Art Practice Reader: Plein Air Painting

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Photo Credit: Lauren Szabo.


“For me, a landscape does not exist in its own right, since its appearance changes at every moment; but the surrounding atmosphere brings it to life – the air and the light, which vary continuously. For me, it is only the surrounding atmosphere which gives subjects their true value.” – Claude Monet


In the nineteenth century, oil paint began to be commercially available in tubes, which revolutionized where and when artists could paint. Until then, paint typically had to be mixed by hand by the artist or assistants in the studio, using powdered pigments and refined linseed oil which was then ground into a buttery paste. It was a time-consuming and laborious process that made painting outside the studio difficult. The portability of the new paint materials, however, gave artists new freedom and opportunity for communing with nature while painting. 


And indeed, the latter half of the nineteenth century saw a rise in painting en plein air, which means painting outdoors. While it is a commonplace occurrence now, it was radical at the time, a profound shift in the way art was made. In France, the Barbizon School and then the Impressionists gathered outside to paint, hoping that immersing themselves in the landscape would allow them to achieve a more truthful capturing of the effects of light and atmosphere. And while the practice of painting outside is no longer revolutionary in the same ways, it is still relevant, and during a pandemic and days oversaturated with technology use, could possibly even be considered subversive again.


Painting in clean, open air is healthy for the mind and body. Landscape painting allows both the artist and viewer to revel in nature’s glory, an important venture, especially for a city dweller. There is a feeling of the sublime when painting out in the elements--to be still and watch the light change and people and animals go about their day, and have the profound realization that the world is your studio. The process has logistical considerations, including location scouting and being able to work only with what you can bring on foot, which offer freedom within limitations.


Part of what draws me to painting, no pun intended, is the act of practicing invites me to focus and be in the present moment. There may be a certain goal I want to achieve during a painting session, but how I get there is a journey full of discovery. The more mindful I am, the more enjoyable and successful the work of art is going to be. My health directly influences the health of my work, and I am reminded to prioritize the process over the outcome, to improvise, and be resourceful. Success is not all about the outcome, but also the process. Plein Air painting reminds us of this. These sentiments directly translate to other aspects of our lives, and if we choose, we as artists may take a holistic approach to creativity in all facets of our lives. What that means to me is most likely different from what it means to you, and that’s a beautiful thing.


Plein Air painting reminds us that the world is our studio, and our lives are a performative art form. When we sit and gaze on location outdoors, in isolation with nature, or in community, it is a shift toward peaceful moments, to slow down, to practice mindfulness and just be present. To see and deeply look at the world around us is a radical act that is worth pursuing these days. We live such fast-paced lives that to choose to slow down and spend a whole day en plein air may seem absurd to some. It is important for artists to find like-minded people and remember that what is mainstream is not always what is worth chasing after. If we can slow down, really observe, and be present, how many other aspects of our holistic lifestyle would benefit from this mindset, as well as our community beyond? 


When I speak of a holistic artistic lifestyle, I speak of not only what you create inside your studio or on location, but also, for example, your behavior, dress, communication, what you put in your body, cook, even how you plate your food. Do you feed your soul by dancing, gardening, practicing yoga, reading, spending time with your family and friends? Where can you have creative agency in your life outside of what you think about as your practice? Bob Ross said the canvas was where he had the most freedom in his life. This is where we can create our own rules and parameters that are uniquely our own. One painting informs the next, and the time spent making is never wasted. I have seen students’ studio work quality improve rapidly after Plein Air immersion, as the two ways of working inform one another, and a painting may never be finished, it just stops in interesting places. Plein air painting brings knowledge of working in the field back into your studio. Some benefits include a sense of urgency and priority due to different ways of working in terms of time restraints, chasing the light, and conditions of the elements such as wind, sand, sun, and public interaction. 


Why would we continue to en plein air when we could easily paint in our studios? We have cameras on our phones, and are all amateur photographers in the least, so why not only work from photo reference? One reason is the camera sees differently than we see. The camera generally puts everything in one consistent focus, for example, unless we tell it otherwise manually. The machine makes tons of decisions for us. When we are painting we make these decisions on our own. Furthermore, the act of painting forces us to be observant more so than from looking at a photograph. A painting holds thousands of more decisions made by the author and not by the machine. Looking is different from seeing. We often work from memory without realizing it, so to observe is to exercise the act of seeing.


During the pandemic, we found even more benefits from the activity of painting outdoors, as we permitted ourselves to gather again in community, which is a critical aspect of art making. Another side effect of the pandemic is that people not only appreciate being in a collective even more, but also experience an intensified appreciation of being in nature. To be able to be outside, also given good air quality, is truly a blessing. 


With so much fear available for us to consume, what would happen if we chose to put these thoughts aside, be courageous and pick up a brush? I believe the world would be a better place. I believe art can change the world for the better if we continue making purposeful work. Artists, I believe in you.


Works of art painted en plein air:


Further Reading:

Lauren Jade Szabo

Art Instructor, Art School LLC

Comments (2)

faul knernolan

What a delightful day it would be to just take an easel and go walk around the countryside painting things.

Ron Blade

Incredible how an entire art movement was created due to tube paints