Painting outside at Burton Agnes Hall and Gardens
Plein air painting at Burton Agnes Hall & gardens

What is a plein air painting?

Updated: September 2018

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 done while outdoors, in full, or in English we more usually say 'fresh' air.

Pack 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 photo, 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 a plein air one.

My plein air painting equipment
A plein air paint box, tripod and seat, though I often stand, set-up on the North York Moors.

A plein air painter is always trying to make their equipment better, so no doubt my own will continue to change. I didn't start out with what's in the photo here. I also have a traditional easel I sometimes use for plein air work.

Once packed, the painter jumps into their car or gets on other transport to travel to the place they want to paint. It might still involve quite a bit of walking to get to the scene, which is why the equipment needs to be compact. I have different sets of plein air equipment which I use depending on the difficulty of getting to where I want to paint.

Decide where to set-up

When the artist arrives at the location they want to paint, they'll spend some time, perhaps a lot fo time, deciding exactly where to stand. You might see them pacing back and forth trying to decide which is the best place to set-up. 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, packing everything up and carefully protecting the wet painting for transporting home, when it's finished.

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 currently available plein air paintings

How plein air oil paintings are different from other paintings

Updated: September 2018

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.
  • They're 'observational'. This means there's usually very little artistic license applied. What the painter sees, the painter paints.
  • Oils are usually painted 'alla prima' which means the paint is applied very thinly and the very first brushmarks are often not covered up by extra ones.
  • They tend to be smaller paintings – though there are painters who paint huge paintings using oils outside, they're not typical.
  • They're often '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.

There are lots of artists who paint en plein air, so it's very difficult to generalise. You will be able to find examples which don't fit with my bullet points.

I've only described oil plein air work and artists work in all sort 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.

I understand some art collectors only collect plein air paintings preferring their characteristics over other types of painting.