Working en plein air (on location) provides its challenges: light languishes, terrains treacherous, bugs bothersome, and passersby pestering. Even with all these negatives, the benefits of painting one-on-one with nature are unequaled. Once experienced, it is easy to become addicted.
Using pastel en plein air has its advantages. The instant gratification of choosing a pastel stick and applying it to a surface is unparalleled. We simply open the pastel palette, analyze the scene, and make a mark—no mixing, no solvents, and no bag full of wet rags to dispose. The disadvantage is that we need an assortment of pastel hues in a range of values to accomplish what the wet painter can do with four tubes of paint. As tempting as it is to take the contents of our studios with us, it is best to pare down to the bare essentials when setting up a pastel palette for plein air painting. Make selections based on previous experience. Think about the subject matter. In the landscape the sky and highly sunlit areas are generally the lightest and brightest colors. Shadows are generally darker and weaker in color. Since darker masses are generally blocked in first, and lighter/brighter areas laid in on top of them, selecting harder brands of pastel for the darks and softer brands for the lights can save palette space. Inspect your studio palette and identify “old friend” pastel sticks that you often gravitate to when painting, make sure to include them as well.
Stability is another major concern when working with pastels. The open pastel palette needs to be level and secure when attached to an easel. If you prefer your palette in front of you while painting, a half French easel works well. The open drawer acts as a support for your pastel palette and it can be made secure with a bungee cord. Tripod easels are another popular system. These often attach to the bottom of the palette or come with an attachable shelve to support the palette. The more stable the tripod the more secure your pastels will be. Whatever system you employ, it is wise to anchor it in case of wind, or that arrant dog. A common shopping bag filled with rocks picked up at the scene, or water bottles and supplies, can provide the weight. Hang this from the easel as close to center as possible. Having to pick up hundreds of pastels in a grassy or sandy situation can deter even the most enthusiastic of plein air painters.
When selecting a location for setup, it is often best to compromise the view of the scene for comfort and stability. Remember, you can move objects around compositionally to strengthen a painting, but choosing to work in an unstable environment will make you more anxious and more prone to bad painting choices. The more comfortable you are, the better the painting will go.
Look for next week’s blog, “Plein Air Tips, Part 2,” in which I’ll discuss the issues of working in full sunlight or shade.
MORE RESOURCES FOR ARTISTS
Check out a calendar of Richard McKinley’s 2010 workshops on his website. If you can’t meet up with Richard live in person (or even if you can!), check out his new ANTV video workshops either as an online streaming video by visiting the ANTV website here or on DVD at our online shop here.