Getting out of the studio and painting in plein air has always been challenging for artists. Plein air painting allowed the art-makers of the past to leave the meticulously controlled and claustrophobic studio environments and get in contact with the fluctuating but striking natural elements. Although it existed since the dawn of time, plein air painting reached its peak in the 19th century with the rise of French Impressionism, an art movement that embraced and further developed the technique. The phrase used to describe the act of painting outdoors was originally borrowed from French expression “en plein air” that means “open air”. Unlike painting in the studio that allows the artists to have complete control over the surrounding conditions such as light and perspective, painting in plein air is marked with its unpredictability and varying conditions. The constant changes of light, wind and rain are the circumstances that make plein air painting a tiresome task but this technique can be quite rewarding since it allows artists to experience the landscape to the max and avoid the predetermined look of the paintings that often appears as a result of working in the studio.
The Sudden Rise of Plein Air Painting
There’re several reasons why plein air painting gained massive popularity among artists in the 19th century. A major contributor to the ubiquity of the new technique was the development of paint tubes and box easels that were easily transportable and allowed the painters to take their tools anywhere. Before tube paint was invented artists had to create their own paint by grinding dry pigment powders and then mixing them with linseed oil, a technique that made painting on site a difficult task. The other important invention box easel also known as French box easel made traveling to the forests and hills easier than ever. These extremely portable easels, the size of a briefcase were invented in the mid-19th century and they usually stored telescopic legs, a paint box and a palette. These art supply kits are still incredibly popular among painters that are looking for an easy way to transport or just store oil paint and art tools.
The Transformation of Landscape Painting in French Impressionism
The technique was primarily used by the Romantics like Meindert Hobbema, John Constable and Richard Parkes Bonington who turned to spontaneous sketching in pursuit for authenticity. Plein air painting was widely popularized by the French Impressionists. The Impressionists were particularly interested in the constant changing of light that often served as a unique symbol of the passage of time. The rebellious artists revolutionized painting by breaking a series of academic rules one of which was that portraits and landscape imagery should be painted in studios while only sketches should be made outdoors. The radical approach of Impressionist artists consisted of painting outdoors where they could capture the transient effects of sunlight and its influence on the objects. Plein air painting was popular among other art movements of the time including Barbizon school and Hudson River School in US, but French Impressionists developed plein air outdoor techniques, typical for the movement, by depicting the interplay of light with bright colors and short brushstrokes.
The idea was to portray the beauty of nature without alteration which was achieved by simultaneously painting all parts of the landscapes and constant reworking. Or as prominent artist Camille Pissarro explained to his student – when working in plein air you must “work at the same time upon the sky, water, branches, ground, keeping everything going on an equal basis and unceasingly rework until you have got it”. Celebrated Impressionist artist was a huge supporter of plein air painting and often painted his works from the start till the end at one outdoor painting session. Other Impressionists worked in plein air as well which enabled them to create outstanding works that revolutionized the art world. This painting style enabled Claude Monet to create his countryside series by painting one and the same scene over and over again thus capturing the changes in light and the passing of the seasons. It was during one of this plein painting sessions that Claude Monet and his friend and fellow artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir discovered that the color of shadows is not black, but “the reflected color of the objects surrounding the shadow“. By painting vivid images in nature, the Impressionists developed a lighter painting technique and their consistent pursuit of spontaneity, sunlight, and color has quickly become synonymous with the modern life itself.
Plein Air Painting in Contemporary art
Alhough the 20th and 21st century have witnessed the return of artists to the studios, there are still numerous painters who like to create their works in plein air. Pop art master David Hockney for instance is one of the artists who like to take their oil and acrylic paint or more recently an iPad to plein air and create wonderful landscape imagery. The prominent artist has captured the energy of numerous landscapes spanning from his native Yorkshire to the acclaimed Yosemite Park. His plein air paintings are filled with natural light and dynamic color contrasts as the artist turned to different location to finish his colorful explorations. Contemporary painter Neil Welliver often spent entire days hiking the mountains and looking for a perfect place to create his artworks. Once he found the landscape worth portraying, he would spend up to 9 hours making his meticulous sketches. Plein air painting in the winter allowed him to capture “crystal quality of the air and luminosity created by light reflecting off snow,“ and enabled him to achieve the type of emotionality that went beyond realism. These contemporary art examples prove that plein air painting is still a fruitful field for the artists to explore. And though its unlikely that painting en plein air will regain the popularity it had in the late 19th century, it will always remain an enjoyable and rewarding method for artists looking to get out of the comfort of their studios and produce artworks dictated by the unpredictable rhythm of nature.
Editor’s Tip : Painting on Location: Secrets to Plein Air Painting
A book written by a plein air paintings professional artist David Curtis, will provide valuable lessons about the most enjoyable way of working. As atmospheric as the subject itself, Painting On Location is replete with anecdotes and gorgeous artwork. It’s like sitting next to David as he works with oil and acrylic the canvas, discussing key lessons and taking advantage of each medium’s special characteristics to make the most of your fresh air sessions. The book will also provide valuable guidance on what to pack to make sure to have just the right equipment with you to work efficiently and effectively as well as info about how to cope with the challenges of fleeting light and inclement weather. Maintaining a sense of place back in the studio as you finish your plein air pieces is also the subject of the book that will teach you how to use your paintings as inspiration for new works.
- Rewald, J. The History of Impressionism, Harry Abrams, (1990)
- Clark, K. : The Nude, pages 154–61. Penguin, 1960.
- Deimel N. David Hockney En Plein Air, Sotheby’s Blog [November 23, 2016]
- Johnson K. Neil Welliver, 75, Painter of Large-Scale Landscapes, Is Dead, The New York Times [November 23,2016]