Plein Air Painting With Kids

As the weather warms up, we start looking for any excuse to take our everyday activities outside. We love having dinner outside, reading outside, and playing games outdoors. Taking art and crafts outside is another fun way to maximize your outdoor hours while doing something fun and productive. Today, Michelle Garret, California mom and founder of Wonder Club Explorers, is here sharing all about plein air painting – the act of painting outdoors! Whether you have a budding artist, a kid that loves nature, or just want a way to let your kids be artistic with less mess and clean up, plein air painting is for you! 

Slow down with plein air painting

As busy parents, we often find ourselves on the go, moving from one activity to the next, and collapsing into bed by the end of the day. Taking some time to slow things down and get outside is imperative for our kids (and for us). We know the benefits and importance of spending time in nature. While outdoors is the perfect place to be active and “run wild,” it’s also nice to have some downtime in nature to be thoughtful, observant, and creative! 

Plein air painting with kids is an amazing activity that combines the benefits of nature and art. It is a fun and relaxing way to spend a sunny afternoon with your children, away from the hustle and bustle of everyday activities. It lets them be still in nature, but also gives them something to do that engages their mind and stimulates their senses. Painting is one of my child’s favorite things to do outside, and I’m excited to share this activity with you today. Here’s all you need to know about the art of painting in the outdoors with kids.

Note: “plein” is pronounced like plain or plane

plein air painting with kids

What is plein air painting?

Painting en Plein air is a French term that means painting in open air and describes the act of painting outdoors. The plein air style of painting is outdoor art, in and around nature. It is a direct contrast to painting in a studio with fixed lights or objects. It’s not necessarily a style of art or with any particular medium, but a method of creating based on your location (outdoors) and subject (nature/landscape). 

Plein air painting is usually art that captures the nature around them. Whether that’s the full landscape you see before you, or maybe just a tree, flower, or garden in your yard. It’s creating art from nature right in front of your eyes, not from a photograph or memory. When an artist paints in nature, they can better observe landscapes and their changing conditions, be that weather or light.

Plein air painting is a sensory experience

We often hear of the importance of giving your children full-body sensory experiences. Plein air painting is definitely a sensory experience, which creates a 3-dimensional experience and helps your children create powerful memories. When you paint outdoors, the sounds, smells, and sights of your surroundings add inspiration to your creative pursuits. You can feel the breeze, hear the rustling leaves, and smell the freshly-cut grass. 

plein air painting art history book

Famous plein air artists

Painting outdoors is not a new activity, by any means. Here’s a little ditty for all of you kids who’ve ever taken an Art History 101 class. The artists who revolutionized this painting style in the late 1800s were known as Impressionists. The most renowned impressionists included Monet, Renoir, and Van Gogh. Those are some serious heavy hitters of the art world! Plein air painting with kids will put your child in very good company! 

Where to paint outdoors

The great thing about painting outside is that it can be done anywhere! The world is your canvas (literally). Interested in painting seascapes? Head to the beach! Interested in painting saguaros and sagebrush? Head to the desert! Interested in painting flowers and butterflies? Your backyard, local park, or nearby botanical garden may all be perfect locations!

The great thing about nature is that you have a lot of options for the subject matter. Outdoor painting sessions need not be as divergent as desert or ocean, but could simply be the backyard or neighborhood park. There’s no limit to where you can paint, you just have to decide where to start and give it a try! 

Plein Air painting event - tips for painting outdoors with kids

What do you need for Plein air painting with kids?

We like to think of plein air painting as a picnic with a side of art supplies. For an outdoor painting session, you’ll want to pack art supplies such as watercolors, acrylics, or colored pencils. As for your canvas, the thicker the paper, the better. Can you use a sketchbook, thick cardstock, a canvas, or even a large piece of cardboard (this is a great way to get some use out of all those boxes). You’ll also want some paper towels and a cup of water so you can clean your brushes in between colors. These are the basic items one needs for a Plein air painting adventure.

Serious hobbyists and professionals will sometimes carry with them a portable easel stand. Easels are not necessary, but they can be helpful when your kids want to be at eye level with their subject matter. You don’t need to rush out to your arts and crafts store to make an easel. Portable easels can be easily made out of everyday materials like this cardboard art easel or a rustic one made out of sticks and twine.

Whichever landscape is your destination, dress appropriately for your location and the weather. Bring sunscreen and a hat for sun protection, plus refreshments so you don’t have to interrupt your creative inspiration when thirst and hunger strike.

Plein air painting out and about

Plein air painting doesn’t require a lot of planning or preparation. For the most part, you can find objects and landscapes right outside your house that are perfect for painting. However, if you want to take the show on the road, we suggest picking a location in a park or near a river where there are a lot of trees, birds, and shade. This will not only give your child plenty of inspiration to paint but also make them feel like it’s more of a special occasion. 

If you’re away from home, bring a few gallons of water with you for cleaning brushes, and be sure to use non-toxic paints that won’t hurt nature around you. Bring a trash bag with you to remove any trash you may create (or see/find in the area) to leave your location better than you found it. 

Plein air painting koi pond

Artistic elements of plein air painting

You don’t have to worry too much about artistic elements with plein air painting with kids. However, if you have a child that’s into art or serious about their creation, there are a few things about art and observation that you can teach them to help them create their masterpieces. Here are few ways to help your child observe the area around them, decide what to paint, and how to capture it. 

The power of observation

Once you arrive at your destination, spend some time with your kids discussing and making observations about the landscape they’re going to paint. Younger kids might rev up their observation skills with a game of “I spy.” Older kids might jump right in with interesting observations about unusual things they see. The goal of spending time focusing on observation of their surroundings is that it helps them to hone in on what to paint.

Kids might become fascinated by the shape of the clouds in the sky, the shape of a tree, or the colors of the plants in a garden. By talking through all of the options in advance, kids strengthen their powers of observation and get better with decision-making skills at the same time.

Plein air painting seascape

Composition and rule of thirds

As you talk to your kids about what they see and what they may eventually paint, you’ll also want to help them understand composition. As you’re gazing out at your subject matter, talk to your kids about artistic considerations such as foreground, middle ground, and background. Talk about the elements in the landscape and how close they are to you (and to each other) – this will help them realize that things farther away look smaller than items nearby. 

Have them look at the horizon and where the landscape meets the sky.If you’re painting a beach landscape, talk about the horizon line where the water meets the sky. What do you see above the horizon? What does the water look like at the horizon (and is different than what it looks like up close)? Are there waves? Are people frolicking on the beach in front of you or out in the water? And as you guide their eyes to the sand, are there beach umbrellas or sand toys?

Spending time observing the elements of a landscape helps young artists to understand how to layout the composition on their own canvas. In art and photography, this is known as the “rule of thirds.” If you divide your canvas into thirds, either vertically or horizontally, the focal areas of your composition should line up at the meeting points of your imaginary grid. However, the rule of thirds is just a guideline, and your little artists may not want to be encumbered by rules when being creative.

Think about color 

Finally, have your child think about color when they’re plein air painting. Do the colors they see match the colors of their paint (or should they mix them a little to see if they can get a color a little more true to life)? Let them observe what happens when you mix colors. Let them add more water to their watercolor paints and see what happens. Experimentation is key and so much fun for kids. 

plein air painting rustic easel

Plein ol’ fun!

Plein air painting is a great creative outlet for young artists that puts kids outdoors and in nature. It’s also a great way to expand upon school topics such as art history, geography, atmospheric sciences, horticulture, earth science, and more. Kids of all ages (and adults) can benefit from spending time in nature, being still and observant, and the creative act of painting outdoors.

Plein Air painting Wonder Club Explorer Merit Patch

Earn a patch for painting

We hope you are inspired to pack some paints and head outdoors with the kids. We are so passionate about plein air painting that my company, Wonder Club Explorers, has created a Plein Air Painter Merit Patch. This is just one of the 18 patches offered with the Wonder Club Explorers Adventure Kit. Every artist has a different perspective, and it’s so much fun to watch kids paint, create and express themselves. Wonder Club Explorers is an independent scouting program for kids without all the hassle of meetings and fundraising.

So, get out there, have fun and remember to tag us on social media using the hashtags #runwildmychild and #wonderclubexplorers on your next Plein air adventure!

About the author

Michelle spends her days working on projects to improve the quality of life for the citizens of her community and her nights reading books to her 6-year-old about every kind of dinosaur there ever was (there are 900 validated species, in case you’re wondering). Together with her son, Michelle created Wonder Club Explorers, a company to inspire wonder and curiosity in kids. She carves out time for herself on the weekends as an early morning exerciser and metalsmith of fine jewelry. Michelle is also the co-host of the Run Wild My Child podcast. She resides in Altadena with her husband and son amongst California Oak trees and a stone’s throw of the San Gabriel Mountains. 

You can find Michelle online in the following locations:
Instagram: @wonderclubexplorers
RWMC posts: Michelle Garrett

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