What is “Plein Air”?

Just the other day A friend asked me “What is Plein Air”?  My initial response was laughter because over the years it has come to be known as so many things. Some people would describe it a style of painting, one that use’s broad stokes of paint applied quickly to the canvas in order to catch the moving light. Others would say that a “true” plein air painting can only be painted while on location even if you need to go back to that location on several different occasions to finish the painting or make adjustments.  Still others would describe it as simply painting on location, plein air comes from the French which means painting in the open air. I have always viewed it as the later.

Before I go any further, let me just say that what I’m about to say is, only “my opinion”.  There are many of you who may agree or disagree with what I have to say. I simply want to start a discussion.

The early “plein air” painters used this method of painting to capture the light in small studies which would be later used in the studio to create large scale paintings.  It was a tool to accomplish something greater in the studio.  Artists like  Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Hill used their studies of Yosemite and other locations to create the large scale paintings we see today in museums around the world.

I started painting on location around 1995 when my art made a sudden shift ( literally over night) from very detailed paintings of wildlife and landscapes to a more “painterly” or looser approach.  This approach meant using oils for the first time as well as much larger brushes.    My first location to paint was in the narrow valley leading to the small town of Half Moon Bay on the California coast.  It was a great day spent with my teacher from high school who had tried for years to get me to try this thing called “Plein Air”, he finally convinced me.  While on location he told me I had 30 minutes to finish my painting, 30 minutes!  It was a great exercise in painting quickly, an exercise, or way of painting that I use in the studio as well. Although my first attempts of painting on location were pathetic failures, I found painting outside very enjoyable.

As many of you know, when you go out painting for the day you never really know what kind of light you’ll have for the day.  It may be sunny or you may get those high thin clouds that are the bane of any plein air painters existence.  One of the things that struck me early on was how many artists would only paint what they saw irregardless of what the light was doing (or in many cases, not doing)  They painted drab scenes in the middle of the day when the light was high and fairly boring.  And when they finished their painting they got exactly what they were looking at, a boring painting.  I should know, I was one of those artists.  We shouldn’t be surprised, after all, it’s what we were taught when we signed up for this plein air stuff.  You only paint what’s in front of you. You only paint the light of the day even if it was drab and uninteresting.  This was my approach for quite awhile before I remembered I was an “artist” who had the freedom to be creative.  I didn’t have to be stuck painting exactly what I saw in front of me. I eventually learned this from my High school art teacher Bill Rushton.  He always uses what he sees as a springboard to something different, something more.  Aspects of what he sees as an artist always show up in his work but in ways that bring freedom not constraint.

Shortly after this realization I began to use the landscape before me as a springboard to something more.  Sure, there were plenty of times the landscape before me needed no changes, the light was beautiful as is. But there were other times when the light was boring but the landscape had shapes or designs I found very appealing. I began to use those elements of inspiration to create paintings that possibly had little to do with with what I was looking at, I was using the landscape as a springboard.  This method of painting opened up a whole new world to me.  I was able to see more than just what was in front of me, I saw what could be.  This is the method I use today whether outside on location or in my studio.  Other artists began to learn of my method of painting and some were very intrigued while others took offense, I wasn’t following the “unwritten rules” of plein air.

It’s sad but there are a few “unwritten rules of plein air” floating around out there. Here are a couple of them.

Rule 1: You only paint your painting on location, no touch-ups in the studio.  Many artist believe that a plein air painting can only be worked on on location.  If you discover you’re painting has a problem when you get home you must go back to that location to fix the problem.  Let me just say that if you believe this in your heart then by all means head back out, but if you’re doing this because someone told you this is what “Plein Air” is, then I have problem with that.  The most important aspect to me is whether or not the painting is a good painting, not where it was painted.  I don’t care if the painting was painted on location, in your backyard, your studio or your bathroom, the same question remains: is it a good painting?  Let me put it another way.  If you had a choice between purchasing a bad painting done on location or a good one painted in a bathroom, which one are you gonna choose. I know it seems a bit extreme but I think it drives the point home.

Rule 2: You only capture the mood and light of the day. If as an artist you believe this is true in your heart of hearts then I believe this is right for you as an artist.  But if you don’t then be all means make the changes necessary to make your painting your painting.  Use the elements that bring inspirations and use them as a springboard to something more, even if in the end they have little resemblance of what you’re looking at.  If you’re on location with others you may get some funny looks but you’ll be happier with your work.

I don’t teach many workshops but when I do this aspect of painting in the studio or on location is what I teach.  To learn to see what could be.  To use our imaginations in a more creative way when we approach our paintings.  The response has been great.  The people who have come to my workshops have expressed how much they enjoyed this method of painting and how it’s like nothing they’ve ever experienced.  My workshops are not easy, they are very challenging.  They get you to think in a whole new way and you get to break a few rules along the way. What I teach is simply another tool you can choose to use while on location or in the studio.

Let me be clear, if you choose to follow some of the unwritten rules because you sincerely believe strongly in them then I think you doing exactly what you should be doing.  You’re following you’re convictions as a creative individual.  We need to remember that we are artists first. We shouldn’t be bound by the rules of others but only by our own convictions as artists.  We need to be creative individuals who think on their own, after all, it’s your name on the painting.

So, What’s plein air? Let the discussion begin.


12 thoughts on “What is “Plein Air”?

  1. Well said Kevin, I agree wholeheartedly we are not cameras! My teacher stated something similar : when working outside, look at and analyze the scene in front of you more at the beginning of the painting process , as the painting nears completion, look at and analyze what the painting needs to be your own version of the landscape.

  2. Now there’s a loaded topic! My own humble opinion is that every painter ought to learn how to depict a scene more or less literally. And then move on. It’s a matter of description vs. expression, I think.

    Even when we’re trying to paint what’s in front of us, we deviate from it with every stroke. Every time we paint a tree with three strokes instead of painting every leaf, we’ve deviated from the literal. If I move a telephone pole, that’s usually considered “fair”. But if I move the sun, (and the light and shadows that goes with it) I start to piss off some people.

    Nobody objects if I put a figure in my landscape where there isn’t one, but if I put seventeen figures where there isn’t one, it’s suddenly “an illustration”. I really don’t know where to draw the line, (pardon the pun) and I don’t think anyone else does, either.

    So you make gorgeous nocturns in the middle of the day, and I make foggy scenes in full sun. How is that different from moving a telephone pole? Or straightening out a curved branch to achieve better design, or rearranging clouds or waves, or darkening the sky to pop something on the ground…

    If it makes a better picture, I say that takes priority over being faithful to the scene. Unless the latter IS the concept, in which case every decision should be made to fit that concept. But I don’t think anyone can say that “plein air” = “paint it literally” .

    The way I see it, we’re here to make poetry, using what moves us. If it means envisioning the sun elsewhere or more fog in the hills, that’s what we should be doing. But of course, we can’t make poetry without first learning spelling, vocabulary, grammar, etc.

    That was a whole lotta ramblin’ to end up not answering the original question “what is plein air?”. As Bill Cone would say, this is a beer topic. See you this weekend~

  3. Kevin, I fully agree. I think it is how far you want to dig into a subject that creates different opinions. I just enjoy painting!!


  4. Hello, Kevin.
    Jumped over from Larry Moore’s blog which featured your work. Larry did not exaggerate in his praise.
    I tried plein air for the first time a couple of years ago, though I had always used the out of doors for reference. I find it inspires my creativeness and enthusiasm as well as encouraging me to get the essence of a scene down quickly.

    Not too long after I started painting with a plein air group one of it’s more experienced members commented, “If you can’t finish your painting in two hours, what’s the point!” I didn’t respond, but I had to laugh.

    I envy those more experienced and talented than myself in their ability to see and paint quickly, but most I’ve talked with also edit and refine a bit later, just as good writers do with their copy.

    As you noted, if painting strictly on location is your thing, go for it. But looking down your nose at another painter who refines and edits the scene reminds me of the fly fisherman who looks down his nose at anyone not fishing a dry fly. For me it’s about being out and enjoying the morning while trying to fool a fish or two into taking my fly, be it dry or wet.

    Speed is important when chasing the light in a scene, but the reason I paint plein air is to enjoy the day and the painting, not to enter a race.

  5. If I can toss in my 2 cents, not intended to come down pro or con on the issue…
    John Ruskin, who’s barely known today, was extremely influential in the days when plein air painting arose. He had one line that was widely quoted & fed interest in plein air work and faithful observation generally (I’m quoting from memory): “The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see a thing and tell what it saw in a plain way.”

    I think it’s worth remembering two historical factors in the origin and rise of plein air painting, as I understand it: 1) it was a reaction to Academic painting, with painters turning to direct observation of nature as an antidote to Academic rules and conventions; and 2) painted plein air sketches & studies weren’t originally produced for a market, but painters later discovered a market for them. They appealed to a yearning for more authenticity in painting. This had to do also with the rise in individualism in art: the plein air sketch was evidence of the painter’s subconscious ‘raw’ response to, and experience of, nature. (It’s ironic that what was in some ways about being more faithful to objective reality was also in some ways about enhancing self-expression.)

  6. Hey Tim,

    Really appreciate your input. My main point is not to say one way or another is right or wrong but rather to say that each artist needs to find what is true in their own soul when it comes to picture making, not what may be true in the souls of others.

    If Ruskin is saying that the soul (of each artist) sees things that the eyes can not, then I would agree.

    I just want to get away from rules, or dare I say “tradition”, binding us as artists in anyway. This is not to say that tradition doesn’t have any value, I strongly believe it does, just not when it binds.

    Thanks again Tim.

  7. I don’t think Ruskin was saying that; rather he saw observation and truly seeing what IS, not just what 17th & 18th century painting had taught us to see, as a path to a true revival of painting, free of false doctrine on how painting must be done. He was not saying that observation and verisimilitude are the be-all end-all of painting or art (although many interpreted his words that way). Maybe his leading disciple, William Morris, said it best (he was talking about the decorative arts, but would not have made an exception for painting): “Love of nature in all its forms must be the ruling spirit of [art]; the brain that guides the hand must be healthy and hopeful, must be keenly alive to the surroundings of our own days, and must be only so much affected by the art of past times as is natural for one who practises an art which is alive, growing, and looking toward the future. “

  8. I’m late to this, but it’s a very interesting topic. Thanks Kevin.

    I recently ran across a blog when various artists were making accusations about who might have “cheated” during a recent “plein aire” weekend — who came with paintings already started, who took photos, who worked overnight in their hotel rooms, etc.

    When did making art become a timed and regulated event? I confess I’ve always been been leery of these “paint-outs” promoted by various clubs and organizations; it puts a perverse value on speed, encourages gimmickry, and reduces the serious business of painting to the level of a parlor trick.

    Yes, painting outdoors is a valuable exercise, and it’s rewarding when it results in a fresh little sketch that captures the moment in a concise way. But when did it become a religion?

    I have a theory that this all has to do with a overly-romantic picture of art and artists that is held by amateur painters, one that combines painting with leisure pursuits and omits any bits that require patience, tedium, careful (or difficult) drawing, drying-time, reworking, etc.

  9. I enjoy this topic very much. I think artists should be free to follow their own path to create as they see fit. I know some that are very touchy about the definition of a plein air painting. For me I try to find locations and subjects that inspire me. The times that I think that a scene is boring or uninteresting, maybe I am just not tuned in to what is beautiful about that scene. Sometimes I look at the work of someone like Sargent and his outdoor works and think- “I would have passed by that scene” or “the light on that day would have seemed too this or that for me” Seeing great art painted of ordinary subjects in less than exciting light helps me to remember that- art is what you give to your painting and not always what a subject gives to you.

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