What is Plein Air Painting? Elevate Your Art to New Heights

what is plein air painting

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Plein air Painting is the French expression for painting outdoors, from life, instead of working exclusively from a photograph or only painting inside. The French term means “outdoors” or “in full air” and is usually done in the landscape.

When did plein-air painting begin? Why do people paint en plein-air? What are the steps of painting plein-air? Read on to find out the answers to these and other questions about this fun and useful painting style.

When Did Plein Air Painting Begin?

To find its place in art history, plein-air painting began with John Constable in the early nineteenth century. Still, it was popularized by the French Impressionists, who painted light instead of “the scene” in front of them.

when did plein air painting begin

Another plein-air painter from art history, Vincent Van Gogh, was a post-impressionist who often worked outdoors in the landscape and even built a wooden frame with a grid inside the frame to help improve his accuracy of drawing and perspective.

One of the reasons this method became an art world “fad” at the time was the invention of tubes, like those used for toothpaste, so artists’ paint became easily portable.

Why do People do Plein Air Painting

Why do People do Plein Air Painting
Drive By: Bart Dluhy

Painting en plein-air is a way of life for many artists who like to paint outdoors. The most common motivations for this movement are:

Sketches for Studio Paintings

You may find artists sketching a scene outdoors, such as a landscape painting, that they want to later use as a guide for a larger studio painting of the same location.

The energy the artist has on-site while creating plein-air painting studies will carry over into the studio work. This energy gives more life than when the artist is working from a photograph.

The artist might also create several small versions of the scene using different compositions or play with different interpretations of color. Later, they can pick the best options from these smaller studies for their larger work or combine elements from several studies.

sketches for studio paintings

Practice Capturing Colors, Value, and Changing Conditions Quickly

When oil painting outdoors, the natural light changes quickly and contains different qualities like colors and shadows. Some artists will complete many small sketch paintings, either in one day or subsequent days, to refine their ability to match the colors and values of nature more accurately.

Often, the first step is artists sketching the contour shapes of the big objects and then blocking in the values and general, native colors before the light changes.

practice capturing colors, values, and changing conditions quickly

This strategy allows the painters to capture the “impression” of the moment and then take their time adding details.

Claude Monet said,

Light is the most important person in the picture.

Being forced to match colors and values quickly refines the skill the more an artist works on plein-air paintings. The skill of matching colors and values accurately is also very helpful for all paintings, so work done in the open air helps artists in all areas of their practice.

Comradery, Events, and the Outdoor Experience

Plein air painters are often people who love the outdoors. The beauty of the landscape is a draw, and some of the most beautiful sites are secluded from human traffic. Because of the seclusion, these painters have to hike, sometimes long distances carrying heavy supplies, making the practice full of exercise opportunities.

comradery, events, and the outdoor experience

Some painters prefer to paint alone, but many enjoy the companionship of a fellow plein-air artist. Safety can be a factor if the terrain of the landscape is a challenge, and artists can support each other with advice and feedback on their work.

Some art organizations, such as Plein Air Painters of America, are dedicated to this oil painting movement. These organizations hold events and competitions to make the landscape painting experience more fun and rewarding.

Things to Consider Before Trying Plein Air Painting Techniques

Constantly Changing Weather Conditions

constantly changing weather condition

When you are learning the plein-air technique, you should be prepared for some frustration with trying to capture the effect of the moment. On a sunny day, things will remain the same for hours, but on days with lots of clouds, shadows and colors can change in minutes.

Before painting en plein-air, checking the weather before planning an outdoor painting trip will help schedule a day with the conditions you prefer to paint (i.e., cloudy, overcast, dappled light). It can also save you from discomfort. Carrying art equipment up a mountain in a downpour isn’t a pleasant experience.

Painting Outdoors Requires Planning Ahead

This painting style is not one to tackle in the spur of the moment if you are a beginner. Even if you have extensive experience painting indoors, the factors that can pose challenges are hard to anticipate until you have attempted outdoor painting a few times.

painting outdoors requires planning ahead

Some challenges to this style of painting include wind, heat, rough terrain, lack of resources and others as we will see in a moment.

Problem solvers can make do with what they have, but the right tool makes the job much easier. Considering all the challenges listed above that a new outdoor painter will encounter, it doesn’t make sense to divide your attention to MacGyver a way to keep your canvas from blowing away in high winds.

Don’t worry. Below, you’ll find out essential art tools and supplies to make plein-air painting easier…

Not Just Landscapes

Plein Air Painting isn’t always in rural settings. Many Plein-air artists paint cityscapes on site. You must be prepared for interruptions when painting or making art in the city, as people will inevitably stop to ask questions or give compliments.

not just landscapes

Oil paintings comprise the majority of en plein air work; however, some people are known to work in watercolor or acrylic. Each medium will require slightly different considerations and materials.

Equipment and Tools for Painting Outdoors

  • French Easel: You can use many portable easels, but there are a few things to consider. The easel must be light enough to carry but not so light it blows over. Also, French Easels like this one have a drawer for keeping your paints, brushes, and supplies at easy reach. You can check out other easel options in this article.
  • H2O: Since you won’t be in your studio, you will likely need to bring water or a container if you know there is a pond, creek, or stream where you plan to paint.
  • Rags or Towels: Cleaning your brushes frequently is important in wet-on-wet painting, which is usually associated with plein air painting
  • Trash Bags: Most plein air artists respect the ecology of the location they choose to paint, so having a bag to take any refuse you create during the painting session is a great way to keep the site beautiful for your next trip or the next painter.
  • Stool: Having a collapsable stool adds to the weight of the load on your trip, but the relief from standing for hours may justify the additional baggage. This one is cheap and light. While short, it can give the artist a respite between active painting sessions.
  • Painting Materials: All your favorite paints, canvas (canvas boards are great for this), canvas paper, mediums, brushes, etc., that you use in the studio. It helps to limit your choices to only the necessities since you will be transporting a lot of art equipment and supplies.
  • Wet Painting Holder: When finished, you must get your wet paintings safely out of the site without smudging the paint. This Wet Canvas Carrier is perfect for the job.

For help with the best choices for art supplies, this article may be helpful.

equipment and tools for painting outdoors

Steps for Plein Air Painting

1. Prep Your Sketch, Colors, and Materials Ahead of Time

While not necessary for experienced plein-air painters, sketching out your scene ahead of time on your canvas or board will make the life of a newbie artist much easier.

Whether you have visited the location before and have some sketchbook drawings to organize your composition or have taken photos of the site, pre-painting the outlines or contours of the major shapes will allow you to start blocking the values and colors immediately.

2. Block In Values and General Colors Quickly

As mentioned a few times, blocking in needs to happen fast to capture the colors, values, and impermanent compositional elements (i.e., clouds) you want to portray in your final painting.

The blocking in stage is what is subject to the quickest changes in environmental conditions.

block in values and general colors quickly

Begin by mixing the colors you want to match and several values for lights, middle tones, and shadows. Now you are ready to block in the big shapes on your canvas.

3. Modeling the Forms

Now that you have established the light, medium, and dark values in their appropriate colors, you can start to model the forms.

Modeling the forms means adding short brush strokes with more subtle variations of value than just light, medium, and dark to make the objects look more three-dimensional.

4. Refine the Edges 

In the transitional areas or boundaries between dark and medium or medium and light, placing intermediary values will make the shadows feel more realistic and less like they were “cut-and-pasted.” You can also “dab” at the borders to soften a harsh transition.

refine the edges

As with any wet-on-wet painting, the colors and values should be decided before placing them on the painting surface. Too much mixing or blending of colors on the surface will minimize the feeling of freshness so appealing in alla prima or wet-on-wet artworks.

It is also critical to keep your brush clean between strokes. With wet-on-wet painting, you will pick up some of the paint already on the surface when depositing new paint, no matter how hard you try not to.

If not cleaned, this “picked-up” paint will mix with the next color you load your brush with. If it happens, the only way to fix this is to scrape the paint off the surface and start again.

5. Add Details 

Step back, squint, and add the fine details. Stepping back and squinting allows you to see imperfections in your composition, strokes, or relationships of colors and values.

The fine details can include, but are not limited to, highlights, textural elements, reflected lights, any text (as in a storefront sign), or other details not visible when squinting.

add details

6. Synergize the Whole Painting

This is a final chance to correct anything that looks out of place or add an element you think might add to the look and feel of the painting, even if it isn’t in the scene you are depicting.

Again, step back and squint at your canvas. Look for harmony in all the elements of your painting and fix the areas that feel out of harmony.

Final Thoughts

Plein Air Painting in the landscape is a fun activity that will help break the rut when you get tired of studio painting. Additionally, practicing en plein-air painting techniques outdoors gives you exercise and an opportunity to be in natural settings.

While Plein-air painting is not easy, it is rewarding and pleasurable if you plan and know what to expect.

Read our article on the Best Online Art Classes for opportunities to learn more new art techniques. Also, check out our article out to learn how to sign your plein air paintings like a professional.

Featured Image: The River by Bart Dluhy

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