How to Deal With Kibitzers (And Other Unwanted Guests) When Painting in Public

By Susan Holland in Art Business Advice > General Art Advice

NOTE: If you enjoy having people look over your shoulder and make comments while you’re painting, you can skip this article. Otherwise, read on.

We’ve all been there. . . you’ve set out a canvas (or board) on your easel, your brushes and paints are ready, and your turps or water standing by. You’re beginning the task of blocking in the main elements of your composition. Everything’s going great.

And then, suddenly, there’s a second shadow lingering beside yours on the pavement.

You convince yourself they are watching someone other than you, like that little girl who has been asking for an Italian Ice. But no, the little girl has gone away and they are still there—and now all you can hear is them chewing their gum. Loudly.

When you choose to paint in public, these types of things happen. You’ll hear certain noises behind you, maybe a shuffling of feet, or a wheezing of a stuffy nose. If the sun is at your back, you will see shadows crowding around your own. You may smell a vague or definite odor, pleasant or punk, or perhaps cloyingly strong and sweet.

If it’s all getting to be too much for you, perhaps the following list will help:

8 things to say to hoverers to make them leave

1. Nothing at all

This is the easiest, least confrontational method, so try it first. On a good day it might not matter if someone is watching. . . perhaps things are progressing with your work, no blocks, no frustrations, and the drawing is coming out of the canvas very nicely.

If you start to have trouble, switch over to the boring parts of the painting. It will probably be boring to them too and they’ll leave. (Or you can always show off and keep them longer, if that’s your style.)

If you come to a really ticklish spot, however, you will probably want to get rid of the distraction, and saying nothing isn’t going to work. Your options are to either chance a chat and hope it’s short, or somehow get them to go away without chatting:

2. “Would you like a pencil and paper so you can try?”

If you are feeling playful and adventurous, hand them a piece of paper and your pencil then challenge them to try to make art—over there.

3. “I can schedule you a visit but not today.”

If you’re painting in a familiar place, you may know who the hoverer is and why he is waiting there. If so, try pulling a little notebook out of your pocket along with a pen. Flip to a page, turn around, look directly at the person and say, “I’m chock full of commitments today, Harry, but I could set an appointment for, say, tomorrow at 7AM.”

Then look up and smile expectantly, pencil poised over the little book. Chances are there will not be any appointment marked in the still blank book. Just a flabbergasted person who knows you don’t like interruptions and apologizes profusely. He will quickly go away to recover from his embarrassment at being confronted so directly.

4. “Hum…hummm..humm…”

A hum or whistle can show you are not lonely for a conversation. If you give the least opportunity for them to catch your eye, or if you shift position at the wrong time, you will find yourself trapped. They will say, “I hope I’m not interrupting you, but. . . “

If you must shift position, do it while humming, and keep humming. They will think you are still in your meditative state and hopefully leave you alone.

Of course, insensitive types will simply barge in and say something anyway. In that case, feel free to vent your frustration in a more. . . creative. . . manner:

5. “Get your red-hot plein air paintings here while they’re still available!”

Start a loud sales pitch that you know by heart from television. Offer the folks two paintings for the price of one if they pay cash. Make the painting very expensive.


Make terrible faces or very sick noises or other odd behavior that worries them into leaving. (This COULD backfire if they decide to go get help.)

7. “Wrsnik inimls ov sinixar! Ya!”

Start speaking to them earnestly in a made-up language. They will assume you cannot speak theirs, have no idea what language you are spewing at them and hurry off.

Or if none of those strike your fancy:

8. “How’re ya doin’?”

Be nice and talk to them like the pleasant person you are. Clean your brushes while you chat. Then stir a bit, say excuse me, and move your chair here and there so they know you are ready to get painting again. They will finally get the message.

In all seriousness, I have had delightful chats with kibitzers while painting plein air, and often get nice ego-boosting comments. Try to take a deep breath, keep rolling and see if you can put some pizazz into the interrupted painting. Or just enjoy the ego strokes and take a real break for tea. The light will have changed, but you have a start for tomorrow, and you took some photos at the outset, right?

In most situations, I’ve found the best choice is to say a warm hello, thank them for their interest, and ask if they will come back later on when the painting has come along a little more. It sounds more like an invitation than a “get lost” message.

And it goes without saying, always have business cards where they can grab one. You never know when someone will write you months later at your web site email and say, “I want that painting! Watching you was the best part of my trip.”

Final tips for painting plein air

Always wear a hat, and if possible, put up an umbrella to keep you out of the sun and the rain. These simple barriers will often help keep the gawkers and chatty folks at a distance, too.

Decide ahead of time how you will handle the kibitzers. Having a plan will help keep you from getting too frustrated.

And take a camera, just in case. Make sure to use it when you are first deciding on your composition to capture the light and shadow of the scene.

Incidentally, I happened to spend three wonderful weeks in France one April painting all along the way, including on the Mediterranean, along the Rhone, and in Paris’s Pont Neuf with kibitzers watching. It was very much a thing I would love to do again.

Collage of France Trip 97 gouaches border by sunlitgreen[1]


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