Plein Air Painting: A Beginner’s Guide

What is plein air painting?

Plein air painting simply means painting outdoors. It’s derived from the French term en plein air, meaning ‘in the open air’. Plein air paintings are usually landscapes or snapshots of real life. The practice of painting outdoors has been popular for several centuries. Many artists regularly paint outdoors and find it a very enjoyable way of painting.

When did it start?

Painting outdoors became especially popular in the mid-19th century with the Impressionists and the Barbizon school. Artists would head outdoors and paint scenes from real life, whether it was a scenic landscape or a painting of people going about their everyday routine. The practice grew in popularity thanks to the development of paints in tubes and portable field easels, which made it much easier for artists to have all their equipment on-site. Plein air painting has been very popular with French Impressionists, American Impressionists and a host of Russian painters, as well as many others.

What about all my supplies?

If you can, have two different sets of art supplies, one for in the studio and one for plein air painting that you take with you on the go. Try to use an oil that dries quickly – transporting wet canvases can be quite a problem so make sure you know how you’re going to get your canvas home. It’s great if you have enough room in your car to put your canvas down flat. A French easel is ideal for plein air painting because it’s portable and you can store your painting in it.

What about the weather?

One thing you have to bear in mind is the sun. As the day progresses, shadows will change throughout the course of the day. If you want to you can work on one canvas in the morning then a different one in the afternoon, each one showing the same place at different times of the day. Either way you should focus on the main shapes of the painting first, then add details like shadows in later. Impressionists would study how light and the weather both affect scenes at different times of the day. Plein air paintings are known for their brilliant, glistening lights.

What if people ask me what I’m doing?

If you’re painting outdoors, you should be prepared to have people ask you what you’re doing. Even if you’re in a very remote place, there’s always the chance that a passer-by could see you working and have some questions. If you’re up to speaking to people, by all means engage in conversation and answer their questions – you never know, you could get a few sales this way! If you just want to get on with your work, politely let them know you want to crack on. Most people will just want to have a look at what you’re doing and should understand that you want to concentrate on your work.

Why should I do it?

Plein air painting can be very enjoyable and rewarding. Finding a place to paint, whether it’s close to where you live or further away, can be fun and adventurous. A great part of the experience is scouting about to find a great place to paint. Another great part is surrounding yourself with the sights, sounds and smells of nature and capturing all of them in your painting. There are loads of scenic landscapes all over the place just waiting to be painted.

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