En plein air painting: 5 tips for painting moving objects

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Photography’s greatest gift to the artist is that it freezes motion – perfect for reference. So when I started learning how to draw outside and got into en plein air painting, I had to contend with the fact that reality doesn’t hold still.

What is plein air painting?

Painting en plain air is the practice of painting outdoors, capturing people, landscapes and scenes in natural light – rather than painting indoors from reference sketches, photographs, life models and so on. 

Painting outside became popular with the French Impressionists. It was made possible with the invention of transportable paint tubes and the plein air easel, and involves a unique set of challenges, skills and techniques, which we’ll walk through here. 

Painting moving objects en plein air

When you're plein air painting, the sun moves across the sky, dragging every shadow around with it. It ducks behind clouds. It changes colour. And that’s not all. 

People and animals come and go. Trees move. Waves roll in and roll out. Boats swing around as the wind shifts. You don’t realise how fluid reality is until you try to paint it.

Sometimes the movement is slight, and it’s easy to adjust your drawing or painting to match. Other times, say when you’re trying to capture someone walking along eating an ice cream cone, you have seconds to capture the entire thing: posture, clothing, hair, lighting, dripping ice cream... It’s enough to make anyone hyperventilate. 

So take a deep breath and grab your best pencils. Everything is going to change while you work, yes, but the answer isn’t to rush to get it all in before that happens. You can’t win that battle. Instead, start by looking... 

01. Think of your eye as the camera

The world isn’t a photograph. It moves and changes all the time. Keeping up requires observation combined with a deep visual vocabulary.

The world isn’t a photograph. It moves and changes all the time. Keeping up requires observation combined with a deep visual vocabulary.

Take a “snapshot” with your eyes, trying to pull in as much information as possible: the angle of her shoulders, the hunch of his back, the way the water catches the light. Calm down, and get as much information in as you can in the moments you have.

02. Organise what you see

Sketching is how artists take notes. So part of your opening snapshot should include a sketch. Make some choices about how to organise what you see into an artistic composition. When things change and you get distracted, your sketch will help bring you back to your idea.

03. Draw what you see

Keep your sketches where you can see them as you paint

Keep your sketches where you can see them as you paint

The beauty of plein air painting, and working from life versus a photo, is that life offers perfect information. The colours are 100 per cent accurate. The resolution is infinite. Now is the time to give your close observation muscles a workout. Really work to see what’s there, as we so rarely do. 

04. Draw what you know

Because you only have a moment to capture things that are moving and changing, you need a broad visual understanding to fill in the blanks. There’s no shortcut to developing this, just lots and lots of drawing. Take notes with your eyes, then fill in the gaps with your understanding. 

05. Lots and lots of drawing

Coffee shops and retirement homes are prime sketching locations. People tend to stay still. 

Coffee shops and retirement homes are prime sketching locations. People tend to stay still. 

Next time, I’ll get into what sort of gear you need to begin your plein air adventure, but here’s tool number one: a sketchbook. Keep one on you at all times. Pull it out instead of your mobile phone when you’re at the doctor’s office or coffee shop. Deepen your visual understanding.

This article was originally published in issue 157 of ImagineFX, the world's best-selling magazine for digital artists. Buy issue 157 or subscribe to ImagineFX here.

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