Make the Most Out of Your Plein Air Experience – Enjoy Yourself!

Waving to the brigade of NYC fire trucks that passed by during my demo on the Salmagundi balcony, with plein air, you have to just go with the flow.
Photo credit: Joel Graham

This past Saturday, I did a live plein air demo on the balcony of the Salmagundi Club on 5th Avenue in NYC. The demo was videotaped and fed directly into the Club’s parlor room where attendees watched on a large projection screen. The title of my demo was called “Fearless Painting: Plein Air on the Streets of NY” and the purpose was to help take some of the anxiety out of painting in a very public place.

The main idea that I tried to get across was that with urban plein air, you have very little control over your surroundings–lots of distractions in the form of curious onlookers, vehicles, street noise and unexpected events like the brigade of fire trucks that happened to come screaming down 5th Avenue during my demo with their sirens blaring. Because you can’t control what is going on around  you, you have to stay focused on what you are doing and why you are doing it. Hopefully, you choose to paint plein air because you enjoy it, or at least because you like the idea of capturing your subject quickly and want to improve your observation skills by working from life. Plein air is a great way to produce studies that you can later use in your studio paintings. Avoiding it simply because you are afraid of it means you are missing out on an opportunity to hone your skills and build confidence as a painter.

How do you get over that fear? A couple things can help:

  • First, as I said, remember why you are doing it–it is not necessarily to create a master piece, but rather to improve your seeing skills in terms of seeing color, form, value, proportion and perspective. You are doing this for YOU, not for anyone else, so don’t worry what any onlookers may think. They will eventually move on and not even remember that they stopped to look at what you were doing.
  • Second, be organized. Work with a limited palette and don’t bring  more than you need. You can paint discreetly or simply just sketch. If you are just sketching in charcoal, pastel, pencil or marker, you don’t need an easel. You can sit in a cafe or on a park bench and no one will even notice what you are doing.
  • Try to position yourself so that your back is against some sort of obstacle such as a tree, building or wall. People cannot look over your shoulder if you do this, they have to approach you head on, and that is harder to do. If they should come up to you, take the initiative and greet them. It will catch them off guard. Introduce yourself and be friendly, odds are they will be a bit taken aback and leave you alone after a minute of polite conversation.
  • Keep a few sketches you are proud of on hand, or a business card with some of your work on it. That way, you can show them what your work looks like finished, it will also serve to make YOU more confident by having something to show them that you are proud of. Who knows, you might even find that you have a new collector!

Plein air painting, even in an urban setting, does not have to be intimidating. Relax, have fun, and remember you are there for YOU not for anyone else, enjoy yourself!

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