The Thinking Woman's Almanac
From Annie Shaver-Crandell's Studio
July 2013
Plein Air with Annie Shaver-Crandell
Plein Air with Annie Shaver-Crandell

In this issue
Plein Air vs.The Studio Life
The Video
Pochard Box - Tools
Landscapes completed in NYC studio
FAQ's for Annie
Upcoming Events & Press
Next Newsletter & Archives

Updates - News from Annie's Studio

July 2013
Plein Air vs. The Studio Life

It's plein air season, a time of year I especially enjoy, since it gives me creative options as a painter. The term means "in the out-of-doors" and refers to the practice of painting on-site, as opposed to working in a studio. For  landscape artists, the benefits of plein air painting include access to more oxygen, natural light, larger visual targets, sometimes birdsong and fragrances of nature, and often really great places for picnics during breaks in the work.  For urban artists, not all of these resources are available, and there are some genuine hazards in the form of exhaust fumes, traffic, more inquisitive people interrupting the work, and personal safety, but there are still great opportunities and advantages in both settings. 

Though I have left the full time practice of art history, my first profession, still I can't resist a couple of observations about the development of plein air painting as we know it. Before the 17th century in Europe, landscape or cityscape almost always appeared in paintings as background material only, not as a principal subject.  This changed in the 17th century, especially in the hands of artists like Claude Lorrain, who worked  apparently on-site in ink to create compositions and then translated these into large oil paintings in which landscape stepped out onto center stage as a painting genre. Artists might draw out-of-doors, and, in the 19th century, an artist such as J.M.W. Turner was able to paint in watercolor on-site with watercolors compounded in cake form carried in a small box. 

Up until 1841, painters working in the oil medium who wished to store their paints had to keep them in pig bladders tied with string. Once pierced for one-time use, any remaining paint might spoil or dry out.  A North Carolinian named John G. Rand, a portrait painter based in London, became so frustrated by the inability to keep his oil paints fresh that he invented the paint tube as we know it, a tin cylinder that could be crimped at one end and capped at the other.  This revolutionized the way that oil paints could be handled, and permitted painters to load boxes with a wide variety of the new pigments created around the same time by enterprising scientists and go out to paint en plein air. Nowadays we have not only oil in tubes, but also watercolor, gouache and acrylic paints that can be carried away from a studio to an outdoor location. Each medium requires its own ancillary supplies and tools, but the tube with a cap to seal its contents can take its place -- at least for some of us  -- with the wheel, the lever and the stirrup as an aid to mobility.

The Video

In the video in this newsletter, you will see me making use of watercolor paint in tubes, as well as of a pochade box, one of many options we have for carrying supplies in the field. I have bought all three of my pochade boxes (all different sizes), from Judsons Art Outfitters, a source I recommend, as the products have been designed by people who also use them. The boxes can be supplemented with accessories for any medium one wants to work in, which also gives flexibility to an artist who works in several media.  When using the boxes for watercolor, which I am primarily at the moment, I especially appreciate the plastic watercolor palettes designed by artist Cathy Goodale that exactly fit several sizes of the boxes and

French easel

Another option, which I use for larger work, is called a French easel. This is a folding easel designed by Roger Jullian while a World War II prisoner in Europe that has also aided in the mobility of painters going out of doors to work.  I will have more to say about French easels in a future newsletter but, in the meantime, want to recommend the YouTube video by noted artist Michael Chesley Johnson, FSAC,MPAC, called Prepare for Plein Air: The French Easel, in which the artist demonstrates correctly and clearly how to unfold and set up a French easel.  And while I'm at it, let me also recommend Mr. Johnson's recent article "Livin' Large," The Artist's Magazine, July/August 2013, pp. 24-31, on strategies for working large out-of-doors
Landscapes Completed in my NYC Studio

Anyway, plein air is fun, good for one's health, and seasonal. It sometimes yields looser, fresher looking work, and sometimes provides inspiration for more finished work done in the studio. 

These two paintings of hydrangeas blooming in the Liz Christy Bowery Houston Community Garden in Manhattan show a typical difference between something done in the field and a more finished piece done in the studio where I could be working on another project while drying multiple layers of very saturated pigment.

Necessary speed of execution and relatively small size are characteristic of many plein air paintings.  But sometimes we want to do more a detailed version of a subject, or have had to abandon a plein air session because of weather or time.  The results can look decidedly different. 

Here are some paintings done on-site compared with versions done in my studio.
july 1 annie
1. Hydrangeas and Adirondack Chair, Liz Christy Garden,
watercolor, 5 1/8 x 7 1/8" -- plein air version (completed in studio)
july 2 annie
2. Hydrangeas and Adirondack Chair, Liz Christy Garden, watercolor,
7" x 18 1/2", 2013 -- studio version
july 3 annie
3. Salt Marsh, Sunken Meadow, watercolor, 5" x 11",  2013
-- plein air version
july 4 annie
4. Salt Marsh, Sunken Meadow, watercolor, 5" x 11", 2013
-- plein air version
july 5 annie
5. Salt Marsh, Sunken Meadow, watercolor, 6 3"8 x 14 1/8", 2011
-- studio version

FAQ's for Annie

Some frequently asked questions about plein air watercolor

Q. Any advice about water for painting in watercolor?
A: Carry all the water you plan to use, and, if possible, an empty container to pack out the used painting water.  Never paint with water from streams or lakes, and never put a paint brush in your mouth to shape it.  The worst story I ever read about the dire consequences of this combination concerned a man who contracted nearly fatal amoebic dysentery from Andean water because he was too polite to spit it out in front of a group of children. Conditions need not be so extreme, but, as far as the archival quality of your finished painting is concerned, you don't know if "wild" water contains something that would cause later deterioration of the work.
Just use common sense.

Q.  What about dry watercolor in cakes vs. tubes?
A.  There are advantages to each mode of presentation.  Cake watercolor is put up in pans or half-pans, depending on the size of the box they are packed in. Besides the obvious advantage of weighing less than paint in tubes, cake watercolor is compounded expressly to be reconstituted with water. Tube watercolor, on the other hand, is easier to mix up, as it is already a bit pasty when squeezed out.  Great for large areas and for intense colors, much faster to use.  But if you are carrying your kit over a difficult route, you may prefer the light weight of cake watercolor in its own box. Besides the offerings of large companies that sell watercolors, there is one I can recommend, a sturdy watercolor box made and sold by  Kremer Pigments in the Manhattan store near me, you can also buy an empty box and fill it with your own choice of pans of paint -- a la carte, as it were.

Q  Any advice about paper?  
A. Not so much.  Practice at home with the various papers available to you so you'll have what you want when you get outside. Papers are generally sold in one of three finishes -- hot press, cold press and rough.  Your choice. Carrying watercolor paper has been made fairly easy for plein air artists to use because of the availability of paper in blocks, which are glued down on all four sides. This allows you to paint on a sheet that will remain stretched flat until you have finished. The manufacturer generally leaves a small area of each block unglued, so that you can slip in a palette knife to remove your finished painting. And by the way, that palette knife also can come in handy if your brush should shed a hair onto the painting, or if you want to scoop a blob of paint on your palette into a mixing well.
Q.  Any other tips about paper preparations before going out to paint?
A.  Before going out, you should tape with artist's tape the edges of the first sheet on any block or pad of paper you intend to use.  This gives a painting a finished edge that allows your framer to mat the finished work easily, and also protects the rest of the block or pad of paper from water damage.  You can also lay washes of color ahead of time before going out, so that you can make maximum use of the light conditions you will have on-site. Plein air work needs to go fast because the light cannot be controlled. -- like photography, it's really a crime of opportunity.  Another suggestion is always to pack a plastic bag large enough to hold the largest painting you might be working on.  If you are caught in wet weather, the painting goes immediately into the bag, and then you can pack up the rest of your equipment, knowing that you have saved the most important thing, your work.  Always separate dry things from potentially wet things when packing (paper towels, tape, fresh paper in one area, brushes, water, collapsible buckets, palette in another).

Q: I see you wear some rather unexpected items when you go plein airing.  Could you explain the reasons for some of them?  
A. You must be referring to my boots, long pants, long sleeves and hat, even when the temperature would suggest shorts and sandals. These are not a fashion statement. I first went out to paint in western Montana, where I was advised to have waterproof boots with a good tread so as to be able to move easily across any terrain while scouting for my painting site.  There can be rocks and sometimes snakes in some of the places where I like to paint.  The hat, long pants and sleeves are for protection from sun, brambles and insects (no painting session here in the Northeast is complete without a tick-check).  The hat is a Tilley T2, their broadest-brimmed cotton hat, which has the further advantage of the company's wonderful slipknot system for its strap. This allows the hat to stay on in a stiff wind.

Q: I've heard that you encountered a bear once while painting.  Is this why you carry pliers with your painting kit?
A: The bear part is true, but  the pliers are actually to loosen stuck tube caps, and sometimes also to address problems with the hardware of my easel.
Other questions about plein air strategies?  Please feel free to write me at
I accept commissions for landscape views as well. In Isola dei Pescatori I adapted the client's original vertical photograph into the horizontal format requested, and supplemented watercolor with gouache, an opaque cousin of watercolor, and watercolor pencils to obtain a more detailed image.
solad de Pescatori  

Isola dei Pescatori, 14 1/2 x 21 in, 2013
A case in point, my client had originally planned to hang Isola de Pescatori, a view from Lago Maggiore in Italy, in a bathroom, but sent the following note after receiving the painting:


Last night I sat across the room gazing "Isola" propped up on the buffet, and I suddenly was struck by its 3-dimensional effects.  The waters beyond the balcony iron work were actually moving.  This may change my whole concept of the piece, and I may end up re-organizing my whole space around it.  It represents an important moment in my life.  My soul was in desperate need of restoration, and this beautiful spot on the planet and the companionship of 2 favorite relatives speeded the process. 
Thanks for the Memories.
ERM, Florida


Upcoming Events and News

I will be leading a plein air landscape day on August 3 (rain date August 4) at the Planting Fields Arboretum in Oyster Bay, Long Island. This is a beautiful Long Island estate with gorgeous grounds designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, greenhouses full of fabulous plants and beautiful trees. The State of New York now operates this site.  The event is free with an $8.00 per car parking fee. Reservations required; Jenifer Lavella; 516-922-8678; [email protected]. Please join us.

Annie's work may be seen at  


Next Newsletter Issue

Working in oil out of doors; what to do after a painting is finished



To view our past newsletters click below


Stay connected with Annie

Please contact Julianna for more information at
[email protected] and 212-464-7519

2013 Annie Shaver-Crandell