Seven tips for painting en plein air

Seven tips for painting en plein air

Born and bred among Cornwall’s jagged cliffs and churning seas, artist Glyn Macey draws much of his creative inspiration from the serenity and extremes of natural landscapes. His practice reflects a dialogue with the environment, its essence captured with a unique mix of technical precision and creative spontaneity.

Working with an array of materials, including acrylic paints and other mixed media, Macey has painted everything from National Trust sites to harbour scenes in his native county. A maestro at painting en plein air (“in the open air”), Macey is a model for artists hoping to glean inspiration outdoors.

If you are looking to take your painting from the studio to the seaside, a city block, or another open-air scene, take Macey’s tips for painting en plein air to heart before heading outside.

A seaside scene by Glyn Macey
A seaside scene by Glyn Macey

1. Travel light and get creative with your choice of materials

Firstly, jettison anything from your painting box that you don’t really need. Ask yourself, do you need an army of brushes when painting studies on location, or just one or two? Or even any brushes at all? Is it possible to create a painting using found materials?

2. Simplify your palette

Limited palettes rule when it comes to travelling light. I use just five colours: Burnt Umber, Cadmium Yellow, Phthalo Green, Winsor Blue and Titanium White. A careful consideration of chosen colours before setting out can be beneficial, but so can working with the few colours that you already have with you. Don’t forget that you can mix your own greens, and the fewer colours you use the more harmonious the result.

3. Use found water

Unless you are painting in the middle of a desert, there is really no need to carry heavy painting water. It’s usually pretty easy to find a supply of water on site for your painting needs, including rivers, streams, the sea, rain-filled puddles, a local service station, shops and restaurants.

The added bonus of “found” water is that it is local to your painting location, tying your work to its surroundings. And don’t worry about the seawater longevity myth. After all, Turner used seawater for many of his coastal watercolours and they still look good!

4. Collect and use found items

I always carry a small handful of freezer type bags when painting outdoors. These are for collecting found materials for later use and inspiration. When painting on the coast, for instance, these bags may well contain shells, sand, seaweed, driftwood and other beach paraphernalia. Painting in the city, my bag contains packaging, discarded tickets and paper ephemera. You’ll find similar useful and enriching materials in forest and mountain settings. And when you return to the studio, revisiting these items will transport you back to your outdoor location, readying you for indoor work.

Found items can all be used to create interesting textures and make your work more visually compelling. For an artistic challenge, try creating a piece of art on location using only such materials. I often use this technique to get my creativity flowing.

5. Use your smartphone to capture a visual reference

Take a camera or smartphone with you when painting en plein air. Painted studies capture atmosphere as no photograph ever could, but a camera can capture details in an instant. Using a photograph as a visual reference for your painting can ensure consistency in your work in the face of changes in climate and the like.

6. Use easily portable cases to transport supplies

A good pochade box can be really useful, not only for packing your items but also to act as a small easel. And for larger plein air work, a box easel, sometimes called a French easel, is fantastic.

7. Don’t wear sunglasses while painting

Though you may be contending with bright sun at times, sunglasses alter colour balance and can therefore affect how you perceive and use your palette. Wear a hat to insure against this effect and protect yourself from the elements.

For more on Glyn Macey, visit