What is a plein air painting?
Updated: January 2019
The phrase 'plein air' is French. The French word 'Plein' in English means 'full'. So translated exactly, it means 'full air'. So a plein air painting is one that has been created while outdoors, in full air. In English we more usually say: “a painting made while outside in the fresh air”.
- What a plein air painting trip involves
- How plein air oil paintings are different form other kinds of paintings
What a plein air painting trip involves
Packing for outdoor painting
What happens is that an artist packs-up all their art materials into something they can carry, or in my case: stick on a little trolley (until my lighter painting box arrives).
My current outdoor painting kit is shown in the photo. There are specially designed plein air painting boxes like the one in the picture below, though they are not essential.
It's possible to rock-up with just a sketchbook and paints. It's not the equipment used that makes a painting worthy of the title: plein air.
A plein air painter is always trying to make their equipment better, so no doubt my own kit will continue to evolve. I didn't start out with what's in the illustration above. I also have a traditional easel I sometimes use for fresh‑air work.
Once packed, the painter jumps into their car, or gets on other transport, to travel to the location they want to paint. It might still involve quite a bit of walking to get to the actual viewpoint, which is why the equipment needs to be compact and as light as possible.
I have different sets of plein air kit which I use, depending on the difficulty involved getting to the exact spot where I want to paint.
Deciding where to set-up
When the artist arrives at the location they want to paint, they'll spend some time, perhaps a lot of time, deciding exactly where to stand. If I've been before, either sketching or otherwise on a reconnoitre, then I know exactly where I intended to paint. It's no guarantee however – differences in the lighting or other things can affect whether a plan goes to plan! You might see artists pacing back and forth trying to decide which is the best place to set-up. It's not always a straightforward decision and it's not appropriate to explain here as this is an overview. Having decided exactly the scene they're going to paint, the painter sets-up their painting station.
Paint – go home!
Once settled, the artist works on their painting dealing with all manner of distractions and challenges such as changing light, unexpected wind or rain, thirst, flies or noise to name just a few. Plein air work is always an adventure and addictive precisely because it can be so unpredictable and difficult. A painting can take a matter of a few hours or most of the day depending on the difficulty of the composition or the degree of finish the artist is trying to achieve. Once finished, everything is re-packed and the still wet (if oil) painting is carefully protected for transporting to the next viewpoint or home.
So that's it! What plein air painting is. Obviously there's a lot more to it than I've gone into here. This was just a simple explanation.
Some of my more recent plein air paintings
How plein air oil paintings are different from other paintings
Oil plein air paintings are quite a distinct kind of painting.
These are their characteristics, usually.
- They're completed relatively quickly. One or two sessions outside and perhaps one session back in the studio adding a few final touches. This is different from paintings started and finished in a studio which can take months – even years, off and on!
- They're 'observational'. This means there's usually very little artistic license applied. What the painter sees, the painter paints.
- Oil paintings made while outside, en plein air, are usually painted 'Alla Prima' which means the paint is applied wet-on-wet, often thinly with the very first brushmarks still evident alongside later brushmarks. Oil paintings made while outdoors display this characteristic with a few exceptions – however, some studio paintings can also betray the use of Alla Prima in their process too.
- They tend to be smaller paintings for purely practical reasons – though there are painters who paint huge paintings using oils outside. I think the more typical plein air painter makes smaller works on loaction as a preparation for larger studio work (this is often, but not always, what I'm doing when outdoor painting). Artists that paint large outside tend not to work in the studio as much, so plein air paintings are the only kind they make.
- Plein air art is often described as: 'direct'. This is the way paintings are described that are not overly worked. You can see the brushmarks and things are indicated rather than carefully painted. Often the bare canvas, or wash of tone applied before painting began, still shows through the finished work.
There are lots of artists who paint en plein air using oils, so it's very difficult to generalise. You will be able to find examples which don't fit with my descriptions above.
I've only described oil plein air work and artists work in all sorts of mediums outside, including watercolour, acrylic, pastels and combinations called mixed media. I myself have used all of these outside at some point in my career as an artist. Though I now prefer working with oils whenever I can, I still use whatever medium I feel is appropriate to the site, and subject, where I intend to paint.
I understand some art collectors only collect plein air paintings, preferring their characteristics over other types of painting.