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Sitting down in a crowd of people and spreading your paints, paper and brushes in front of you is a sure way to attract attention. This can be interesting at times, but often just a distraction. Many students have asked for help coping with what at times can feel like a public performance. Fortunately there are a number things you can do to make yourself less conspicuous and take the pressure off painting in public

Before heading off into a crowd of people armed with your paints and brushes, it is a good idea to first go out painting with a group or a couple of friends. Having someone painting with you certainly takes the pressure off and allows you to build confidence



I always consider two things when I am painting on location. My first option is to find an interesting subject, then find a suitable spot to paint from. If this is not possible I will look for a comfortable place to paint (shaded with somewhere to sit) and from there, look around for an interesting subject. It is surprising what you find to paint once you sit down and start to look.


Don't fall into the trap of taking all your regular watercolour gear "just in case you need it," most of the time you won't. It just takes up space and makes creating quick, spontaneous studies more difficult. When I paint on location the equipment at left is all I need.
All my painting gear fits into the little bag at the top right.
This then fits into the canvas bag at left along with a camera, jacket, map, passport etc.
The painting equipment consists of 3 brushes and a pen. These are protected in a
cover made from a folded piece of card held in place with a clip.
I have a little plastic box containing 6 tubes of paint. A bottle of ink and 2 sketch pads (one contains 300gsm Arches paper, the other, cheap cartridge paper)



A folding palette and a bottle of water and a cup. Not seen are a few pencils, a small container of PVA glue for sticking stuff into the sketch book, and an old hand towel.
There are all sorts of intricate folding, collapsible devices designed to make painting outside easier, but I prefer the simple approach - mobile and inconspicuous. If I plan to do a lot of walking or I am carrying a larger  SLR camera I take a smaller version of the gear above



The fact that you are working outside poses various problems. The light you are working in is rarely optimum and can change from minute to minute. You have to cope with wind, rain, dust, passing traffic, inquisitive onlookers, over friendly animals and all sorts of other minor inconveniences, but the thrill of successfully executing a spontaneous 10 minute study under these conditions makes it well worth while. The secret is not to be too ambitious. Pick a simple subject or if the subject is complex, reduce it to a few simple shapes and then add detail to these.

If you are going to be painting in front of passing critics, choose a subject you are familiar or confident with. Sometimes concentrating on a small detail such as a door, window, pot plant etc. will produce a better result than trying for something grand and panoramic.

I generally prefer to do my finished work in the studio, but love doing quick loose studies on location. For this reason I like to work in sketch books rather than blocks or loose sheets. The sketch books then become a complete work in themselves and a great stepping stone for later finished paintings.

The sketch book pages below are a selection from an Italian sketchbook. They range from reasonably detailed studies to rough, abstract rambling's. Some of the sketches become more like diary entries, but as the book develops it becomes a fascinating document that will trigger ideas and bring back memories for years to come.


If you will be painting in an area where spectators are likely, you want you work to look reasonable from start to finish. I find drawing in a rough margin 1/2" from the edge right around the page keeps the painting looking reasonably tidy and contained right from the start.

Limited palette sketches are great for on the spot painting. I often use black gouache and ink (Black or Burnt Sienna). The result is stark and dramatic and can be animated with a small suggestion of colour right at the end.

Spend some time observing your subject even before unpacking your paints. It is possible to do quite a bit of planning before you start. Decisions about where the centre of interest will be, how to place the subject on the page, where to leave empty or understated areas can all be made before putting pencil to paper and can save you from later difficulty.

Plan to work quickly. Light and shadows can change in minutes - get as much as you can down as quickly as possible. All the big major shapes washed in first then go back and add the major details. The fine detail can be put in towards the end.

Don't be put off by passing spectators. I have produced some tragic messes in full view of the public and also some little watercolours I have been really thrilled with. I find half the time I get praise from people passing by for the rubbish and questioned about my sanity for the paintings I am happy with - which just goes to prove everyone has their own opinion!
I have been haggled into selling paintings, given advice, offered criticism and praise, told life stories and family histories and even been forced by a six year old kid to put his bike in a painting. As long as you don't take it too seriously it is great fun

Look around before you leave. It is easy to walk off and leave a tube of paint, bundle of brushes or favourite pencil behind, especially if you are in long grass or thick bush. I have had to make return trips to painting spots to retrieve equipment, so I now make it a habit to look around before I leave - even if I'm sure everything has been packed.

So gather up a few things, head outside and splash some paint around. It will make you look at things in a whole new way!


You may also be interested in a Painting On Location article on

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