Plein air painting is from the French phrase en plein air, which means 'in the open air'. This is where we get the name.
This type of painting started in the late 1800s when the Impressionists came out of their studios and into nature. They wanted to capture the effects of sunlight at different times of the day on their subjects.
It was quite a different and revolutionary thing to do.
What drove them out of the studio?
The politics of the day had an influence. A breaking away from the classical structure of painting had already been in full swing. And also, the invention of “tubed paint” in which we get our paints today! All things combined, opened the door to a complete genre of painting that is very much alive today.
Scout out places in advance to help you decide where you would set up and what you're going to paint. This allows for a full “painting day” rather than rushing to find a place, which starts you off in a bad mood, cause you know your time is limited, and well, you get the picture. Check out the area thoroughly, do a full turn around to see what is not only in front of you, but behind you as well. Imagine how certain subjects will look with the early or late sun. Plan for several ideas.
The ideal spot doesn’t have to be a touristy area. It could be a neighbors farm land, or a stroll in a local park. Heck, I like my back porch! Most artists already think in these terms when they are out and about, so you may already have a full list of places in the back or your mind already! Do think about a spot that will be in the shade, out of the wind. Other wise, an umbrella and other head covering will be in order. Remember, a cream or white umbrella to prevent pre-coloring your canvas with its cast shadow.
What you paint is entirely up to you, the key is to not get too distracted, but to paint what you see. You don’t have to paint everything, but get what made the most impact on you onto the canvas. Don’t paint what you imagine or believe the subject should look like from memory.
Not too much traffic on this part of the parkway. A quick study to establish your colors, then, back to the studio where I finished a much larger piece.
Most folks simply love to watch. I know I do! They are intrigued by the work you are doing. Most won’t disturb you, but some just can’t help themselves. The questions just bubble up, and out it comes! It can be disconcerting, especially if your having a hard time of it, and the painting isn't going well.
Just remember, you may have been just like them in an earlier time. Be polite, and state that you have a limited amount of time to complete this passage, and that you’ll be very happy to answer questions in a few moments. Do remember, your conversation may turn into a sale! So don’t shush them away too soon.
Another approach is to position yourself where people can't get behind you, such as up against a wall or tree trunk. Also for safety sake, don't plug an iPod into your head and be listening to music so loudly, you can't hear that Grizzly bear checking out your packed lunch! Be aware of your surroundings, (like my Coast Guard son says, always keep "situational awareness")
Purists argue that a plein-air painting needs to be started and finished outside the studio. Well, some of the greats, always, always brought them back for touch ups. Most pro’s only do the preliminary work outdoors, then the finished product is created back in the studio. They will then sell the preliminary work as “studies”.
And speaking of "studies", are you ready to try one yourself? I've already gone out and got the photo's, I got the composition laid out just right, and I have a mind blowing color scheme that you've got to try.
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OK, so you’re going to get set-up with your portable easel and try some plein air painting. Let’s talk about what you really will need.
Here’s a great tip, keep a separate set of supplies for plein air painting to make it easy to pick up and go, rather than running around your studio trying to remember all this stuff.
There are sketching or portable easels on the market which are light to carry and fold up. This will be your first need. Because you are most likely going to hike to your area, think light weight. Carry only what you need to paint and remain hydrated.
The portable “French” easel, a folding chair, head cover or umbrella, paint, thinner (in an approved container) brushes, paper towels rags, and trash bags. (carry out what you bring in Scouting motto) Your portable easel should be able to carry most of what you need as far as painting supplies. Don’t go out and purchase the fancy easel quite yet though. Take along anything that will support your work (real inexpensive things or even the camera tripod) And use your imagination to attach the work to the setup you have. You really want to make sure you enjoy this kind of work (ooops) hobby fun experience, before plunking down $200 for that fancy French easel.
Most likely, you’ll be painting in the early morning hours or late evening in order to capture the cool morning light with its long cast shadows, or the warm evening light, with its long cast shadows. So don’t forget to bring that flash light (“torch” to our Brit and Aussie cousins) with you as it may be a bit dark on the trail.
Painting outdoors will stir your imagination. You will see colors that you didn’t realize existed. They will be intense beyond anything a photograph can capture, and more brilliant than your memory can recall.
Remember, color is one of the most difficult things for the human mind to recall. Most folks can only match a color that they have seen within a few seconds to a few minutes. So that blazing “orange” within that sunset will literally disappear from your mind 2 hours hiking back to your studio and you’re trying to remember it.
While outdoors, the fresh air with its higher oxygen levels will invigorate your painting ability. (Ever wonder why those weight lifters pump iron outdoors on muscle beach?) Some of it has to do with better air quality, but I also think it has to do with the surrounding beach visitors too;) The colors you mix on site will surprise you. And the whole experience will help you in your goal to learn to paint quickly.
Once your plein air painting day is done, store your work in the boot (trunk) of your car. Most art supply stores have clips you can attach to the canvas to keep things from bumping into the wet paint, (assuming you are using oils). If you go for the “French easel” it usually has a nifty storage clamp for your work.
Give it a GO! The most you'll lose is a bit of paint, and a canvas which can later be re-used! But what you will gain is a beautiful day outdoors, soaking in the sun and fresh air, and doing something you love. Painting!