Summer is in full swing and you’ve likely been out plein air painting to make the most of it when possible — I hope so, anyway!
Because I’ve had melanoma*, a quickly moving form of skin cancer, I see a dermatologist on a regular basis, and protecting my skin from the sun is often on my mind. If you’re painting en plein air, chances are you’re spending hours at a time outside doing everything from unloading your gear, walking to your chosen spot, sketching, painting, and loading up. That can add up to a lot of time under the sun.
“The thing I never realized is how deadly skin cancer can be,” said our publisher, Eric Rhoads, who has had skin cancers removed. “I always used to think of it as just something they cut off your skin, till I met someone whose husband (a painter) died from skin cancer, even though he had been treating it. We have to be careful.”
To help you stay protected from sun damage, consider these options from me and some of your favorite plein air painters. Keep reading also to find out how you can win a 4-count set of Aspen Travel Brushes from Dixon Ticonderoga!
Sun Protection for Plein Air Painting
1. Sunblock on your face and any other exposed skin. My dermatologist recommends a 50 SPF. I tried a sunblock that was made for babies and it was so thick that my face looked ghost-white with it, so now I just go with a regular, sensitive-skin lotion. When I’m outside for an extended time and sleeveless, I use a Sport version of lotion sunblock for areas that tend to burn, such as my shoulders, and use a convenient spray sunblock for arms, legs, and tops of feet.
More on SPF, from plein air painter and former doctor Mary Garrish: “You will see the term ‘SPF’ — or UVP for ultraviolet protection on some clothes — which is a relative measure of how well it protects you from the UV (ultraviolet) radiation that causes skin damage and cancer. The higher the SPF number, the greater the protection.
“Note that there are UV-A and UV-B type radiation; most sunscreens concentrate on UV-B. Look for a sunscreen that contains both zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. This will block both UV-A and UV-B rays. A good one that you can find at Target is Blue Lizard sensitive mineral sunscreen with an SPF of 50+.
“But understand that SPF is not a direct measurement of how long you can stay in the sun, as different skin types and the direct sun radiation itself are so variable. Look for large numbers of SPF 30 or higher. Also note that a very high SPF (like 70 or so) is not necessarily worth paying for, as it blocks little more than a product with an SPF of 30-50.
“Lastly, remember to lather back up frequently, as even sweat can affect the protection of the sunscreen.”
2. Everyone will tell you to wear a hat! “Please bring a big hat,” Joe Anna Arnett said in a recent interview about painting at the Plein Air Convention in New Mexico. “You’ve got to shade your eyes. You’ll notice that the local artists are the ones with the really big hats. You want to shade your eyes, but the light can bounce.”
3. Sunglasses don’t just look cool — they can help protect your eyes. But should you paint with sunglasses on? “I have been known to wear sunglasses when I paint on really bright days, but it’s going to mess with values and colors, therefore I try to avoid it,” Eric said. “Light can be damaging to your eyes, so I wear glasses most of the time I’m not painting, looking for spots, etc.”
4. Wear an SPF shirt. I often wear a light, lightly colored, long-sleeved SPF shirt over my tank top or T-shirt. I’ll even wear it when driving to protect my arms from the sun in the car. When you get an SPF shirt, the fabric is often breathable — don’t let the long sleeves keep you from giving it a try. You could even consider having one as your paint shirt, just as you would have a paint apron.
5. Remember your lips and look for an SPF lip balm. I once had a slight burn on my lips back in the day, but it happened when I was a fire eater and my rule was “safety third” (all true) — but note that it was not from the sun because I’m a good girl and I use an SPF lip balm.
6. As mentioned above, stay in the shade. If you can’t find a shade area where you want to set up, consider an umbrella. I recently shared this article on the best umbrellas for plein air painting, and it’s a good place to start getting an idea of what you might want.
Eric adds that if you’re unable to be completely in the shade, at least set everything up so the top of your easel is shadowing the palette and the canvas. “If you paint in the sun,” he said, “your values will be darker than you think once you bring the painting indoors. I do put my Value Specs on when painting an underpainting and when checking my values.”
A couple of other things to remember:
Stay hydrated (you know that already, but still!).
And: water reflects the sun. I know many of you love standing next to a beautiful lake, a flowing river, or the mother of all bodies of water — the ocean. Do so, enjoy it, and be aware of the glare.
Speaking of glare, here’s something to consider from an article by John Parks, in which he interviews Joseph McGurl about painting:
McGurl has a fascination with reflected glare that seems to involve his somewhat spiritual attitude toward light. “I’m actually painting something that doesn’t exist,” he says. “If you move to the side, it disappears. It’s not an object, and it’s moving, and it’s impossible to match because all you have to work with is white paint. The challenge is: how do you make this white paint look like it glows? And of course the answer is that you have to adjust all the adjacent color values and you have to do things in the right proportions. If you put in too much glare, it’s just going to look like white paint. So how much glare do you put on there, and how does it affect adjacent colors and distant objects?”
So back to using protection. Eric reminds us also: “Let’s also not forget that you can get windburn or sunburn painting in snow, or even on cloudy days.”
Win a Set of Aspen Travel Brushes!
Did I miss anything? How do you use sun protection while plein air painting? Share it with me in the comments below — we’ll choose a random winner (must have a U.S. address) by July 30, 2022 to receive a free 4-count set of Aspen Travel Brushes from Dixon Ticonderoga!
*I’ve actually had melanoma twice. The first time was on my shin and only felt scary because everyone else said it was so serious, but they were able to remove it. The second time, it was on my face and the possibility of needing cosmetic surgery loomed. Although now I can barely find the scar myself, that threat was a real wakeup call, and is one reason I feel moved to share this article with you. Stay well, my friends!