Plein air painting (also called “en Plein air”) is the act of painting from life outdoors without the confinement or comforts of studio walls. “Plein air” literally translates to “open-air” in French, and it’s a practice that was made popular in the 19th century by Impressionists, including Monet and Renoir.
The first Plein air painters were interested in capturing nature’s most ephemeral phenomena, like the quickly shifting colours of a sunset or light dancing on a body of water.
Whereas studio painting is often concerned with achieving a predetermined look, Plein air painting is more about creating a loose impression of the landscape.
Because factors like time restraints or weather may limit artists, many Plein air painters look to capture the general shapes, values, and essence of a landscape, rather than focusing on fine details.
Why Plein Air?
Plein air painting is excellent for learning how to work quickly and with confidence. Plein air painters typically complete a painting in one sitting, whereas studio painters can add layers over multiple days or even weeks.
Because conditions quickly change in the natural world, you have to act fast and get your paint onto the canvas before the light changes.
Additionally, by immersing themselves in a particular landscape, Plein air painters can better understand nature. Compared to painting from photos, painting from life allows artists to paint nature’s true colours and values accurately.
Photos never quite capture what you truly see in a moment, but when you paint from life, you can include things that one can’t pick up in a photograph.
Plein air painting allows us to capture what our eye sees and what we felt and experienced during a particular moment in a specific environment, which results in works of art that are dynamic and meaningful.
Many artists paint smaller Plein air paintings to prepare for more in-depth studio pieces to later reference what they experienced at that moment.
Materials You’ll Need
The type of supplies you use for Plein air painting may differ from your usual studio supplies. Of course, you’ll still need the basics: paints, brushes, canvas or paper, etc. However, you’ll need to consider materials to suit your project carefully.
When choosing materials, think about your location, as you will need to carry your supplies to wherever you decide to set up.
If you’re painting in the park, weight might not be a limiting factor, but if you plan to paint en Plein air in the backcountry or along a hike, you’ll want to choose lightweight materials that don’t take up too much space.
It is important to consider drying time when you choose your paints. I prefer to paint with gouache or watercolour because they dry quickly, allowing you to paint in multiple layers during one session. Additionally, gouache and watercolour are lightweight options that do not take up much space in a backpack.
If you opt to paint with oils (like so many of the first Plein air painters did), you will need to use the “alla prima” approach. This means direct painting wet-on-wet instead of studio techniques involving waiting for paint to dry between layers.
You’ll also need something you can use to carry your supplies. If you’re planning to paint with watercolour or gouache, I recommend the Etchr Field Case.
It takes up very little room in a backpack but is roomy enough on the inside to fit my mini sketchbook, palettes, washi tape, painting rag, gouache paint, and all of my brushes - basically everything I need.
It’s also water-resistant, offering protection in all kinds of environments and weather. Try pairing it with the Etchr Art Satchel, which acts as both a carrying case for your supplies and as a drawing table. It can even hold your tripod!
Many Plein air oil painters opt for pochade boxes, wooden boxes that provide a place to store all of your supplies and a place to mix your paints while doubling as an easel. They are great for oil painters because many boxes have a space to store your wet paintings while transporting them home.
Pochade boxes come in various sizes and weights, but keep in mind that larger pochade boxes may not be suitable if you plan to hike a long way to reach your painting destination.
Because you’ll be painting outside, you may need to protect yourself from the elements. You may need sunscreen, bug spray, hats, gloves, rain gear, or warm clothes. I often bring an umbrella, so I don’t have to sit in the direct glare of the sunlight.
Carefully consider the conditions of the environment in which you’ll be immersing yourself, and always check the weather before you go, keeping in mind that it can change in just a few moments!
Tips and Tricks
Plein air is a style of painting that is less concerned with detail and more interested in creating an overall impression. Pick out just one or two aspects of the scene that interest you and focus on representing them rather than all the tiny details. Bringing along larger brushes and painting with broader strokes will be helpful if you struggle with this!
Light is one of the essential aspects of Plein air painting. When you choose your subject, ask yourself the following questions to determine how to portray the light: Where is the light source? Is the light warm or cool in tone? Where are the shadows? Is the light hitting my subject directly or indirectly?
Avoid setting up in direct sunlight. The glare will make it difficult to see or to judge value accurately.
If you’re painting in an environment that reaches below freezing temperatures, bring some vodka along! Mixing vodka in your watercolours or gouache paints can keep them from freezing while you work.
Remember to stay aware of your surroundings when you are painting en Plein air. You are not in your studio, and there could be factors that change quickly, like a storm or animals.
Minimize your footprint. Practice the “pack in, pack out” mentality when Plein air painting, meaning you leave no trash behind and cause minimal disturbances to the natural environment.
Now that you’ve read this introduction to Plein air painting, you’re ready to get outside and start making more art! For more information and Plein air instruction, check out gouache artist Andrew Peña’s Mini Workshop recording!
Need some inspiration? Check out some of our favourite Plein Air Artists!
Do you have a favourite Plein air location? Share it in the comments! Don’t forget to subscribe to our email newsletter for more art tips and info about our products!