Painting outdoors - Carrie Curran
Carrie Curran, “Indiana Farm,” 18 x 24 in., inspired by childhood paintings of a barn

Moments while painting outdoors can become inspiration for a lifetime of beginning a practice of gratitude, appreciating the “little things” and seeing your palette as half full.

Painting Outdoors: Inspiration for Life
Learn from Carrie in person at the upcoming Plein Air Convention & Expo, May 2-6, in Westminster (Denver), Colorado!

I believe outdoor painting can be an inspiration for anyone who tries it, literally opening their eyes to their surroundings and to be mindful or in the present moment. Additionally, those moments can become inspiration for a lifetime of beginning a practice of gratitude, appreciating the “little things” and seeing your palette as half full.

Discovering Mindfulness and Finding Your Passion

Once you embrace the challenge of becoming a plein air painter, the passion can override mundane responsibilities and taking care of business. When painting outdoors, you find yourself so present with a heightened awareness, focused only on what you are painting and seeing. This type of mindset and flow really makes you escape; even just pausing to find the restroom can be a tall task! One example indicative of this passion was a time when I painted up to the absolute last bit of daylight and forgot a bucket of supplies in the desert, having to retrieve it the following morning with children in tow — even though the kids did love seeing mommy’s work spot!

Painting outdoors - Carrie Curran
Painting outdoors with passion until dark and leaving painting supplies in the desert for helpers to find the next morning, 1995

Over 25 years ago on a Thanksgiving Day family hike, I noticed all of the colors surrounding us. All the soft purples and warm grays peering through the trees captured my attention, and I shared my mindful moments with my family members. To this day they still remind me of when I drew everyone’s attention to the present and how they now see colors in nature more distinctly. By using your observation skills, you are naturally practicing mindfulness, which will in turn make you a more effective plein air painter.

Like playing outdoors as a child, the idea of being surrounded by nature when painting has continued my childlike “no sense of time or space” feeling in my later years.

I love reminiscing about the simplicity of just being enveloped by nature and how it completely consumes my being for the present moment, taking away any other worries of the past or future. This grounding experience is extremely interconnected to plein air painting for me! How fun this can be for you, too — invite your inner child out to play!

Expressing Emotion and Feeling Gratitude

The goal for outdoor painting is to observe, document, enjoy, and appreciate — not to focus only on representation. The best part of the plein air journey is what you will discover years down the road … you will experience similar feelings and emotions from wherever you were or whatever you were thinking at the time you created your painting! This is why travel journals or plein air painting in general are so special. There is an emotional aspect to this that keeps you motivated and inspired to continue chasing that feeling.

Inspiration for artists - Carrie Curran
Carrie Curran, “Monterey Bay,” oil, 6 x 8 in., quick sketch from hotel room balcony

No Pressure, Just Look Outside the Window!

Plein air painting doesn’t always have to be a big excursion to find your subject matter. Sometimes the inspiration we need is literally right in our own backyard. When I was a child in seventh grade art class, I found myself enamored of a barn I could see through the classroom window. Everyone in the class was instructed to create something from their imagination. An hour later, I had created a barn painting that ended up being entered in a statewide competition, winning an award. Sometimes all you need to spark your imagination is conveniently just right in front of you!

My idea of painting from outside the window has inspired me when traveling. I often stare out of hotel windows either to get warmed up for painting or wind down from a week of painting. Regardless, mostly these window paintings are just observational and documenting what I am seeing in simple form. Because there is no elaborate set-up or forced thinking of what the painting should end up looking like, the process is more natural and enjoyable without all the pressure.

Another example of simple inspiration is when as a teenager I sat with a small watercolor set and enjoyed painting morning sunrises through the fall trees over the pond of my childhood farm in Indiana. I painted simple, naive studies of one particular scene over and over. The repeated sessions, sometimes maybe only an hour or so, became the everlasting inspiration for a lot of my studio work and current works. I continue to be inspired by small moments like that. In fact, I just did a large commission piece of those same fall trees for a corporate group’s lobby showpiece.

Painting outdoors - Carrie Curran
Carrie Curran, “Autumn Bliss,” acrylic, 60 x 84 in., inspired by childhood piece (inset)

The Beauty of Imperfection and Starting Small

Start off by getting some small sketching done by observing and documenting what you are directly seeing. I carry a small travel set of watercolors with pen and pencil. Remember that the end result does not matter. No one has to see your preliminary works! They are for you to self-teach your mind to focus only on what you are seeing. Invite yourself to find beauty in that which is not perfect (often that which is distorted has more character anyway!). Make the goal the process and experience, not the end result.

Painting outdoors - Carrie Curran
Watercolor sketches, painted while looking out my window.
Lake Michigan from the Indiana Dunes, and the Broadmoor Resort, Colorado
Enjoying an afternoon of lounging while sketching in sunny California, 2012


Lastly, be patient with and kind to yourself! What would you say to a loved one who is just beginning to paint and feels unsure or self-critical of their work? Speak to yourself with the same gentle, reassuring words in a positive and encouraging tone and just enjoy the moment!

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