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Lynne Roebuck (Handwritten)
plein-air painting at Burton Agnes Hall & Gardens

What is a plein-air painting?

January 2019

The phrase 'plein-air' is French. The French word 'Plein' in English means 'full'. 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 does this kind of painting get made? How these kinds of paintings are made is where they differ from just about every other kind of painting.

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, though they are not essential.

It's possible to rock-up with just a sketchbook and paints. The equipment used is not what 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 following illustration. I also have a traditional easel I sometimes use for fresh‑air work.

My plein-air painting equipment
A plein-air paint box, tripod and seat (though I often stand), and nearly complete painting on the North York Moors. Last one of the day.

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! A quick description of how a plein-air painting is made. Obviously there's a lot more to it than I've gone into here. This was just a simple introduction.

How plein-air oil paintings are different from other paintings

Oil plein-air paintings are quite a distinct kind of painting.

These are the characteristics of plein-air oil paintings – 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 in the completed art. 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 who 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 a 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 here.

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.

Plein-air seems to be much bigger in America than here in the UK. Perhaps because 'realistic' painting in the UK became 'unfashionable', or maybe the longer history of representational art here in Europe had something to do with it. Could it be that we lost our appreciation of our own landscape? Surely not. It's heartening to see a revival happening here, and in my view that's how it should be because I don't think "what's in fashion" is the best reason to invest in an artwork.

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