Painting Plein Air Safely

Beyond packing plenty to drink, a midday snack and lots of sunscreen, painting en plein air can go from a beautiful day with Mother Nature to a fight for your life if certain precautions aren’t taken before throwing on the back pack and heading down a trail. I have painted plein air for almost twenty years and in that time I have encountered my share of treacherous weather changes, more snakes than I can count, rutting elk, a very upset larger than life brahma bull, wild pigs, bobcats, two black bears and bandits intent on taking my wallet. That does not include the number of times my life hung in the balance as I negotiated a narrow canyon ridge or large trucks narrowly taking off my backside as I painted on side of the road.

Over the years I developed a healthy respect for how quickly things can change when painting outdoors and have developed my own personal set of safety precautions along the way.

  1. Don’t Post on Social Media.
    Social Media
    The safest thing you can do for yourself and your family is to NOT post pictures of yourself while out of town. I am as guilty as anybody of posting on social media while traveling. Who doesn’t want to show all your friends that you are painting along the California coast or traveling to France to teach a two week workshop? I do you it. You do it. We all do it. STOP!

    There’s no better way to announce to the world that your home is vacant and ripe for the pickings than to post pictures of yourself out of town or boarding a plane to Europe. Instead post date your blog so it is published while you are away. Then share your blog on Facebook and Twitter. This keeps you active on social media and it appears you are at home. If you must post on Facebook or Tweet something, post a picture of yourself in the studio or what you have on the easel. With a little planning you can post something several times while traveling to make it appear you are home working away at your easel.

    Believe it or not the world can go a week without hearing from you. Please wait until you return home to post pictures of your trip, workshop or paintings.

  2. Paint with a group

    Plein Air Safely

    (L to R) Rusty Jones, Bob Rohm, Bruce Peil and David Bates

    I cannot stress this enough. As much as I enjoy painting alone next to a running stream deep in the woods, it is far better if someone knows where I am. Painting with a group provides safety in numbers and companionship.
  3. Let someone know your plans

    cowboy hatWhether you are painting a few miles from home or hiking into the back woods ALWAYS let someone know your plan, including what time you plan to return. If your painting excursion takes you away from your group or public view, leave a written plan with someone you know, a park ranger, hotel clerk or even a gas station attendant. Include a trail map with your plan highlighted in red ink, vehicle description, vehicle license plate number and a recent photo. Most importantly, let them know when you plan to return.

  4. Make yourself visible.

    bright shirtMost of us tend to dress fairly drab because we don’t want a brightly colored shirt reflecting onto our canvas while we paint. The problem is we blend in and therefore are hard to spot, especially if we are standing on side of the road or, in a worst case scenario, become incapacitated deep in the woods or on side of a mountain. Taking a hint from my running buddies I have started wearing luminous shirts over my painting shirt while hiking into and out of a location.

    I buy an XXL so it fits comfortably over my other shirt. This one cost me $5 at Walmart and can be spotted a mile away. Once I get to where I’m going I take it off. On my arm is a Spot GPS device. More about that later.

    painting on the roadIn addition, when I am painting on side of the road I put out safety cones. I put one at least 500 feet away, then one half way and one right next to where I am painting. Make sure you get the ones that have the reflective stripe on them. The ones pictured cost about $15 at Home Depot, Lowes or Amazon. We plein air painting types are notorious for trying to capture that last ray of setting sun and that is when we are most likely to get hit by a passing motorist. Headlights hitting the reflective stripe could be a life saver.

    I also hang the luminous shirt on the roadside corner of my car because that shirt will be seen before my car.

  5. Be trackable. Don’t rely on your smart phone.

    Smart phoneBefore heading off on an unmarked trail or down that rarely traveled dirt road give some thought to the possibility of something going wrong and how you will handle it. As a society we have become too dependent on our smart phones and their GPS abilities. Anyone who has traveled west knows how difficult it is to find a signal in the mountains or northern Arizona for that matter. Good luck on much of Highway 1 along the California coast as well.

    Back of phoneHow many of our smart phones require a four digit code to open? Heaven forbid, but if you are hurt, unconscious and someone else finds you, chances are they will try to use your phone to contact someone you know. If it is blocked because your phone needs a code, it can greatly hinder emergency personnel from contacting someone on your behalf. I had two personal experiences with this exact scenario just last year.

    On the back of your phone tape the phone number of the person you need contacted if for some reason you are unable to make the call yourself and someone else needs do it on your behalf.

    Now back to the Spot GPS device.

    gpsThe SPOT motion activated GPS is one of several type tracking devices on the market. I wear it clipped to my back pack. The Spot provides location-based messaging and emergency notifications that track you worldwide using satellite networking. There are no drop zones and once the SPOT is turned on you are immediately being tracked. Notice several buttons at the bottom. One is an “OK” button that notifies friends or family that everything is going as planned. Another button is for tracking so your contacts can track you on a map using their computer or smart device. Another is the S.O.S. button for emergency rescue. If you hit the S.O.S. button emergency crews are immediately notified of your location and dispatched to find you. To save battery life it shuts down when you stop moving for more than five minutes then starts up again when you begin moving.

  6. What to do if you get lost?

    Let’s assume first that you have left your plan with family, a friend, a park ranger or someone else you can depend on. When going hiking on an unfamiliar trail or down a road you are not real sure about, I make the following suggestions:

    Pay attention to your surroundings. Pick out landmarks going into a location so you will recognize them on the way out. Recognize when you are lost, turn around and go back.

    Monitor how you are feeling. Especially at high altitudes or in low humidity locations. Be aware of your physicality at all times. Hence the extra water and snacks.

    If you cannot get out on your own stay near an open area so emergency rescue can spot you from the air. Make a signal by placing your luminous shirt in open view. Start a fire for warmth at night and smoke during the day.

    GearAnd finally I thought I would share a few safety essentials I carry in my back pack and suggest you do the same. All of the items shown add about a pound to my pack.

    Starting with the rather large knife on the left and going clockwise the following items are pictured: pocket knife, first aid kit, flashlight, utility tool, headlamp, emergency blanket and a 5-in-1 survival tool.

    My latest addition is the lighted Powercap by Panther Vision. All my hunting buddies swear by them. Three different levels of light intensity provide plenty of hands free light. I want to try doing a nocturnal painting with it.

    And finally the 5-in-1 survival tool. This tool is a must and should be every plein air painter’s back pack.

I hope you found this blog helpful and maybe gave you some food for thought on how to make your plein air experiences safe. If you have any safety tips that you use, not mentioned in the blog, please share. Happy painting everyone.


“Runoff” 18″ x 24″ Oil/Linen

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