The Best Places to Plein Air Paint if You Live in Northern Virginia

This is the first in a series of blog posts on great places to paint or sketch outdoors in and around Northern VA.

The lily-pad covered pond at Ellanor C. Lawrence Park in Chantilly, VA

If you’re new to plein air painting or new to the area, you may be searching for great places to paint outdoors. I often search google maps and look up local spots, but it’s sometimes difficult to know how to prepare or what to expect from photos on the internet. Plein air painters have special considerations that other nature lovers may not be concerned with, but you may not know anyone who has painted in a place you're curious about.

The very first place I painted plein air was Ellanor C. Lawrence Park in Chantilly near 66 and 28. It’s a sprawling park named after the property owner who gifted it to the public in 1969, Ellanor C. Lawrence. The land has a long history you can read about here. If you’re a naturalist, there are many programs to participate in for families and adults. You can read more on their web page here.

For Plein air painters and sketchers, you have three exciting areas along Walney Road that might be of interest: the area around Walney Visitor’s Center, Walney Pond, and Cabell’s Mill, as well as, miles of walking trails for the more adventurous. In this post, I'm going to share about two areas of the park most familiar to me where I love to paint: the area around the Visitor's Center and Walney Pond.

The Walney Nature Center from the parking lot.

Walney Visitor’s Center

At the Walney Visitor's Center there are gardens, a beehive, tons of shaded picnic tables, and the ruins of an old ice house. My first real Plein air painting was done in this part of the park. The painting was a view of one of the walking paths, and I had a clumsy set up, little idea what I was doing, but so much excitement to finally be “doing the thing”. I discovered that day that, despite being an introvert, I enjoyed the atmosphere of a busy park with families and couples passing by on their walks many of them making friendly comments as they passed. I got the impression that seeing people painting in the park possibly added to the joy of their day out. Rather than feeling shy about being judged I reframed it as me and my friend adding to the atmosphere of a beautiful park on a beautiful day.

My first true plain air painting. It's a view of one of the walking trails that begin behind the center.

When you arrive you’ll park in front of the Visitor’s Center (currently closed due to Covid), if you walk behind and to the left of the building there are fenced gardens, beehives and a tool shed to paint. There’s a large, open, unshaded area between the gardens with nice views. Behind the Visitor's Center is a huge shaded area with picnic tables and benches. This is a great place for studying trees or for people watching. Facing the amphitheater behind the visitor’s center walk right a bit and you’ll come to the ruins of an ice house and storage cellar surrounded by vine-covered trees. These places will give you more than you can paint in one session.

The ice house surrounded by lush trees.

Visitors cross the foot bridge at Walney Pond.

Walney Pond

Walney Pond, a lily pad-filled pond lined with trees and multiple spots for taking in different views of the water. It is a painter’s dream. It is also the most convenient place I’ve found for painting because you step out of your car and it’s right there. You can even leave some of your equipment in the car and grab what you need as you need it. It’s beautiful year-round and you can paint some views from your car if it rains.

An oil study in my kraft sketchbook of a view of Big Rocky Run.

Facing the pond from the parking lot, walk along the left of the pond and keep walking until you come to a favorite spot of mine. It’s a shady bank from which you can study Big Rocky Run. Big knarled trees, water rushing over rocks, and lots of greenery, to paint. Just edit out the highway in the distance and you could be deep in some solitary wilderness.

A gorgeous lily floats in the pond.

A view of the pond from my van window. There are possible views from each parking lot, making car painting in inclement weather a possiblity.

The Breakdown

Where: Ellanor C Lawrence Park, Chantilly, VA

Cost: Free

What to Paint: Water features (lily pond and creek), historic structures and ruins, gardens and flowers (in season), trees, walking trails, people.

Accessibility: Parking close to Walney Pond, Walney Visitors Center, and Cabell’s Mill means rolling carts a possibility if you’re not planning to hike along the trails, Porto Potties at both the pond and visitor’s center, benches and picnic areas throughout. Two observation decks at the pond.

Concessions? No

Views from Car? Yes

Special Directions: At the time of writing this (June 2021) there is heavy construction around 28, making access to Walney Road confusing and closures are planned. Search for another route such as Walney Rd. via Poplar Tree Road from 50. I’ll update this post when construction has cleared up. You may see signs along the way for E C Lawrence Athletic Fields, but don’t follow those if you’re looking for the locations mentioned above. It’s an entirely different part of the park.

Have you painted at E.C. Lawrence park? Is it a favorite spot of yours even if you haven't painted there? Add your comments and advice to the comment section. I'd love to know what you have to share.