Outdoor Oil Painting Techniques

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Oil painting and sketching Outdoors - Tips and Techniques

These are some of the painting methods and oil painting techniques I use outdoors. Outdoor oil painting and outdoor observation using oil sketches is central to my landscape painting. Here are a few tips which may assist anyone contemplating oil painting in the great outdoors

As with any outdoor activity, suitable clothing and minimal luggage is vital. An easel and a seat are not always essential.


Catching dawn........


......by the tail

Sunrise in April-750x547

This is the finished work  - As ever with outdoor work, essential though it is - the outdoor input simply isn’t enough and I need to take it indoors to reflect on it; to step back a bit and stop fighting nature in order to  reconstruct the work based on the vital outdoor observation that, paradoxically, does some kind of justice to the actual moment. - 6x8ins  Oil on canvas. 


Earlier, this coaster passed by Broughty Castle on its way up to Perth as I arrived to paint the sunrise above

Outdoor Painting Methods - Equipment

I use a bike for most of my local outdoor painting, carrying the gear in a rucksack on my back as I’m usually not cycling very far. For longer distances I’d tend to load the panniers, or take my car.

I find it helpful to have a rucksack packed and ready to go - otherwise it’s too easy to stay indoors, especially when it’s cold or windy. OK this means you have to have extra paint and brushes for use outdoors but it’s worth it. To save weight don’t take full tubes - take well used ones with you.

Oil painting outdoors - techniques - Outdoor Painting at Loch Earn

Painting in idyllic weather at a waterfall near Loch Earn.

Items I had this day include about 6 small canvas covered boards, brushes, tubes of oil, white spirit in a jam jar, kitchen roll, palette, binoculars, camera, lenses, chocolate, prawn cocktail rolls with lettuce, crisps, cans of Tango (see below) and drinking water and some seedless grapes because I believe that a fat artist is a happy artist.

This all fits into a medium rucksack. Some items could be left out if a lighter weight is required or in winter, to save space for hot coffee, spare clothing etc.

Small canvases balanced on the knee, and a palette with a close fitting lid allow a relatively light pack and increased mobility outdoors.

Outdoor Oil Painting Techniques - Outdoor Oil Palette with Lid

Lidded palette can be hand held when using an easel

I usually sit on the padded “frame” of my rucksack - In winter I always do. Cold creeps up unawares when you are concentrating.

In cold weather it is best to put on extra clothing after you get to your chosen spot. Sitting still requires many more layers than does walking and space must be found in the rucksack for this.

It’s possible to wear thin gloves and still paint if you first take the varnish off the brush handles with rough sandpaper.

I use a palette that I made from marine ply and aluminium with individual compartments for each colour,and a close fitting lid, which allows me to pack up without having to clean it first. These compartments are 1 inch wide so they can be cleaned out with an old wood chisel.  Kitchen roll for cleaning brushes is clipped to the lid so that it does not blow away. 

Outdoor painting - Palette and Kitchen Roll

Kitchen roll is indispensible, but if you’ve ever had to chase it downwind you’ll know that it really does go a long way. Also, you feel like a prat. The white cylinder seen here, sticking out from the roll, is a length of plastic water pipe 1.5 inch diameter. It fits well inside the roll and doubles up as an excellent brush case if you plug up one end. More to the point is that it stops the roll leaping away as if possesed. I use the large clips to keep the kitchen roll flat on my palette lid.

This works in winds up to about force 4 on the Beaufort scale. After this put your jam jar with the white spirit inside on top of it. This works up to about force 5.

Above force 5 you’re on your own. Let me know how you get on.

Hogshair brushes. I use “Long Flats” almost exclusively, but that’s my  personal choice. After a while they turn into short flats or worse anyway.

Outdoor Oil painting techniques -  Hogshair brushes

Carrying Wet Canvases 1

Newly painted work can be carried like this.  The “T” section wood keeps canvases or boards separated and the work protected. The slight scars from the wood strip can be touched up back in the studio.  Nothing really needs to be purchased. Most of my outdoor equipment is homemade

Carrying Wet Canvases
Transporting wet panels outdoors

2 similar size boards or canvases make things easier. Use your ingenuity to separate them when they’ve been painted and please let me know if you come up with better ideas than this

Spring clips can be used instead of string.

Inside Rucksack

I use quite a small rucksack which I can still carry on my back on the bike for shorter runs. It does get a bit cramped for winter working though, and doesn’t really have enough extra space for spare woolies and food.

Painting at Laird's Loch

How to paint Outdoor Landscape

There is (or should be) no set way to paint, indoors or out and personally, I’d be very wary of any individual who suggested otherwise, or any commercial “method” which made similar claims. There is no substitute for having faith in yourself, observing and experimenting. Good painting is always an experiment so you might as well start off like this. You don’t need help, trust your senses.

Look at the very best examples of painting that you can find in galleries or museums and ignore mediocre work.

The greatest asset will always be your own powers of observation and if you want to paint landscape - go outside and look at it.

Other Outdoor Suggestions

Remain courteous at all times even when “Dad” informs you that “Emily” is a budding artist too.

When you leave, remember that you could have a blue and yellow nose. Check this before you go to the supermarket on the way home

If a dog sits on your palette it could be your own fault for patting it.

If you wear ex-army gear in winter you may scare people when you innocently burst through a hedge.

Don’t bring caterpillars home in your sketchbook.



Oil painting techniques - Things to avoid - large friendly cow

However friendly, this large bumptious animal is not going to help your painting.

- Periodically Look Behind You!