Journal page with colors and shapes from the autumn landscape.
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Plein Air Painting for Everyone

For those who aren’t familiar with the phrase, painting en plein air is just a fancy way of referring to painting on location, usually outdoors.

It’s a challenge! In addition to all the usual problems a painter has to solve (composition, color mixing, brush handling, etc.), there is the constantly changing light, the sun, rain and wind, the bugs, the passers-by. At this point, I love chatting with the passers-by, but at first it was nerve-wracking to paint with someone looking over my shoulder.

So what, you may be asking, is such a topic doing here?  Here in the Land of No Skills Needed?

Ah. I tried an experiment this week that I can’t wait to share with you.

I discovered that ANYONE can paint en plein air! 

Remember the article about Wonky Wobblies and Directed Doodles?  If not, it’s okay. I think you’ll get the idea without reading it, but that is the exercise that my experiment evolved from.

On the day of my experiment I was out painting, but the humidity was high and I was having a hard time getting my washes to dry. While I was waiting to add the next layer to a little watercolor study, I decided to just play around with capturing the colors around me.

I flipped to a page that had a creative seed with some of the colors I was seeing around me, and starting splashing on bright colors at random. All I did was look around and pick a color or color combination that appealed to me, and “scribble” or “doodle” some of those colors on my journal page.  No attempt to make anything look like anything. I just wanted to capture the brilliant color.

Blue and yellow-orange watercolor "squiggle".
The page I chose to work on.

After I put down some more yellows, oranges and greens at random, the page was pretty wet, so I went back to my field study.  When I again reached a point where I had to let my field study dry, I glanced over and noticed how appealing my color scribbles were!

The journal page was nearly dry, so I mixed up some darker color, and again looking all about me, this time I tried to capture shapes I was seeing.  Not trying to make a painting, just seeing a shape. Looking around on the page for a spot where I had some empty space or a light color I could paint on top of, I started making some watercolor “doodles” using my shapes. Repeated brush marks to imitate the shapes of tall, skinny poplars in the distance, branch-y shapes, weed-y shapes.  Whatever shapes I happened to be seeing around me.

Not—definitely not!—trying to paint trees or weeds or hills. Certainly not trying to paint a scene. Just doodling and repeating some of the shapes I found interesting, very much like the Directed Doodle process, but with a brush rather than a pen.

Then I went back to my field study and didn’t really look at my journal again until I was packing up to leave.

This is what I saw:

Journal page with colors and shapes from the autumn landscape.
My journal page after “watercolor doodling” colors and shapes I was seeing all around me.

It’s not a landscape painting . . . or maybe it is!

Whatever it is, I like it!  A lot!   It really captures some of the feel of the day, although it doesn’t look much like the place I was painting.

Best of all, it was sooooo easy!  I didn’t labor over getting anything right. No worrying about perspective or reserving lights or mixing color.  I was trying to capture some of the color and shapes around me, but I wasn’t trying very hard. Just as with Directed Doodles, I was mostly just enjoying the brush on the paper while I waited for my study to dry enough for me to continue work.

I liked it so much I went out and did two more the next nice day.

Watercolor with colors and shapes from the autumn landscape.
Another watercolor plein air Directed Doodle.
watercolor doodle 2
Another watercolor plein air Directed Doodle.

I’ll be interested to see what you all think of them as paintings, because I’m finding I really, really like them. Maybe enough to completely change the way I paint en plein air.

But I suspect the real reason I like them so much is that I spent nearly all of my time immersing my whole attention in what I was seeing and really savoring the beauty all around me, rather than worrying about “making a painting”.

And that’s an experience worth having, whether you “paint” or not. The fall color season here is winding down a bit, but there is still a lot of beautiful color out there.  Get out and give it a try; I promise you’ll be glad you did!


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