Plein air painting tips from an artist trip to Santa Fe

Plein air (French for “outdoors”) painting sounds lovely, doesn’t it? Grab your painting supplies, find a pretty spot, and lose yourself in the moment. A group of Hallmark Artists set aside an art break during a trip to Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument in Santa Fe. Here, they share plein air painting tips for getting the most out of your day.

Hallmark artists at Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument

Amber G., Content Leader: Santa Fe is the ideal girl trip. There’s beautiful scenery, so many art museums and galleries—like the International Folk Art Museum—and great restaurants. Our focus of the trip was to get inspired and make some art.

Mirna S., Illustrator: We wanted to include a few of different disciplines—photographer, trends, illustrators—so we’d have different perspectives.

Erin M., Photographer: I was there to capture the ways artists can interact with the natural environment, while they were painting and sketching. And hopefully to get some landscape and scenic photography to use on our products.

Tuesday: I was to go and consider how we’d interpret what we were seeing and experiencing through a Hallmark brand lens. Erin and I both went with tasks.

Sam L., Illustrator: Our day was planned around hiking and plein air painting. But it was more about the experience and slowing down, rather than making the perfect painting.

Hallmark artists Amber, Mirna, Sam, and Tuesday at Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument.
Hallmark artists Amber, Mirna, Sam, and Tuesday at Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument. Not pictured: Erin, because she took all the photos.

How to plan a day of plein air painting

What do you want to get out of your day? Our artists made it about the experience more than the result. More plein air painting tips to consider:

  • Try something new
  • Practice your craft
  • Just get away

Whatever you decide, you’ll enjoy it more if you keep it simple.

 Mirna: Pack as lightly as you can. Pack materials you’re comfortable with. Plein air painting is challenging as it is, so do what you can to simplify—limit your palette and materials. A small sketchbook, mini gouache palette, and a brush that holds its own water are my trusted tools.

Plein air painting supplies

  • Simple paint palette (grab this one, or learn how to make your own)
  • Brushes
  • Pencil
  • Water bottle
  • Sketch or watercolor book

Santa Fe Art |

Step one: Invite your people

Who’s coming along? Sure, you can go by yourself…but why not make it a group outing? Go with:

  • Your girlfriends and do your own things—make, read, meditate, journal
  • Your kids, and see the space through their eyes
  • Your artist friends—and paint, draw, and write poetry

Mirna: We’re all in a stage of very heavy mom-hood. So on this trip, it was good to shut off worrying about how to make everyone else happy.

Tuesday: There was definitely a collaborative element to our trip. We’d play off each other, inspire each other, and trust each other.

Santa Fe Art |

Step two: Pick a space

Where are you going? Look for an outdoor space that inspires you.

  • Plan a painting day as part of a bigger vacation. Hike, paddle, or bike your way to the perfect spot.
  • Look for different environments within your own city: ponds or lakes, hilly hiking trails, urban rooftops, wide open spaces.
  • Reacquaint yourself with the familiar: Explore your neighborhood or a few blocks around your workplace with your painting supplies in hand.

Sam: Just go out to your backyard.

Mirna: There’s a little adventure in just getting out of your studio.

Santa Fe Art |

Santa Fe Art |

Step three: Get out there

You’ve got your people and your place—now it’s time to get going. When will you paint?

  • Take advantage of the “golden hour” for light, just after sunrise or before sunset.
  • Eat a picnic lunch, then take the afternoon to create.
  • Or paint the colors of the sunrise or evening sky.

Bonus: The time of day will create an unmistakable, unforgettable vibe for your painting.

Tuesday: For example, one of the days, Erin made us wake up really early—

Erin: For photography, it’s all about the light. Which is why I made them leave the house at like—

Tuesday: 4:30

Erin: 5:30.

Tuesday: But the peacefulness was magical.

Erin: If you want to get something special, you have to think about the time of day when the light is special. 

Santa Fe Art |

Santa Fe Art |

Step four: Notice everything

Once you get there, breathe in. Breathe out. And look around.

Take it all in: Vegetation, light, landscape, shadows. Exercise your observation skills.

Erin: It’s about thinking like an artist and noticing different details.

Sam: It’s a way to slow down.

Tuesday: It forces you to engage.

Paint for a while, then move. Trust your instincts. Walk until someone says, “I want to paint this.”

Santa Fe Art |

Santa Fe Art |

Step five: Start painting

More plein air painting tips


Mirna: Even the sky in Santa Fe seemed to be different than in Kansas City. I wanted to capture the different colors.

Sam: You could start by making a color palette with paint swashes to practice basic observation of your surroundings.

Amber: And you’re capturing a feeling—not going for perfection.

Santa Fe Art |

Sam: Because Tent Rock is eroded rock, it looked like brush strokes already. So that’s what I was trying to capture. I really wanted to get the feeling of the brushy look across the rocks.

Mirna: You can break things down into color blocks. Squint and break it down by shape and color. If that’s too complex, I’ll zero down on a little thing in front of me and paint that to loosen up or relax.

Erin: That would be great to encourage in their kids—what colors do you see?

Santa Fe Art |

Santa Fe Art |


Tuesday: It’s easy to get a little overwhelmed by all your junk, versus being in the moment and experiencing it.

Sam: You might start by taking note of where you are, the time of day, and who you’re with. Get started with a loose pencil sketch to figure out your landscape composition—or just focus on one small thing, like a plant. 

Mirna: Focus on one part of the landscape: the light or colors or mood you want to capture. Every time I do paint from nature, I record the memory of that day. It’s almost like a little journal of your travels.

Santa Fe Art |

Santa Fe Art |


Tuesday: I listed stuff I intended to come back and paint.

Erin: Note-taking or sketching makes you remember things better. And you can photograph things to paint later, if you don’t have time to sit and paint.

MirnaTo me, plein air is about the study of something—not the result. I repainted some things later in the studio, but the observations made on the trip were crucial and made me think about my colors, textures, and shapes differently.

Santa Fe Art |

Santa Fe Art |

Santa Fe Art |

Inspired to take your supplies outside for some plein air painting? Or want to share some plein air painting tips of your own? You know we want to see it. Tag us on Instagram @think.make.share.



Leave a Comment

  1. 7.10.19 | Reply

    This is one of my favorite posts EVER!! Oh my goodness!! So well done. <3

    • 7.10.19 | Reply
      Kelly C. wrote:

      Thank you Maddie!!

  2. 7.18.19 | Reply
    Frans Adam wrote:

    Like this

  3. 7.18.19 | Reply

    So much fun from which beauty results.

  4. 6.22.20 | Reply
    Nancy wrote:

    Thank you for that! Helpful suggestions. I just signed ip for a summer class and purchased some pastels but I am new to this so…..wish me luck!

    • 6.24.20 | Reply
      Kelly C. wrote:

      Best of luck! Glad to help 🙂