Plein Air Painting - An Introduction


Spring into plein air season!

Weather notwithstanding, spring has nearly sprung! Soon the days will be warming up, the sun will be out longer, and painters will be heading outdoors in droves for a bit of plein air painting. Over the next few days, we'll be discussing the ins and outs of painting en plein air, where to do it, what to bring, how best to travel, and more, so stay tuned, stay informed, and learn all you need to prepare for spring painting season!


Claude Monet

What is plein air painting?

If you're at all familiar with art and painting, even peripherally, chances are you've heard of "plein air" painting. Despite appearances, painting en plein air is not just a snooty phrase tossed around by painters who are trying to be impressive: it's a real thing, practiced for hundreds of years, and one most likely in practice today by many artists who just aren't aware of its fancy French name.

The term en plein air is simply French for "in the open air," meaning plein air painting is just creating art outdoors. Now, you'll be thinking, "What about cavemen? What about Australian aborigines? What about all those outdoor megaliths and Egyptian statues and everything that's been around for thousands of years before France even existed?  Surely THEY didn't work en plein air!" Okay, technically that's correct.  It's just that the French coined the phrase for it back in the 1800's when painting outdoors really took off and its popularity skyrocketed.


John Singer Sargent plein air painting.

 Why the 1800's, you ask? A number of reasons, including an expanding middle class and a school of thought geared towards natural beauty, all led to an increased interest in arts and painting. But most importantly, access to needed materials was suddenly broadened by the creation of ready-made paints. Previously, since the beginning of time essentially, artists would have to painstakingly make their own paint, color by color, grinding pigments into binders – only making a small amount at a time, since there was no way to keep it fresh and prevent it from drying out. In the mid 19th century, however, there was a "big bang" in the art supply world, aided by the invention of metal paint tubes, that allowed manufacturers to create oil paints in bulk, sealing them up in tubes to stay fresh. Additionally, "moist" watercolors – the re-wettable pans we are familiar with today – were developed, providing a convenient, portable, and accessible medium.  Suddenly, artists and art enthusiasts alike could easily acquire necessary painting materials without having to make them from scratch – already pre-packaged for bringing into the field!Winsor & Newton Watercolor advertisement.


Coinciding with these new portable paints was the artistic views of such schools of thought as the Impressionists and the Barbizon school: most notably, that natural daylight is the ideal illumination, and aimed for depicting it accurately and tracking its changes. In a sense, these 19th century plein air painters didn't only paint outdoors, they painted a moment in time, the passage of time, and the feelings it left behind. Though highly criticized and even ridiculed at first, Impressionism and its spin-offs greatly aided the popularity of plein air painting, as they believed the best and only way to paint this movement of light over nature was to be right there in front of it whilst painting.

So in the end, a combination of technical innovation and popular thought in the 1800's brought outdoor painting to the masses, as it were, and there it has remained ever since. Boiled down to its essence, plein air painting is painting nature from within nature, and as such is an avenue open to any and all artists – whether they use a fancy phrase to describe it or not!


Notable Plein Air Painters:

Claude Monet

Winslow Homer

Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Georgia O'Keeffe

John Singer Sargent

Edgar Payne

 Stay tuned to the blog for more posts about plein air painting in the upcoming week! At Jerry's Artarama, we're determined to be ready for the spring plein air season, and hope you will be too. What are some of your favorite plein air topics or artists? Let us know in the comments below!


Comments (12) -

Barbara Hageman

Plein air painting also means adding a few non-art supplies to your backpack:

1. Cat flea/tick collars placed around your ankles (with light socks on please)help discourage tick-borne disease from tick bites.

2. Don't forget the sunblock & my opthamologist says sunglasses are a must to reduce the likelihood of macula degeneration as we painters gracefully age.

3. Bug net for over your wide-brimmed hat during the waterside hatch of various insects.


I'm just a newcomer to pleine air painting , I'm excited to get started. Please yes, all the help I can get.

Rose Mary

The California artist and teacher, David Lobenberg, uses lush,  brilliant color and contemporary style to create his plein air and other work. He gives workshops and I wish I could enroll but live 3,000 miles away from where he teaches.  I do own three of his paintings and everyone who sees them for the first time comments very positively on them.  It's worth a look to see what a master creates.

Joseph Shepler

just because a picture depicts an outdoor scene does not make it a so called "plein air" painting.  as a matter of fact, most of the illustrations you give are paintings done in the studio.  the source may or may not have come from a study done "in situ", another fancy name for work done on site. or, the painting may be from the imagination.

Denise Sancbergs

Husband and I are 2 enthusiastic plein-air hobbyists who enjoy the experience as often as possible, especially on frequent visits to our daughter who lives in the Northern Rivers coastal region of NSW Australia. With recent floods in these parts we have spectacular "water views" around every corner; a real inspiration, otherwise there are  blue hills, distant mountains and rivers to take our fancy. There are no shortcuts to success; it's the old "miles with the brush" story with persistance and determination. But so much fun and satisfaction!!! Enjoy!

Suzi Marquess Long

Thanks for the blog, Jerry's Artarama!  Our local Plein Air group in Mendocino, CA, would like to know exactly what IS a plein air painting.  Is it only just begun outdoors? Is it 100% completed outdoors? Does anyone have the answer?

Also, time for a plug to look for the MOPO signup for Mendocino Open Plein Air, our first Paintout, Sept 9-14.  It's too beautiful here to not have a painting competition in the fall!  And thanks, Jerry's Artarama for being one of our great sponsors!!!  

Jim Phillips

I always carry at least a couple of bottles of water, one to drink and the other for my brush tub.  Water is not always easily available.  Painting in the coastal regions of NC and living here in Jacksonville, NC (Home of Marine Corps Camp Lejeune) you will discover that the Marines prefer Skin-So-Soft to keep those sand fleas and chiggers at bay when they're out in the field. It really works.
What I really enjoy about painting en plein aire is that you are painting under the clock so to speak and I honestly believe my work done this way is looser and more expressive.
I teach at a local community college both a watercolor class and an acrylic class.  This summer for the first time I am teaching a Plein Aire Class.


Plein air painting is a wonderful experience...without the outdoor bugs ( ticks,fleas,mosquitos,flies) I found an amazing product that treats my plein air clothing and keeps me protected from ticks in the field for 4 weeks, even with machine washing. ( check the company recommendations for length of tick protection )  The clothing treatment spray, and other options are available at this website.
Knowledgeable  customer service too !

Scott Boyle

For all the latest Plein air events in North Carolina check out the North Carolina Plein Air Painters at

Rachel Newman

If you want to learn plain air painting from two brilliant teachers....Maddine Insalaco and her partner/husband Joe Vincon...and also experience the beauty and wonder of Tuscany, check out their web-site Their school is called "Etruscan Places" and I've been studying with them for 14 years. My annual trip to Tuscany to attend their workshops is a major part of my life! But be week with them under the Tuscan sun will get you hooked forever well as make you a good or better painter!
Rachel Newman

I could not refrain from commenting. Well written!|

Great post. Thank you for your time in helping me get educated about this.

Pingbacks and trackbacks (1)+

Add comment


Low Free Shipping On Top Brands

Shop Golden, Liquitex Arches all free shipping

BIG Sale

Big art supply sake with free shiping

Products To Consider

FREE Video Art Lessons

Learning Art The Easy and Simple Way with Jerry's Artarama FREE Video Art Lessons


Facebook Fans

Recent Comments

Comment RSS