Pastel Pointers With Richard McKinley | Being Plein Air Prepared

Richard McKinley's packed plein air car

The back of the packed plein air car, a virtual studio on wheels, waiting for me to find a subject.

If you’re a plein air enthusiast, you never know when a certain scene is going to grab your attention. Many artists prepare by always having a camera with them for quick reference photos. Others take it further by having a sketchbook at ready for that quick thumbnail sketch and note taking. But when time allows, there’s nothing better than quickly setting up equipment and knocking out a field sketch. The Boy Scouts motto, “Be prepared!” should be the adage of every serious plein air painter.

How many times have we seen something that made us pause and glance back? It’s in those instances that a painting is being formed. As painters, we’re visual beings, and visual effects provide the stimuli that motivate us to paint. It would be nice to control when these attractions occur, but it’s not always within our power. Being well prepared to respond to them when opportunity strikes is the key. Pastel is a near perfect medium for this task. There’s no fresh paint to squeeze out, no dangerous solvents to deal with; the pastel equipment is just as we left it—ready and waiting.

I was recently reminded of this in a workshop where I was fortunate to work with a couple of charming and extremely talented artists from Germany: Susan Mull and Astrid Volquardsen (Astrid is featured in the August 2011 issue of The Pastel Journal). Toward the end of the workshop, I was repacking my car and noticed that they were taking my photo as I positioned things. After a few laughs, they explained that they were impressed with how organized I kept the painting equipment, and that it reminded them that one never knows when motivation will strike. That being prepared to respond quickly without having to dig through a chaotic jumble of equipment is the key, especially in fleeting moments.

I concurred that it’s easy to just throw things back into the car, but plein air painting is akin to doing medical surgery in wartime on a battlefield. While the conditions may not be perfect, it’s still better to be as prepared as possible. For this reason, I always keep a small pastel plein air setup ready in the back of the car and make sure that various sized sheets of paper are available; this way it’s easier to accommodate a variety of compositional formats. I keep this small plein air setup at ready in the back of the car at most times, even if my intent isn’t to paint. When I go out with the intention of painting, I often load more equipment—but with the same methodical organization. No matter how tired I am at the end of a long painting day, I still refresh and organize my equipment.

It’s true that we’re all different, and I admit to being a bit of a neat freak, but being at the ready—dancing shoes at hand, so to speak—allows the serious painter to quickly get into the dance before the music stops playing. Even if it’s just for a quick waltz, the creative benefits will be rewarding. Semper Paratus!



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4 thoughts on “Pastel Pointers With Richard McKinley | Being Plein Air Prepared

  1. paulharman

    Thanks for another great article. Just wondering Richard about the nice case you have for completed pastels or ready to go pastel mounted sheets. Is that a custom made case or is it available from a supplier?

  2. heidimayo

    Ha ha ha, I just got back from teaching a plein air class in the sweltering heat and extreme wind, and if I took a photo of the back of my car right now, it would be a perfect complement to Richard’s perfect order. 🙂

  3. TK.

    Thank you Richard, I’m a retired RN and I too keep the motto “Be Prepared” with most things in my art life, and yes Plein Air painting is a favorite! TKLinda