 2 reds and 2 yellows so I can make interesting terra cotta type colors. For example, the palette I used on the painting above was: Prussian blue, ultramarine, alizarin, cadmium red, cad yellow medium, cad yellow light and titanium white. I selected it ahead of time because I know the area and knew which colors I would need for some of the main elements–the green awnings, the greys of the stonework and the pinks of the flowering trees.

What About an Easel?

If I am sketching in pastel, I usually don’t bother with an easel. I just use an old canvas board (with one of my oil or acrylic demos on one side) and tape my paper to the back. This works well if you really want to travel light. If I am actually using paint (oil  or acrylic), then I like to have an easel. I have used both French easels and aluminum types. The French easels are nice and stable but way too heavy to carry around the city. Aluminum is ok, but a little shaky on uneven ground or if it is windy. I just ordered a new plein air system from Coulter, I will write a review of it after it arrives and I’ve had time to try it out.

Meanwhile, take advantage of the spring weather and get outside to paint whenever you can. Don’t be shy, the more you do it, the easier it gets. Hopefully the tips above will make it a little less stressful.



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