Are You Using Protection?

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.”

Joe Anna Arnett reminds us to wear a hat when plein air painting
Joe Anna Arnett reminds us to wear a hat when plein air painting. (Check out Joe Anna’s three still life / floral art video workshops with

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.

plein air painting in the sun
“You can find some protective clothing on Amazon,” Mary Garrish said, “but my personal favorites are the REI clothing brand.” Editor’s Note: In Mary’s video workshop, “6 Elements of Design,” she shows you how to start with a strong foundation to save time and frustration. Through her examples and step-by-step demo, you’ll learn to use line, shape, value, color, edges, and texture to create great paintings every time!

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.”

Thank you to Jean Frey for sharing this photo of her painting under her favorite umbrella, the Shade Buddy by Guerrilla Painter.
Thank you to Jean Frey for sharing this photo of her painting under her favorite umbrella, the Shade Buddy by Guerrilla Painter.

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?”

Joseph McGurl, “Sunlight on the Hudson River,” 2016, oil, 9 x 12 in., private collection, plein air
Joseph McGurl, “Sunlight on the Hudson River,” 2016, oil, 9 x 12 in., private collection, plein air; (also known for his art video workshops, Painting Light & Atmosphere and Advanced Landscape Painting)

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!

Win this set of travel brushes!
Comment below for your chance to win this set of 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!

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  1. Hands are also important. They make UPF fingerless gloves that you can usually find in a fishing department.

    Look for materials that are dual-designed—towels and hat liners are two examples that are UPF fabrics and can also be wet to keep you cool.

    Finally, I just added arm sleeves to my UPF shirt collection. They were originally designed for long-distance runners and were very expensive. I was surprised that I found the price had dropped greatly and just added them to my kit. the fabric breathes and can be wet to stay cooler while providing sun protection. And I keep a pair rolled up in my vehicle so I always have arm coverage with me. They are cooler on the arms on a warm day.

    • Yes, brilliant ideas! I also put the SPF lotion on my hands (especially the backs) before driving since they get a lot of sun exposure when I’m at the wheel. Thank you for adding to this!

  2. Thank you for these helpful reminders. I get so absorbed in the painting process that I often forget to take a drink of water. After a long day en plein air, I used to wake up with painful leg cramps from dehydration. Bring extra water!

  3. Thanks so much! Don’t forget the tops if your ears. A hat should protect you, but for those times that you are uncovered or wearing a cap rather than a wide-brimmed hat, be sure to put sunscreen on those areas, as they are susceptible to sun damage and skin cancer, just as your nose and lower lip.
    Judy Gearhart, MD

  4. Great article. Be sure and use sunscreen on your hands and ears. I’ve had them burn before when I forgot.

  5. With short hair or your hair up, even with a hat, apply sunscreen to your neck and down to the edge of your shirt! If you’re worried about getting the shirt goopy… why are you wearing it to paint in? 🙂

  6. I practice all of the tips mentioned. One other practice I follow is sunscreen first, bug spray second! At the end of a Plein air outing, I look forward to a hot shower.
    Thank you for these reminders!

  7. Good tips. Also, Limit your time in the sun, especially between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. when the sun’s rays are most intense. Some medications increase sun sensitivity.

  8. AFter having a precancerous lip sore in 2020, and getting rid of it only when I started wearing a covid mask, I now mask in extreme glare and sun situations, especially early morning and late afternoon and driving, and painting at the beach. It hasn’t come back since I started doing that.

    Also a reminder to everyone to be careful to use reef safe sunscreen and not use spray, which gets on other people and the sand and everywhere and then washes into the water.

  9. I’m an older artist in a long line of painters who have had to endure blindness from macular degeneration. My eye doctor tells me it is a hereditary condition so I’m doing all I can to protect my eyes, including wearing sunglasses even while painting. I’m learning to adapt the values to what I see relative to what I’ve started on the page. It’s not ideal for realism, but because long term sunlight exposure for me is like getting a sunburn on my eyes I want to slow the MD onset as long as possible. I’ve met some very capable plein air artists who continued working and teaching outside despite suffering from MD and diminished eyesight themselves — for example Milford Zorns at age of 85, taught a workshop and painted the Santa Monica pier and palisades using a strategy of high-contrast pigment contained in thick line, on bright white paper, while adding cool colors last. It’s not surprising that as one of the early California plein air watercolorists it was an amazing painting, but Zorns also said he wished he would have worn sunglasses earlier on in his many years of painting outside to protect his eyes. It’s a great article you shared and I appreciated it, but also want to raise awareness among painter community for importance of protecting our precious vision.

  10. I also had a melanoma in 2005.I am careful and appreciate all your advice about using sunscreen and clothing that protects you from the sun.Always have your Big Hat!

  11. I got a folding heavy duty mic stand base at a yard sale and an adjustable drapery rod that fit in it. I can adjust the height easily and insert an umbrella in the pipe. It works better than if was made to go together! Very steady.

  12. All very good points and tips for plein air painting. I recently attended a joint garden club and plein air artists in full sun and was able to move to a shady spot mid-morning. I totally remembered to paint without sunglasses but did remember too, the large hat.
    I managed to do 2 small paintings and 1 larger one in watercolor.
    Thanks for the article. It is all good and I enjoy being out and painting. The colors are
    so much more vivid and the sounds of nature a good backdrop.

  13. This is such a helpful discussion discussion. It is easy to want to be spontaneous and forget about things like sun protection.

  14. Great article. I find a scarf to be helpful, especially if I wet it and use around my neck for evaporative cooling.

  15. As artists, we all technically paint from different lenses, so I don’t see the big deal with wearing sunglasses for plein air. Many lens these days actually accentuate the view. I love my Maui Jims. With light colored eyes, it can be very hard to paint in the sun. I try to do without, but I don’t feel like anyone would see my painting and be like- “Oh, this painter wore sunglasses.” Perception is reality, and your vision will show through no matter what. If you have sensitive eyes, I’d say, wear the glasses.

  16. Thanks for the great article. There is another tip I would like to add. Regarding the UPF shirts you also should avoid certain colors that can reflected light that bounces onto your painting panel. Hot pink, yellow and orange can alter the color you are trying to mix.
    Like also to wear a wide brim hat with a shade that covers the back of my neck and add a cooling neckband that I soak in cold water. It helps to stay cool when painting outdoors.

  17. Thanks for this reminder. I have also had numerous skin cancers removed (so far no melanomas) so I am glad to see you warning the art community to take this seriously. Being outside and painting in nature is also good for us and we need to know how to do that safely!

  18. I use Oakley clear sunglasses for UV protection when painting outdoors. The lenses have great optics and are very protective without distorting color. They are also great for keeping wind and dust out of my eyes.

  19. Don’t forget the backs of your hands. They get so much sun on a daily basis. And when you have you regular skin check Be sure your doctor checks your scalp.

  20. Thanks for this article. I hope everyone follows your advice. I have had melanoma 5 times, one was stage 3. I don’t go outside without sunscreen, UPF rated clothing, and a broad brimmed hat. I also have UPF rated gloves and a nose protector for extended times outside or near water. Be safe but enjoy your time painting.

  21. Having had a now melanoma removed on my upper arm and a basal cell carcinoma on my lower eyelid, I encourage all these protective measures! The lower eyelid required Mohs surgery by a dermatologist and closure by a renowned plastic surgeon and I’m still recovering and will have no lower eyelashes. Note that eye sunscreens are available. Check them out online: SkinCeuticals, No7, Tizo eye Renewal are a few choices. Double up on eye sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses. Values are irrelevant compared to the prospect of cancer. I am doing more studio work, referencing my research en plein air. I’m told that once one has been treated for melanoma, there will probably be more. A cautionary tale. Love the out of doors with body love.

  22. Thanks much for these important sun protection tips. Like others here on the comments I also have Macular Degeneration and must avoid glare from the sun. I have started painting in the early morning as the sun is just lighting the sky or at dusk as the sun is sinking below the mountains and it is a wonderful -and much cooler! – experience painting. The colors on the hills at sunrise and sunset are truly amazing!

  23. choosing the time of day to be outdoors is also helpful. Early and late have less sun; cloudy days would seem ideal but instead they give a false sense of protection. Loose clothing is both cooling and protective.

  24. Hello, great article for all who love being outdoors…can you recommend some bug repellents? I find it difficult to concentrate when I am bugged by the local critters that arrive uninvited!

    Thank you

    Lucia Romano

  25. Even with a hat, sometimes the angle of the sun is on the back of my neck, so be sure and add sunscreen to that area as well. Also, I do paint under an umbrella, but again, the angle of the sun can sneak up on you while you are absorbed in painting.

  26. Your article includes valuable tips. I’d like to see a future article on protecting yourself while plein air painting in the middle of a city. How do you safeguard yourself and your possessions?

  27. Very informative safety reminder article.

    A good umbrella can be your best friend. Double lined golf umbrellas with silver outer coating that are vented work really well. These are similar to those mentioned and shown in the article but not discussed in detail. Good umbrellas can be bought in a golf shop for around $40 – so keep that in mind if you are looking for one. Keeping the sun off your back as well as the palette and work surface keeps you cool and helps slow dehydration.
    My easel tripod has an umbrella attachment. I use it every time I am in the field.

  28. Here in the Texas heat we should remember to stay hydrated so bring a bottle or two of water and drink often! Heat stroke is a real thing so if I feel woozy, I go inside! It’s not worth passing out!

  29. I am great with protection, but once at a workshop at the ocean, I wore Sanders…and got really badly burned. Couldn’t even finish workshop!… don’t forget to treat your feet!

  30. Always be aware of heat exhaustion. Take ice packs with you. Can put on your wrists to cool off quickly. A towel you can wet with cool water and put around your neck. Get a small bag cooler like golfers use. Also good to take a snack of crackers or such the heat can make you nauseous.

  31. In the late 90’s I started wearing Solumbra hoodies, pants, and fingerless gloves but sun protection was still a new concept so at plein air events I would get teased about my “bee-keeper’s” get-up. Nice to know that this information is now being taken seriously!

  32. I use it all…umbrella, sunglasses, spf, long sleeves shirt with a collar and hat. It’s hard work being a painter!

  33. At least one other reader mentioned clear “sunglasses.” While not true sunglasses – as they don’t cut out bright sunlight – they do block UV light so they’re a good option for still seeing colors correctly while still getting UV protection. And apparently they don’t have to be fancy and expensive. Without doing extensive research I appears that even relatively inexpensive safety glasses can have good UV protection AND safety glasses wrap around more than most other glasses offering further eye protection.

  34. I just go out in the morning or evening, wear a very large hat, no sunglasses, no sunscreen, but ALWAYS find shade. If I get in any sun, my body says nope, I’m out of there in 5 minutes. My dad had macular tears that were not fixed by surgery, so he was blinded in one and had little left in the other, so I’m very careful about diet, vitamins, and sun in my eyes. I wear glasses so get the kind of sunglasses that fit over them and over the top and sides also., but don’t paint in them. Very good suggestions here.

  35. Before I leave the house, I apply my sunscreen. It is much easier to make sure you are fully covered than trying to apply at your plein air site. Also, there are times when, if fitting, I back up my suv and leave the trunk open and stand under using it for shade. If it doesn’t cover all the sun areas, I still add my plein air umbrella to assist.

  36. Very good comments, tips and recommendations. A sequel might be how to check for signs of melanoma, what to look for as symptoms and where to research what is found. It pays to visit a dermatologist regularly, but it’s also helpful to have a partner or someone you can share honest feedback with check you over for signs of potential skin issues. As in painting, a constructive critique can be a welcome addition to the process, and a quick alert can steer one to address unnoticed issues.

    • Yes, I think part of that is also to find a dermatologist before you really need one because (in my area at least) it can take about six months to actually get in if you’re a new patient. :/

  37. I too paint at the ocean and wear my sunglasses. Maui Jim lenses are terrific for decifering the various blues and greens in the water. Sunscreen? Absolutely, having psoriasis has given me scars with no pigment so it starts burning right away. I use SPF100 on my hands and feet. I found out quickly in Jamaica that does completely stop the burn!


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