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What is Plein Air Painting?

Plein air painting relies on direct observation of colors and values. This allows Impressionists to capture the more ephemeral qualities of the environment. In the early 19th century, painting outside, or en Plein air, became increasingly popular amongst Impressionist painters.

The Origin of Plein Air Painting

The term “plein air” is French for “in the open air.” This technique goes back for centuries but was truly made into an art form by the French Impressionists. Working directly from nature, these artists painted with sketchy, irregular marks using bright colors on light-tinted grounds. This was a radical departure from historical techniques. They desired to paint light and its changing ephemeral qualities. Therefore, as the light changes from morning to evening, the Impressionists continue to adjust their painting to reflect an “in the moment” application of paint. Because of the creation of transportable acrylic paint tubes and the box easel allowed artists the freedom to paint en plein air.

Originally, travel was part of the experience, as artists searched for the perfect destination. Today, the perfect setting may be far away, but could simply be on your doorstep. Some locations, however, remain magical, and continue to be appreciated in the same way they have been for centuries.

Plein air painting is a flourishing trend in the art world. Artists will come together for “paint out” excursions and workshops devoted to the practice occurring all year-round and coast to coast.

Key Points

History: Until the mid-19th century, it was normal practice to execute rough sketches of landscape subjects in the open air and produce finished paintings in the studio. Part of this was a matter of convenience. But the approach was pioneered by John Constable in Britain in the early 19th century.

Technique: The main plein air painting technique is the direct painting approach, also known as the alla prima painting approach. This involves painting the scene outdoors in one sitting, without waiting for layers to dry.

Supplies: To get started, artists need supplies such as paints, brushes, a palette, and a portable easel. The most common cool colors used are Alizarin Crimson, Cadmium Lemon and Ultramarine Blue. The warm colors are Cadmium Yellow, Cadmium Red and Cerulean Blue.

Plein air painting is a wonderful experience that allows artists to capture the beauty of nature and better understand the landscape.