The last twenty years have seen a resurgence of interest in plein air painting in the United States. But what is plein air painting? Read on to find out what it is, how it started, and why painters like me choose this method!

What is it?

Sharon Marquez painting en plein air on the side of a rode.

The phrase “en plein air” comes from the French word “outside.”

In short, painting “en plein air” is leaving the walls of your studio behind and painting or drawing in the landscape. The phrase “en plein air,” with “plein” being pronounced sometimes like “plain” and sometimes “plen,” comes from the French word for “outside.” And the phrase couldn’t be more spot on!

Artists have been taking their canvases and paints outside to paint the world for thousands of years, to paint cities and urban areas to depict the hustle and bustle of people’s daily lives, as well as mountains, streams, and forests to capture awe-inspiring nature on canvas. The high point of this method came with the emergence of Impressionism in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. You may be familiar with key artists of that period: Monet, Renoir, and Cezanne, who painted outdoor landscapes. It is important to note that this is a method of painting, not a style of painting. While some plein air paintings can have similarities, it’s due to shared techniques.

Today, plein air painting is a flourishing trend in the art world. Artists come together for workshops and “paint out” excursions. These opportunities give artists a chance to share their talents, creativity, and love of the method with the public and with one another. For many, landscape painters are finding plein air painting as rewarding an experience as it was for the plein air artists of the past.

Why Paint in this Technique?

Plein air painting set up on easel outside in front of mountains with paints and brushes in front of it.

There are many reasons why artists choose to paint in this method!

So, why do some artists choose to paint in this method? There are many reasons. One of the most common is the act of being outside and connecting with nature. It’s not only soothing but helps one stay present in the moment. When painting outdoors, one must make quick decisions about composition and color. Working quickly keeps you in the moment because you must get the essence of the scene onto your canvas before the light or other factors change.

Another reason is to study firsthand how light behaves in diverse situations. When you paint on-site, there’s a good possibility at some point you’ll encounter several different light sources, like direct sunlight, overcast sky, window light, candlelight, and light from lightbulbs. These types of light have distinct qualities you have to understand well to paint them convincingly.

Developing the ability to convey the feeling of the place you’re painting is yet another reason to paint with this method. A busy street with people popping in and out of shops has a different feeling than a lone tree on a hillside…and those both differ from the feeling of watching a sunset at a lake! Being on-site can help you get a sense of the feelings in the air, and paint them more accurately through technique and color choice than you would in your studio.

Plein Air Painting

For me, painting has become a passion and catalyst to making lifelong friends and continuing adventures. It is something I love to do, and I love sharing my passion with others! If you have a question about one of my pieces, please feel free to contact me. Thank you for supporting your local artists!