What’s Plein Air Painting?

En plein air is a French expres­sion mean­ing “in the open air,” and refers to the act of paint­ing out­doors with the artist’s sub­ject in full view. Plein air artists cap­ture the spirit and essence of a land­scape or sub­ject by incor­po­rat­ing nat­ural light, color and move­ment into their works.

Artists have long painted out­doors, but in the mid-1800s paint­ing land­scapes and other scenes on loca­tion finally became prac­ti­cal due to two impor­tant inven­tions: paints in tubes and the box easel.

Before these inno­va­tions, each painter made their own paints by grind­ing and mix­ing pig­ment pow­ders with var­i­ous oils — a process dif­fi­cult to per­form away from the studio.

The box easel, also known as the “French Easel,” included tele­scopic legs for easy set up and a com­part­ment for car­ry­ing paints, brushes, a palette and other sup­plies. These easels are still a pop­u­lar choice of artists today since they fold up to the size of a brief case and are easy to store and trans­port. Finally, the later intro­duc­tion of can­vas pan­els (can­vas stretched over flat boards) made it pos­si­ble for artists to eas­ily carry all of their equip­ment and sup­plies to a vari­ety of new out­door locations.

The high point of plein air art came with the emer­gence of Impres­sion­ism. Artists of that period included Monet, Renoir, Pis­sarro, Cezanne and Van Gogh. Inter­est in out­door paint­ing has remained con­stant since the 20th cen­tury. Today’s artists carry on the tra­di­tions of these past mas­ters by cap­tur­ing the light and move­ment in land­scapes that can only come from see­ing the sub­ject out­doors in its nat­ural form.

The last 20 years has seen a resur­gence of inter­est in plein air paint­ing in the United States. Dur­ing this time, groups of plein air artists began gath­er­ing together to paint at sin­gle loca­tions or within cer­tain geo­graphic bound­aries. These “Paint Outs” are now very pop­u­lar and give artists a chance to share their tal­ents and cre­ativ­ity with the pub­lic and with one another.

“I am like a piece of rock which has been bro­ken off of the Carpathian Moun­tains in the heart of Czecho­slo­va­kia.”