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May 19, 2011

What Plein Air Painting is, or isn't...

"Only Mad Dogs and Englishmen will venture out 
under the midday sun."

(Often said by Punjabis about colonial English soldiers in tropical India)

Every artist or collector has a different idea of what plein air painting is, with some being more encompassing, and others less so. And hopefully, without falling into the trap of trying to tell you what Art is – or isn't – here are my own thoughts on the matter.

Literally, en plein air (fr.) means to go out and paint in open air. I know this may come across as redundant in English, but this is the basic definition, it's important, and many folks seem to miss it. The primary reason a landscape artist opts to paint en plein air is because they have come to appreciate the real world is far more complex than anything else their mind can construct. This is not to claim that plein air is the highest form of art, the painter's über-aesthetic, but rather to suggest that if an artist enjoys constant stimulation, a variety of subject matter, and terrifying challenges, then the plein air world can offer all that. In spades.

However, plein air painting comes at a price. Parking your studio outside is uncomfortable and inconvenient. It involves packing and schlepping your gear, obnoxious bugs bites, heat, wind, and humidity; sometime even dangerous wildlife or the occasional chatterbox who won't stop telling you how much his aunt loved to paint; and well – a sun in constant movement – which means what you are trying to paint is in constant movement too. You subject is a moving target. But eventually, painting en plein air becomes exhilarating because the joy and inspiration comes directly from the source. From life. To become a plein air painter is somewhat contradictory. Initially it requires a certain amount of artistic naiveté and hubris to attempt it – not to forget a heaping dose of obsession to overcome the initial discouragement – and later, an ongoing sense of humility because you already know before you have touched the canvas that whatever you are going to paint won't be as awesome or inspiring as the real thing. Cest´la vie. So you paint and you move on...

But merely setting up an easel outdoors ain't enough. It is better if the plein air painter brings an open mind with them, and remains focused upon what it to be discovered on the other side of the canvas, to let go of what they might be carrying around in their head. (I personally believe this credo holds true to any art form, not just painting.) There is no point to moving the party outside if the artist is going to ignore the very thing which makes plein air painting unique. Which is:

 *  *  *   The light!  *  *  *

Some artists call it color. Some call it revealing the shape or planes. Some artists go a little woo-woo lay claim to painting the air. Or, that they are drinking deeply from the vérité of the moment. (I like that last one!) Whatever the outdoor painter might say, it works for me so long as he or she is being attentive to the light. For it is the light we cannot bring back indoors! I don't now about you, but I can usually tell when a painter hasn't been looking at the light, or has chosen to ignore it, and if they have I am left puzzled as to why they bothered to come outside at all.

I've been painting en plein air for over 28 years now and I still find it difficult to do. Which is good, meaning there is so much yet to learn. It may just be me, but I've always found working outside to be a humbling experience and I don't expect that to ever change. I just throw myself at a blank panel and hope for the best. I bury the train wrecks and celebrate the successes. I began to paint en plein air at a time when it was necessary to explain what that meant, and even after explaining it, I had to sit patiently for the inevitable question of "So why put yourself through all that?" (Answer? dunno.) Back in the day (for all you young whippersnappers out there...) there wasn't a lot of Mad Dogs or Englishmen venturing out under the sun so plain air was a lonely effort. A solo escapade. Not so much now. Now it's a crowd. A party. Whoo-hoo! Which is totally awesome, and rocks, because there is plenty of room  for anyone who wants to give it a go. Mad or not. (Ha!)

So, as long as the 'plein air' painter is paying attention to the light, and investing it into the painting, then whatever else they may be doing fits within my quixotic definition. I don't care if an artist is practicing hard-core realism, loose impressionism, wild-*ssed crazy expressionism, or working in whale-blubber – so long as the light can be found in the work it is plein air . . .



And to be fair and inclusive, and not so rant-y, I have copied a list of definitions of what plein painting is from a website you may like. You can find a lot of good stuff about landscape painting there:


The Art of Landscape


Different definitions of Plein Air
You may well notice when reading through these definitions that they don't agree. 

National Gallery of Art, London

Plein Air
Plein Air is the French for open air. The term is used to describe the practice of artists painting before a landscape or other chosen subject out of doors, rather than in a studio or workshop. Before the end of the 18th century outdoor work was usually restricted to drawings and watercolours, but in the 19th century the increasing popularity of sketching landscapes in oil developed gradually into the practice of painting finished pictures in front of the motif.

Artists such as Corot and Daubigny frequently painted out of doors, but it was the Impressionists who embraced plein-air painting with the greatest enthusiasm.
Tate Gallery - Glossary

Plein air
French term meaning out of doors. Refers to practice of painting entire finished picture out of doors as opposed to simply making preparatory studies or sketches. Pioneered by Constable in Britain c.1813-17, then from c.1860 became fundamental to 
Impressionism. Important technical approach in development of Naturalism. Subsequently became extremely widespread and part of practice ofRural Naturalists for example. Sometimes taken to extremes e.g. by Stanhope Forbes of whom there exists a photograph of him painting on a beach in high wind with canvas and easel secured by guy ropes.
Encyclopedia of Irish and World Art

Plein Air Painting (extract)
Typically, painting a picture in the open air requires rapid composition and brushwork, neither of which is feasible unless the artist is familiar with the fundamentals of drawing. Thus it is no surprise to learn that many, if not most, outdoor painters were academically trained in life-drawing and perspective.
Art Lex

en plein air - French for "in the open air," used chiefly to describepaintings that have been executed outdoors, rather than in thestudio. Plein air painting was taken up by the English painters Richard Parks Bonington (1802-1828) and John Constable (1776-1837), and the French Barbizon School, and it became central to Impressionism. Its popularity was aided by the development of easily portable painting equipment and materials, including paints sold in tubes. The equivalent term in Italian is "alfresco," which is also used by English-speakers. (pr. ə pləh-nayr)

En plein air (French pronunciation: [ɑ̃ plɛˈnɛʁ]) is a French expression which means "in the open air", and is particularly used to describe the act of painting outdoors.

Plein air is a term derived from the French phrase en plein air, which literally means 'in the open air'. It's a familiar concept today, but in the late 1800s when the Impressionists ventured out of their studios into nature to investigate and capture the effects of sunlight and different times of days on a subject, it was quite revolutionary.
Merriam Webster Dictionary

en plein air
Pronunciation: \äⁿ-ple-ner\Function: foreign term
Etymology: French: in the open air
The Free Dictionary

plein-air [ˌpleɪnˈɛə (French) plɛnɛr]


(Fine Arts & Visual Arts / Art Terms) of or in the manner of various French 19th-century schools of painting, esp impressionism, concerned with the observation of light and atmosphere effects outdoors
[from French phrase en plein air in the open (literally: full) air]
plein-airist [ˌpleɪnˈɛərɪst] n
Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged © HarperCollins Publishers 1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003
Humanities Web

Plein Air
(French term for 'open air')

A painting that gives the feeling of being outdoors. The Impressionists tried actively to convey the open air feeling in their work. The term is also used to describe landscapes that have been painted outdoors.

Gamblin Artists Colors - Glossary

Plein Air - A painting done outside rather than in a studio. The term comes from the French en plein air, meaning 'in the open air'.
Artist Tours Group

Definition: en plein air
Pronounced As: en-plan-âr, Fr. en-plen-er [Fr.,=in-open-air],term used for paintings or drawings made directly from nature and infused with a feeling of the open air. Painting outdoors is a relatively recent practice; the impressionists and the painters of the Barbizon school made plein-air painting an important dimension of their landscape work.
An alternative definition

Here's my definition

Plein air is French term meaning outdoors / in the open airPainting plein air is essentially about observing and painting subjects from life outdoors. This practice increased in popularity in the nineteenth century after the invention of tubes for oil paint. Plein air painters can paint in any media and usually paint landscapes. They typically attempt to capture the impression of the atmospheric effects in terms of light and colour as these cannot be recorded by a camera. Some painters who paint plein air will always finish what they start outdoors; while others (such as Monet in later years) are content to start a painting plein air, make a record of the light and colour and bring it back to the studio for completion.
What's your definition? I'll publish the best ones in a linked post.

2 reader comments:

Plein Air Gal said...

Excellent post!
The definition that we use as criteria for inclusion in our NHPleinAir Artists group shows is "All paintings should be AT LEAST 75% completed on site, with only minor detail and finishing done in studio. " We consider plein air painting to be that in which the artist is immersed in nature, not looking through a window at nature, but also where the artist is painting the subject matter before him/her (as opposed to taking one's easel outside and working from a photograph of a different location). Paintings may be finished in one sitting (ala prima) or on return trips to the same location. Using a video loop of a scene while in studio is definitely not plein air work.
As a group we agreed on the 75% completion standard, allowing for the fact that sometimes highlights need to be enhance and/or small details like fence posts may need to be added with a small brush in studio. We've found that using time to determine the %age is easy for folks to calculate - eg if it took an hour to do the painting, no more than 15 minutes allowed for those in studio touch-ups, and the painting shouldn't be altered by more than 25%.

Thomas Jefferson Kitts said...

Thanks, Plein Air Gal. Your group certainly has established a clear definition of plein air painting. Do people really take a photograph and paint from it from a different location outside? That's just crazy . . .