Plein Air Painting in Pastel | Plein Air Painters Tell You What You Need to Know

“Everything that is painted directly and on the spot has always a strength, a power, a vivacity of touch which one cannot recover in the studio… three strokes of a brush in front of nature are worth more than two days of work at the easel.” —Eugene Boudin

Moonrise Over Teton Flat

Aaron Schuerr’s painting Moonrise Over Teton Flat (pastel, 10×12) was painted in the studio based on a plein air study painted in oil.

Plein air painting adds a dimension to painting landscapes that many artists find irresistible. Outdoor painting provides a deeper understanding of the various qualities of light and atmosphere. Whether you hope to paint finished paintings or color studies for studio paintings (or something in between), plein air painting will bolster your observation skills and enliven your artwork.

If you’re taking up plein air painting for the first time, there is a lot to sort out—from packing your bags to picking a painting spot. Here we’ve collected tips from well-known pastel painters and plein air devotees.

Plein Air Supplies: What and How to Pack
Figuring out how to organize your materials into a portable system is one of the first challenges. For help, we asked Maggie Price, of Albuquerque; Michael Chesley Johnson of Lubec, Maine; and Kim Lordier, of Millbrae, Calif., to describe their typical setups for outdoor painting:

Maggie Price’s Plein Air Setup: I use a Sun-Eden tripod, easel attachment and artist’s shelf, which features light-weight plastic components. When I’m painting outdoors, I paint on a surface that’s either 9×12 or 11×14; the backing board shown here is an 11×14 Gessoboard, which is lightweight, sturdy and easy to fit in my bag. My pastel box is a Heilman backpack-size box that rests on the shelf attached to the easel; the dangling yellow bungee cord straps around it and attaches on the center support of the tripod. My bag is suspended from that support as well, providing weight so that the whole setup won’t fall over in a gust of wind. If I walk away from the easel for any length of time, I take the pastel box off, close it up and put it in the bag to prevent any potential bumps or accidents. The umbrella attaches to the upper part of the tripod leg.


A typical plein air painting setup for pastel artist Maggie Price.

When I’m finished, all the supplies go back in either the canvas bag; the pastel box fits in the laptop compartment of a standard laptop bag.

Most people who paint outdoors carry too many supplies the first few times they venture out. It’s a good idea, at the end of every painting session, to think about at what you didn’t use, and leave those items behind next time. After a few trips, you’ll narrow it down to the bare essentials.

Michael Chesley Johnson’s Plein Air Setup: I have two different setups when I paint outdoors in pastel, but in both cases, I use a Heilman pastel box. I use the smallest, the “Backpacker” size, which fits conveniently in my backpack or carry-on luggage. It also holds all the pastels I need—about 200 half-sticks of Mount Vision and Polychromos pastels. If I’m painting large pieces, I’ll use my full French easel (pictured). For smaller pieces, I use my tripod, which weighs less than the French easel. The Heilman box fits right on top of the easel’s extended drawer, and a bungee cord keeps it snug and safe. The easel also holds all the little tools I might need in the field, such as brushes, masking tape and a viewfinder.

Michael Chesley Johnson's plein air painting setup for pastel

Michael Chesley Johnson’s plein air painting setup for landscape painting in pastel.

For my surface, I tape down a sheet of Wallis sanded pastel paper to a piece of Fome-Cor for backing. A folded “gutter” of plain sketching paper goes beneath the backing to capture falling dust. I use a 6×8-inch plastic palette from Judson’s Art Outfitters to hold the pastels I use as I’m painting, simply resting the palette on top of the others in the box. Finally, I use a bungee cord to suspend a roll of paper towels from the drawer.

For a full list of plein air suppliers, see this list of plein air gear.

Kim Lordier’s Plein Air Setup: I’m fortunate to have two All-in-One-Easels: a 16×20 size (shown open on my tripod in the photo below) and an 11×14 (shown closed on the ground). The smaller box fits  snuggly inside my backpack, which also carries my brushes, Turpenoid, tape, rags, sketchbook, viewfinder, lunch and sunscreen. Both boxes have a Gatorboard backing board lined with glassine that flips down to hold finished works and extra paper, so I don’t need to carry any other folios.

Kim Lordier's plein air painting setup in pastel

Kim Lordier’s plein air painting setup (a dog is optional).

I’ve backpacked into the High Sierras with the smaller kit, and the larger kit—which allows me to work comfortably as large as 20×24—has traveled by air. Both have been on a mule pack trip. I use the Best Brella and a Soleil white umbrella, depending on the lighting conditions; both can attach directly to the side of my easel.

To find out how Kim Lordier puts her materials to use, check out this step-by-step landscape painting demonstration.


Ready for Take-Off?

How much to pack depends on how far you want to go. If you’re driving your own car, you have greater flexibility, but you still need to think about what you can comfortably carry from car to painting site. If you’re flying to your destination, you obviously have to pack even smarter. See Richard McKinley’s tips for packing for the plane on his Pastel Pointers Blog.


Plein Air Palette: Selecting the Bare Minimum Pastels

limited pastel palette for plein air painting

This pastel box is smaller, making it more portable for plein painting. The selections are limited but offer a good range for painting.

Pastel painters are used to having hundreds (and hundreds) of pastels at their disposal. As much as you might like to have all the color options available when you paint en plein air, it simply isn’t practical. Here, Maggie Price offers her suggestions for the “bare essentials” when space is severely limited: “You can manage just fine with a limited number,” Price says, “keeping in mind that you can always layer to create new colors. Select an assortment that mixes hardness and softness and brands. Include your favorite colors, plus the following:

• 6-10 values of each of the primary colors (red, yellow, blue)

• 6-10 values of each of the secondary colors (orange, green, violet)

• 6-10 values of each of the tertiary colors (red-orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, red-violet, blue-violet)

• 6-10 values of several earth colors (browns, both warm and cool, plus sand or beige colors)

• 6-10 values of neutrals, both warm and cool (gray-blue, gray-violet, gray-green, etc.)

• 1 soft white pastel

• 1 black semi-hard pastel

If you break each stick of pastel into half or thirds, you can get all of these colors into a relatively small box.


A Winterized Plein Air Toolkit

Aaron Schuerr's plein air painting setup

The cold climate doesn’t have to bring an end to plein air painting. Here, Aaron Schuerr stands beside his “cold climate” plein air setup.

Most painters head to their studios in the colder months, saving plein air painting for finer weather, but others brave the elements to continue the plein air experience in the snowy landscape. Livingston, Montana-based painter Aaron Schuerr is not one to shy away from the winter chill, even if the mountainous country of Montana, but he does make adjustments to his plein air setup to “weatherize” it: “For plein air painting in winter, I have to switch to oils, for one simple reason: So I can wear gloves! I also have coveralls, a balaclava and pack-boots, and sometimes hand warmers. I did do a pastel study on location last winter. The sun dropped behind a hill as I finished, and my fingertips became so cold that I couldn’t get the pastels back into the box! I decided I’d better to stick to oil. I really love the qualities of pastel, though, so for studio pieces, I very often switch to pastel.

Check out a gallery of Schuerr’s winter landscape paintings in this online gallery.


Free Download! Click here for “A Streamlined Method for Quick and Deliberate Plein Air Painting.”



Watch and learn from leading pastel artists in these landscape painting demonstrations now on DVD!

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