Tips for painting en plein air

Outdoor painting

Anyone who has ever painted outdoors will tell you that there’s nothing quite like it. The fresh air, the beautiful light and colours—it’s all inspiring. But if you’re not a professional painter or artist, you may be wondering how to get started with outdoor painting. While there are plenty of tips out there for artists who paint on location, I’ve found that they don’t always work well for artists who are just getting started. So here are my top ten tips for painting en plein air:

Get an easel that works for you

It’s essential to find an easel that works for you.

Howth Head, Dublin Plein Air Painting Festival
  • Stable: You don’t want your painting knocked over by a gust of wind or someone walking by. A stable easel is also important so that you can paint quickly with confidence.
  • Portable: You may not always be able to carry a heavy piece of equipment with you, so look for something portable that’s easy on the back and shoulders!
  • Set-up time: Even if the easel has wheels or is foldable, it should still set up quickly and easily without any fussing around with parts or screws.
  • Adjustment options: The height should be adjustable so that artists can find their most comfortable standing position when painting outdoors in various settings like hillsides or sitting on beaches—not everyone is built alike!

Find a place to sit (or stand) while you paint

Plein Air Painting at Howth Head

If you’d prefer not to stand then it’s important to find a good place to sit while you paint. If you’re lucky, there will be plenty of benches or chairs available for visitors to use at the site.

First off: look for an elevated surface where there is no risk of sitting in any water or mud (if possible). Make sure it’s comfortable and stable enough not just for yourself, but also anyone else who might come along later.

Use the right canvas size

The size of your canvas is a major factor in how you’ll approach any given painting. A small canvas can limit your options, but it can also keep you from getting carried away with too much detail and colouration.

Keep you kit compact and light

  • Use a small backpack.
  • Use a small fold-up chair.
  • Use a small easel.
  • Use a small paint box, palette, and water container.
  • Use a small brush and/or paint knife to apply the paint and clean up any mistakes you make (as long as they’re not too big).

Protect yourself from the elements

Howth Head can be very windy!

The most important thing you can do to protect yourself from the elements is to wear a hat. Not only will it keep your head and face shaded, but it’ll also keep long hair (if you have any!) out of your eyes. You should also be sure to bring along sunscreen and sunglasses so that you don’t get sunburned or temporarily blinded by the sun as you paint.

Additionally, long sleeves and trousers help to prevent sunburn. Consider wearing trousers instead of shorts to avoid bug bites. Bring comfortable shoes with thick soles because en plein air paintings can take a few hours to complete. Bring along snacks for energy boosts—and water!


The most important thing to remember is that painting en plein air is fun. It’s a great excuse to get out of the studio and explore your surroundings, and it’s also a chance to be creative in new ways. Remember that you don’t have to be perfect, so long as you are enjoying yourself!

Using a Limited Palette for Painting

When learning how to paint, you’ll need to know how to choose a limited palette. This can help you master colour mixing and also keep your painting supply costs down.

What is a limited palette?

In traditional oil painting, a limited palette refers to the number of colours you decide to use in your painting. A limited palette is also often referred to as a monochromatic or tonal palette.

The most popular way to create a limited palette is with the three primary colours: red, blue and yellow. By mixing these three primary colours together you can create many variations.

Why limit the colours you use?

There are many reasons why you may want to limit the colours you use in your oil painting.

  • It helps you focus on your paintings. If you’re only using two or three colours, it’s easy to see when they don’t work together and make changes quickly without getting overwhelmed by all the options.
  • It helps develop your skills. If all the paintings you try are done with only two or three colours, it forces you out of your comfort zone and makes sure that every painting is a challenge for you. This way, not only will you improve at mixing paint but also at using colour in general—and this can be applied across different mediums too!
  • It develops style/creativity: You’ll learn how to create depth and mood through colour contrast as well as subtlety (since there’s less room for error). The result? A distinct signature style based on a limited palette

Portrait Painting

Portrait painters most often choose colours that are similar to skin tone, like red and yellow ochre. Artists can create different variations of these two shades by adding black or white paint to them (often referred to as a ‘Zorn palette’, which is named after Anders Zorn). This allows for subtlety in their portraits and helps create the illusion of skin tone without using an excessive amount of colour (which can make your painting look too busy).

Which colours should you choose?

When choosing colours for a limited palette, consider how it will help with colour mixing and how you will use the colours in your paintings.

  • A great way to choose a limited palette is to study the work of other artists whose work you admire, and see which colours they used. Google Arts and Culture has a treasure trove of paintings that can be studied.
  • If you don’t want bright or bolder tones, then opt for earthy tones instead. These can be mixed into lighter shades easily and are less chromatic and have weaker tinting strength compared to colours made from some of the modern synthetic pigments.


Now that you know a little bit more about how to choose colours for your own limited palette, it’s time to get started! Remember that this is a process of experimentation and discovery. If you make mistakes along the way, don’t be afraid to try again. And above all else: have fun with it!

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