Risk and Reward: Painting Outside

Watercolor artist Mick McAndrews shares his approach to painting outside. It’s not all sunny skies, but the payoff is worth every moment.

“Farmers Market” (watercolor, plein air)

“I enjoy painting outdoors to take advantage of the natural light, as well as the sights and sounds that influence my creative nature,” says Mick McAndrews. “Outside in nature’s studio is where I find the greatest challenge and the greatest reward. I must capture the moment, because light and its effect — reflections and cast shadows — change continuously. I am forced to simplify, to reduce the overwhelming complexity of what’s in front of me, into only the most important shapes and values. Of course, the image of a smiling artist painting in an exotic location on a spectacularly sunny day is balanced by the realities of wind, rain, cold, humidity, and buggy conditions that also represent the plein air painter’s experience.

“Milky Way Farm 1” (watercolor, plein air)

“Here’s my approach to plein air work:

When the Light Is Right: The best light for painting outside is early morning and late afternoon. This is when the sun is low in the sky and the light and cast shadows are most dramatic. If we’re lucky, we can also capture the brilliant yellows, oranges, and purples of sunrise and sunset. Getting up and out early to paint means there’s time in the afternoon for a power-nap to recharge my batteries for a late afternoon painting session or even a nocturne. During multi-day plein air competitions, most painters complete two or more paintings a day.

Protection Against the Elements: If you’re like me, too much time in the direct sun is not good, so I do what I can, including quality sunblock, to make sure that a long day of plein air work today doesn’t impact tomorrow. I also carry a wide brim hat, a few UV protection shirts, and a tripod attachable umbrella.

“Cather’s Barn” (watercolor, plein air)

Capturing the Day: I try not to spend too much time searching for the perfect painting location or subject. I keep a phrase from master watercolorist Joseph Zbukvic in my head as I prepare to paint: ‘There’s no such thing as a bad subject, only bad paintings.’ The beauty and wonder of the world around us is overwhelming so my job is to simplify and avoid comparing my work to the complexity of what’s in front of me. Back home, the painting often ‘comes to life’ and contains the beauty and memory of a day well-spent painting outside.

Transporting Equipment to the Scene: I am able to carry everything I need in a Sun-Eden Artists Gear backpack, including many sheets of watercolor paper up to a half-sheet in size, gatorboard, brushes, palette, tripod, tripod adaptor (also from Sun-Eden), tray, stool, attachable umbrella and more. Because of the backpack’s design, my arms and hands are free. Unfortunately, it’s no longer available but there are plenty of options from Sun-Eden, En Plein Air Pro, and Judson’s Art Outfitters, to name a few, for all painting mediums.

Everything I need for a day in the field fits into one pack.
My basic setup takes all of five minutes to assemble.

Advice to Beginners: Keep It Simple: I suspect that this information may be intimidating for those interested in trying plein air work for the first time. My advice is to avoid spending a lot of money on new and expensive supplies at first. Rather, take a sketchbook with a simple set of painting supplies, and find a quiet place in the shade away from any hustle and bustle so you can relax and have some painting fun. Don’t worry about the results. Focus instead on seeing interesting shapes, before concerning yourself with the subject. Think about how to get a variety of edges in your work rather than an overly accurate rendering of the scene, and make value studies. Getting the values right is more important than the colors you choose. I’m sure I am quoting someone when I say, get the values right and the color doesn’t matter.

“Kuerner Harnesses” (watercolor, plein air)

“The lessons I have learned painting outside have led to a vast improvement in my studio work. I hope to see you on the trail some day, painting and enjoying the challenges and rewards of plein air work, as I do.”

Mick McAndrews‘ award winning paintings strive to capture the mood and atmosphere of a subject, combining the magic of watercolor with reverence for the principles of design to create works of sophisticated simplicity.  He is a signature member of the Philadelphia Watercolor Society (Crest Award), the Pennsylvania Watercolor Society (Sylvan Grouse Guild) and the Baltimore Watercolor Society.  He is also an Artist Member of the Mid-Atlantic Plein Air Painters Association.

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