Art Goals: Creating en Plein Air in Paris

If your bucket list includes a once in a lifetime time trip to the City of Light to make art en plein air, join artist Desmond O’Hagan as he takes you to Paris to soak in the city’s je ne sais quoi. And if painting an urban environment is your thing, the French capital is a sure bet for artistic inspiration.

Paris is for (Art) Lovers

I’ve visited Paris seven times, and it’s my favorite city in the world. These travels to Paris were essential in broadening my knowledge of impressionism, expressionism, abstract expressionism, sculpture —and French pastry. I took hundreds of reference photos, which inspired many many paintings. I fell in love with the light, the architecture, the streets, the cafe culture, the parks, the interiors, and … have I mentioned the pastries?

Always ask permission of the manager or hostess before photographing for an interior painting, such as Waiter (pastel, 9×12). Then, take photos of the walls and tables, too, so it doesn’t appear that the people are your primary subject.

A Plan for Work and Play en Plein Air

On a recent trip to Paris, which this time included my 20-year-old daughter and 15-year-old son. The trip was a great family adventure as well as an opportunity to gather more inspiration and material for an upcoming exhibit of my paintings that would focus on the City of Lights.

Our seven days in Paris required an itinerary that balanced sightseeing with my need to gather reference material—in a limited time frame. I knew that I specifically wanted to capture images of Paris at dusk and nighttime for the show, so I tried to find times to slip away and photograph as many scenes as possible at those times. Still, patient travel companions are essential in such circumstances. When planned with like-minded friends or family, combining travel and art-making can be a rewarding experience for all.

It rained six of the seven days my family and I were in Paris. For me, I loved the resulting reflections which created unique abstract shapes as seen in Early June, Paris (pastel, 12×9). Look for spontaneous scenes such as these, and take several quick photos, because everything changes so rapidly.

Gathering Reference

I do enjoy painting en plein air on some of my travels. When time and subject matter allow, it’s a great way to spend the day. But, because I enjoy painting scenes at the times of day when light is fleeting—at dusk, for example, with people and traffic moving—setting up to paint on-site can be difficult. For this reason, and in order to maximize what’s usually limited travel time, I mostly choose to gather photographic reference for future studio paintings.

Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned for getting the best references when traveling.

Do your research

I’ve learned enough from previous visits to Paris that I’ve fine-tuned the process for choosing what to take photos of and where, but even when you have familiarity with an environment— and especially when you don’t—some advance research of the area you’re visiting will maximize your efforts and prevent wasted time. That being said, inspiration can occur at any moment, so have your camera ready.

Blend in with the crowd

I’ve found that my Nikon Coolpix digital compact camera does an excellent job, and it doesn’t attract the attention that a big camera with a long lens might. So, I’m able to take more candid photos that capture the vibe of a scene without alerting others to my presence.

I love the architecture of the bridges in Paris. The key to painting these scenes is to simplify the detail, and concentrate on contrasts, strokes and color, as seen in Bridge at Night, Central Paris (pastel, 9×12). By doing so, you can avoid a stiff architectural rendering.

Avoid the postcard view

When it comes to selecting a subject, I tend to avoid well-known landmarks, as I feel they’ve already been painted to death. A bustling international city will offer a variety of unique scenes to inspire you. If you do choose to include a well-known landmark, make it secondary in your composition to avoid that postcard look.

Take a photo of the sky

When photographing urban scenes, in particular, it’s a good idea to take a second photo directly of the sky. Many urban scenes appear dark, so the camera adjusts and lightens, which then washes out the sky. I find it helpful to have a more accurate record of the sky color.

Paris at dusk or nighttime is stunning. Early Evening Traffic, Paris (pastel, 9×12) features one of the city’s major boulevards near the Seine. These scenes are fleeting, so you have to be quick with your camera.

Take a second shot (and perhaps a third and a fourth)

Because traffic and people are always moving in an urban scene, take a few photos. This will provide you with additional options when working out the final painting composition.

Be flexible

Weather can change your game plan, so be flexible. If bad weather is in the forecast, rearrange your schedule to concentrate instead on interior scenes.

The scene that became Night Lights, the 9th Arrondissement (pastel, 12×18) was difficult to capture with my camera, as it grew dark quickly. Back in the studio, I experimented with pushing the color and contrast.

Pack Smart

Traveling light gives you the flexibility to change directions and plans, and hop easily on and off trains. My equipment list for a trip in which I don’t plan to paint en plein air includes a decent pair of walking shoes plus a small camera, a few large- capacity image cards, smartphone and an iPad mini.

For plein air painting trips, I add a portable Edgmon easel. My selection of dark-, medium- and light-value pastels fits inside the easel, which fits insidea carry-on bag. I pack a Judson Outfitters tripod in my checked luggage. I also bring a paper assortment (Canson Mi-Teintes and UART 600 in 8×10, 9×12 and 11×14), along with a small drawing board cut from Masonite.

Each time I travel, I always learn new ways to be more efficient. Although I continue to fine-tune, I feel I’ve developed an approach to travel painting that’s both productive and enjoyable.

Join us all month long for our Art Goals series to kick off a new year and decade of making incredible art!

About the Artist

Award-winning artist Desmond O’Hagan ( is a Master Pastelist in the Pastel Society of America and an Eminent Pastelist in the International Association of Pastel Societies. He teaches national and international workshops.

Article and accompanying images, by Desmond O’Hagen, first appeared in Pastel Journal, January/February 2020 issue.

Leave a Reply