How to plan a fun day of En Plein Air Painting with your kids

Spring is here, and everyone is ready to be outside. Why not take the paints with you? En plein air painting is just a fancy French way to say "painting in the open air." It's been around for centuries, but was really popularized by Impressionist painters.

Painting outdoors has so many great advantages... especially for kids.

There is something sort of magical about being surrounded by your subject. Everywhere you turn, there are new things to see, arrangements to consider, and decisions to be made about what to explore on your canvas (or paper). This three dimensional experience really places the artist inside their composition, bringing the smells, sounds, taste and feel of the place within reach. This experiential way of making art results in a painting that reflects an intense observation and attention to detail, and is probably much more “real” than what they usually paint from their imagination.

Everything that is painted directly and on the spot has always a strength, a power, a vivacity of touch which one cannot recover in the studio... three strokes of a brush in front of nature are worth more than two days of work at the easel.
— Eugene Boudin

En plein air paintings in the city, in nature, and at the sea

Wherever you live, you have amazing locations right at your fingertips. Take advantage of your "natural" surroundings. If you live in the city, sit at a sidewalk cafe outside and paint the people and the architecture. If you live closer to nature, go there. If you live near the beach, spend a day in the windy sea air painting birds, clouds, sand and crashing waves. Each place has amazing qualities and fun nuances.


More to explore...

EDOUARD MANET: Monet Painting in his Studio Boat

GEORGES SEURAT: A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte

PIERRE-AUGUSTE RENOIR: Bal du moulin de la Galette

GUSTAVE CAILLEBOTTE: "Paris Street, rainy day"

CLAUDE MONET: "Bridge over a Pond of Water Lilies" 


It might sound a exhausting to bring along all those art supplies on a big outdoor expedition, but it doesn’t have to be. I’ve put together a little list of the essentials, and some fun optional extras that you can pack in just a few minutes and be on your way to a fun day of en plein air painting that you and your child will remember for years to come. You can join the Art History Kids mailing list here for free and instant access to the Resource Library where you can download and print the checklist, along with LOADS of other fun project ideas, games and printables.

There are numerous benefits and advantages to en plein air painting. My favorites are…

A Change in scenery

Sometimes a day away from the house can be a great way to re-set the mood when things get grumpy or stale. Early spring is especially beautiful, and a perfect time to plan a special day out in nature.


Mastering the art of observation

When you are surrounded by 11 million things to look at, you have to choose your composition carefully. “Will I paint the trees and the clouds, or should I turn around and paint the flowing water in that stream and the reflection of the sky in the water?” Once they’ve decided what to paint, you children will need to study their subject closely to capture it in their art. This careful and deliberate looking is a great foundation for so many academic activities, and also just a great life skill to have in general. Decision making, analytical thinking, and observation are great byproducts of en plein air painting.


Eliminating distractions

There are so many things vying for our attention at home, but out in nature there is nothing to do but relax, enjoy the day, and paint. Focus like this is a rare and beautiful thing.


Working with variables

When you paint outdoors, your subject may change. Light and shadows move throughout the day, transforming your view into a drastically different composition in just a matter of hours. There is also a time limit to be aware of. You’ll need to do a bit of planning to make sure you’ll finish your art before it gets too dark. For young artists who usually labor endlessly over their work, this may be a difficult exercise at first, but ultimately really freeing. En plain air painting necessitates a quickness that results in a spontaneous and energetic image.


Making the most of it

Your day out can be just the beginning of a new unit study on the water cycle, clouds, different types of trees, a new piece of literature that relates to your painting location, a geography lesson… or anything else you can imagine. Make it a really memorable lesson by incorporating learning in more than one subject, and the connections will make an impression and be long lasting.


So now that you’re all excited to get started, where do you start?


Choose a location

Where will you go, and why?


Find your composition

What will you paint, and how will you paint it? Maybe you won’t paint at all. Bring along colored pencils, markers, or pastels for a slightly easier on-the-go art experience.


Plan your exit strategy.

How will you carry your wet art to the car? Or will you end your day with a long picnic to give your painting time to dry? Think through a plan for leaving to prepare for easy clean-up and transportation, and end the day on a happy note.


Bonus Tips for an extra fun experience


Keep it small

Bring a small canvas or notepad for your first few trips, and increase the size of your art as you get more comfortable with the process of painting outside. Also, keep the travel distance small at first. There’s nothing wrong with painting at the local park, a sidewalk cafe, or even in your own backyard.


No expectations

There is no right or wrong in children’s art. The main goal is to nurture their creative curiosity, and encourage them in their endeavors. If you go to the beach to paint the ocean, and they decide to paint a picture of them with their cat, that’s okay. 


Enjoy the process

The process is always more important than the finished product. 


Plan. Plan. Plan. 

The more you plan ahead of time, the easier it will be when you’re out there and ready to have fun. Remember to get the checklist to make your prep a little bit easier!

Tell me all about it!

Let me know what you think! I love to hear from you. Have you recently tried en plein air painting? Or are you an old pro who's been doing this for years? I hope you find some helpful ideas here, and if you have any other suggestions, I'd love to hear about them. Leave me a comment below, find me on social media or send me an email.