Plein Air (French expression meaning “open air”) refers to the practice of painting outdoors. The artist tries to capture a moment in time without the use of additional aids such as photographs.
Many artists would rather paint in their studio. They do not have to contend with hot (or cold) weather, wind, mosquitoes, and other bugs. Painting in a studio is certainly more convenient, whereas going outdoors an artist has to bring their easel and some art supplies with them. The setup (and cleanup) can be time consuming.
Now that I have described some of the drawbacks of plein air painting, I will focus on the positive.
It is my belief that anything worth doing is not often easy – this goes for painting outdoors. As I will discuss below, plein air painting is well worth the effort, and the payoff for your advancement as an artist may be multifold.
Advantages of Plein Air Painting Outdoors
- For plein air painters, most of it is about the experience of painting in the open air. Painting outdoors from nature and seeing the effect of light on things is much different than painting in a studio. Artists get to experience the painting as their create. The smells and the sounds are all a part of the process.
- Artists learn to be organized. Art supplies should be readily accessible and easy to reach. This will save you time both in setup and clean-up.
- It helps artists to make good use of time while painting. Paintings have to be created in a relatively short period of time, and artists often do not have time to focus on details. In the studio, it is very easy to just sit back and contemplate on the painting. But outdoors, an artist may have to finish it before the sun moves too much (changing the lighting). Of course cold, heat, bugs, and wind are also things to contend with, so artists may be inclined to complete the painting fast.
- Plein Air forces us to think about what we are painting. When painting from photographs, we often do not have to think as much about colors and tones as we do while in nature.
The colors and tones are already established on the photograph. Of course, we can use that, and interpret the scene in our own way.
But, actual tones and colors can be interpreted far more accurately when working plein air.
- Plein air helps artists gain knowledge of colors, hues, how light affects things, painting techniques, etc. When in the studio, artists can use all the things they have learned, and apply them to any paintings created there. Paintings from photographs and imagination become much easier to create when artists have actually experienced painting from nature.
- It will help you to “see” better and have stronger observation skills. Painting from life is the first step of learning to paint at art schools. There is certainly good reason for this. It helps to develop the artistic eye, the ability to discern lights and darks, tones, hues, values, perspective, etc.
- Photographs never capture the quality of color that the human eye can see. Take any picture of a scene and then paint it. You will definitely see a huge difference. Cameras often distort an image. You will see more detail in real life than you could on a photograph.
Tips for Painting Plein Air in Nature
- Don’t paint everything in the composition. Sometimes there may be things that seem like they do not belong. Have a central focus to the scene, and discard extraneous objects.
Try to focus on what is in front of you rather than what you imagine.
- Plan your locations before heading out to paint. Maybe even spend a day scouting out locations, and noting them. This will certainly save you time on riding around looking for an ideal spot to paint.
- Prepare a plein air kit. Have a folding easel, folding chair, and a selection of art supplies easily accessible. Also bring water, insect repellent, sunscreen, and large plastic bags in case it rains.
- Use a disposable palette or wax paper covering your palette.
- Try to pick a good spot for painting, with shade from the sun and protection from the wind. If you have a cottage near a lake, this may inspire many paintings. Even paint plein air in your own backyard, which may actually be a good place to begin if this is your first time.
- The painting does not have to be completed outdoors. If you feel more comfortable in a studio without the distractions, why not finish it there. This certainly opens up the possibility of creating several plein air studies and finishing them while in your studio.
- If you decide to further work on the painting in your studio, take several photographs for reference.
Have you tried painting plein air before? If you have not, why not try it. Even though it is much more inconvenient than working from a studio, I think you will like the positive effects on your artwork.
If you are someone who is experienced with painting outdoors, please share your advice and tips with us.