What is Plein air painting?

What is Plein air painting?

Plein air painting means painting outdoors – in the open air to be precise. Outdoor painting

developed from the impressionist movement from the mid-i9th century. Innovations like the paint tube in the 1840’s made it possible to take paint outside the studio. Added to this innovation was the impressionist movement that exploited these innovations.

Portable easels and palettes made outdoor painting possible without too much trouble too.

The fame of pioneers like John Constable proved that real life scenes had appeal to the new class of art admirer. It was not long before outdoor painting became fashionable. Although Constable was not an impressionist he did paint the famous Hay Wain. This painting depicted a romantic view of an everyday farm community at work. A romantic notion that admired by the new urban class.

Figure l: The Haywain by John ConstableThe impressionists aimed to paint real life scenes and the natural light effects supplied by mother nature. This concern with natural light became a passion in itself. Famous artists like Monet dedicated their careers to this pursuit.

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The impressionists aimed to paint real life scenes and the natural light effects supplied by mother nature. This concern with natural light became a passion in itself. Famous artists like Monet dedicated their careers to this pursuit.Art became more democratised and a popular

Art became more democratised and a popular activity7 for the merchant and professional classes. Social painting outdoors was not uncommon.Fast forward to the present and we can see

Fast forward to the present and we can see plein air painting taking off in ever greater popularity.The reasons for this are many and include relaxation from the pressures of work. There is also a pleasant break from our digital world back to the analog world of paints and brushes.

The reasons for this are many and include relaxation from the pressures of work. There is also a pleasant break from our digital world back to the analog world of paints and brushes.
Organised paint outs are popular in larger centres adding to the social aspect of art. A growing industry in painter’s equipment has resulted in all manner of kit to make outdoor painting easier. Add to this the exposure to the great outdoors and we have a perfect leisure industry for those with time on their hands.

Professionals and serious part-timers see the benefits from painting in the landscape itself. The immediacy and experience provides a holistic painting experience often lost in the studio.

This is a matter of debate. Some suggest a certain percentage of the painting must have completed outdoors to qualify as plein air. What that percentage is can vary between 50 to 70 percent. Others want the entire painting done outdoors.

We can find guidance from the impressionist themselves. They did not impose limits, but even then there does seem to be some controversy. Monet did argue that his outdoors paintings were not completed in the studio. It seems clear that many were completed indoors.

The preferable approach is:

  • That the subject must be outdoors.
  • Research and prepare the painting onsite.
  • The painting must have progressed at least halfway to completion outdoors.

How difficult is it to meet these criteria? Weather permitting there should be no real trouble for the average artist to complete a painting outdoors. The painting size of 20cm x 25cm is small enough to make completion possible. A certain touch-up or two in the studio might be necessary,

but that’s about it. As with all things a bit of preparation makes this experience a pleasurable one.

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