Extreme ‘plein air’ painting tips

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Extreme Plein air Painting Tips
Inspired by a trip to the North West coast of Scotland in Autumn 2018

So, I asked myself, ‘How does a person who is terrified of heights, find themselves on top of a cliff, being battered by the wind, but attempting to paint while stopping a box of pastels from blowing away?’ Answers on a postcard please! I suppose the word that comes to mind is ‘challenge’. I believe that for my work to be exciting and inspiring, I have to challenge myself, and to be honest, I was with a group of women artists who were egging each other on, and having taken 3 days to get to the North West coast of Scotland, I had to make the trip worthwhile.

I often get asked about the transportability of pastels, especially by people who have a vast array to choose from at home, but don’t know which ones to take out. It can seem like a daunting prospect to get out of the studio anyway, let alone somewhere a bit remote and blustery. So I have jotted down some tips in case anyone else who works with pastels wants to do this, but isn’t quite sure how to manage it.

For more gentle trips out in the Summer, I’ll be writing another blog, so don’t be put off if you don’t fancy going to extremes…..

Keeping warm!
I cannot emphasise the importance of being warm enough. Producing art is difficult enough without losing concentration because you are shivering and your hands are too cold to move. You can call me a wimp, but I really feel the cold, so need several layers whatever the weather.
I have put my own list of clothing at the end.

Top tips

  • Sit in a place that’s sheltered from the wind; this is important, as wind chill lowers the temperature considerably, meaning you will have to work very very quickly.
  • I put a layer of polythene down to keep everything dry, as the ground is usually wet.If working with your board on the ground, rocks are useful to weight down the board, but possibly tent pegs could be used, as I do with an easel.
  • Never take an easel to a cliff top.
  • Always use the wrist strap for your camera.
  • Don’t step back to admire your work without double checking what is behind you.
  • When walking, always check where your feet are going before looking at the view/light. I had the low Autumnal Scottish sun in my eyes one day, and almost stepped off an edge that I hadn’t seen, aaahhh!
  • Be wary of working in fields containing livestock, they can be very curious, territorial, or protective of their young.
  • Take a snack to keep up your energy levels, and also to make sure you have a break. Pausing and standing back to assess your work is important, and more fun with a treat in your hands.
  • Take a drink, a hot one in a little flask is a great treat too and really helps to keep warm.

I have experimented over the years with various combinations of materials, and this list is for days when you don’t have too far to walk.

I haven’t included an easel as in Scotland the conditions were so windy it would have been madness. On calmer days I take a Winsor and Newton ‘Severn’ wooden sketching easel, but still carry a few tent pegs and string in case a wind picks up. You have to remember that when you put your board on the easel you have basically constructed a sail, so pegging it into the ground will help. (Not if you are standing on rocks though)

Remember, ‘less is more’ as ever, so if you take too much stuff with you, it will weigh you down and you will quickly get tired before you even start to work.…..

  • Board, 6mm mdf for A2 board, or ply if using an A1 board as it is lighter
  • Bin bag to use as a cover if it rains
  • Bulldog clips
  • A supermarket ‘bag for life’ is great for carrying pastels and other materials as the pastel boxes can be placed at the bottom without lids on. Just don’t trip over.
  • A New Pastel School Small Starter Set of Unison pastels, which Nel Whatmore and I have put together as a set of 30 colours that cover most situations, you can buy them here http://rebeccademendonca.co.uk/product-category/pastel-sets/
  • I take additional pastels if I know I will need certain colours, in another box
  • Black conte crayon
  • Eraser
  • Charcoal
  • Primed mount card, a selection of colours, I use Colourfix Primers
  • Paper, a selection of colours of pastel paper, with a cheap piece of paper as a top cover
  • Pastel primers in pots, but I only take these if I want to create an under painting in situ to pastel over, as I then also need a  brush, bottle of water, jar, and a bag or cling film for wrapping the used brush
  • Wipes for hands
  • Loo roll to clean pastels
  • Polythene to sit on and rest board and pastel boxes on

As I said earlier, if I’m cold I can’t produce good work!

  • Fingerless gloves for pastelling
  • Ski gloves for walking
  • Two layers of trousers, or fleece lined trousers (which are SO warm!)
  • Thick thermal socks with walking socks over
  • Scarf, hat or hood
  • Walking boots
  • Wind proof coat with fleece lining
  • Fleece
  • Thermal vest and T shirt

Just do it!
So that’s it, all set to go!
Surprisingly, this kit doesn’t weigh very much, although the further you walk, the heavier it will seem.

If you are interested in painting on the beautiful North West coast of Scotland, I can recommend Reiff Beach Cottage near Achitibuie where we stayed,  

I’ll write another blog with my small scale ‘out and about’ kit list that all fits in a backpack leaving 2 hands free to scale the tors of Dartmoor.

I wish you exciting and creative adventures!