Let’s look at famous paintings created en plein air. Also, have a good start painting outdoors with some plein air painting tips that we’ve compiled for you.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
What is plein air painting?
Popular Plein Air Paintings and Facts About Them
Plein Air Painting Tips for Your Next Trip
#1 Practice your painting techniques
#2 Make a packing list. A good one.
#3 Outerwear is important
Can you paint plein air using acrylics?
Plein air painting is known to be favored by the leaders of the French Impressionist movement — Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissaro and Berthe Morrisot. Similarly, it was also practiced by the Post-Impressionists. Due to its spontaneity, this process produces lovely textures, visible brush markings and rich layers of paint, all achieved by the quick and spontaneous brush strokes needed to capture a scene outdoors as fast as possible.
Although lightweight portable easels were already available around the mid 19th century, painting outdoors only became more popular in the late 1800s, when Claude Monet began carrying his supplies to paint outdoors in an effort to capture the effects of light on the colors of landscapes at different times of day. Thus, plein air painting became synonymous with the Impressionists.
In this article, let’s see what plein air painting really means. Furthermore, we will take a look at a few popular paintings by notable artists throughout history. Lastly, we’ll get ready to start painting outdoors with some plein air painting tips and ideas that we’ve compiled for your next trip.
What exactly is plein air painting?
Plein-air painting, in its strictest sense, is painting landscapes while out in the open air or plein air in French. The earliest documented outdoor painters were Italian artist Agostino Tassi and his student, French artist Claude Lorrain.
However, what artists usually do then is to go out in nature and capture landscape sceneries through rough sketches and studies. Then, they bring all these sketches indoors into the studio to produce the main finished paintings. Conversely, completing a piece whilst outdoors en plein air only became truly popular through the Impressionists in the late 19th century. Hence, some of these paintings almost look abstract.
Plein air painting is a practice that we definitely encourage all artists to try. May it be in your next vacation, out in your local park, or even your neighbor’s garden — with their consent, of course! Painting outdoors not only allows one to see the accurate colors of nature and helps develop the ability to compose beautiful paintings in shorter periods of time, but also encourages you to go out in the sun.
Popular Plein Air Paintings and Facts About Them
Now that we’ve defined what a plein air painting is, and the difference between outdoor painting for studies versus the Impressionists way of completely painting outdoors. Let’s take a look at some popular pieces that were created en plein air.
Boat-Building near Flatford Mill (1815) by John Constable
Along with J.M.W. Turner, English painter John Constable revolutionized 19th century landscape painting. Incidentally, same as Turner, Constable is known for the practice of going out in nature to get some rough oil sketches done which he brings back to his studio to finish. However, according to his biographer C.R Leslie, this particular oil painting, Boat-Building near Flatford Mill, was painted entirely in open air. This plein air painting features the construction of a barge at his father’s dry-dock in Flatford, Suffolk. It is currently housed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Woman with a Parasol (1875) by Claude Monet
Claude Monet is generally accepted as the most famous plein air painter in history. One painting that stands out is this portrait of his first wife Camille Doncieux and their first son, Jean. According to historians, this piece was painted completely outdoors or en plein air, and quickly, probably in a few hours within the same day. It’s currently housed at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. United States
Olive Trees (1889) by Vincent van Gogh
Perhaps the most popular among the Post-Impressionists, Vincent van Gogh is another artist who is known to practice plein air painting. Indeed, the conservators at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City made a discovery that supported this fact — a grasshopper embedded on the thick layers of oil paint! In an article in the Architectural Digest, conservator Mary Schafer was examining the painting under magnification for a catalogue when she found the insect’s body. Now that’s one super valid proof!
Plein Air Painting Tips and Guide for Your Next Trip
Painting outdoors is not as difficult as one may think. On top of knowing your preferred painting technique, everything else depends on your choice of medium and subject. So, in this section we’ve listed plein air painting tips and ideas in preparing for a fun and successful outdoor painting session. Let’s get painting!
#1 Practice your Painting Techniques
Probably the most important of the plein air painting tips in this list is to practice your painting techniques. This tip alone can make a huge difference when you’re out in nature. Depending on your own creative process and your choice of medium, plein air painting is basically just you outdoors, painting the way you want to paint.
However, to experience the ultimate en plein air painting session like the Impressionists, the best approach would be the alla prima technique. Alla prima or the wet-on-wet is a direct painting technique in which paint is applied over layers of fresh, still-wet paint that often creates impasto textures. Consequently, the aim is to capture your initial impression and finish the painting in one session.
Here’s a modified approach that you can try and customize for your plein air painting sessions:
1. Prepare your choice of paints. Study color mixing for oil paints.
2. Start with applying a layer of quick-drying underpainting on your canvas. Mixing mediums usually make oil paint dry faster.
3. Find your focal point and map your shapes as if you’re sketching. Study about the tricks of composition.
4. Establish values. Identify your darkest and your lightest areas. Start working on the darkest to lightest values.
5. Some artists work from the focal point towards the edges of the canvas. Some artists map out the dark values all over the canvas and fill in the gaps. Experiment on this and see what works for your practice.
6. Don’t forget to set sharp and blurred areas to give depth to your painting.
#2 Make a Packing List (A good one)
Going out for a plein air painting session doesn’t mean you’ll have to bring your entire studio out with you! Now that you’ve reviewed, experimented, and practiced your creative process, it’s time to figure out what to bring. Create a generic “plein air painting packing list” that you can readily grab and update anytime.
Look at ZenART co-founder and creative director Ardak Kassenova’s plein air painting set-up while out in London’s Greenwich Park. She uses a lightweight pochade box along with our Renoir Collection brushes and Infinity Series Oil Palettes.
If your painting location has tables available, then a simpler set up like artist Anna Gorbatenko might be ideal for you. Anna has her Turner Collection water media brushes ready for an outdoor painting session.
Wondering what we usually bring? Here’s a checklist we prepared to get you started. Note that same as the modified approach above, you can go ahead and change things up depending on your creative process.
Basic Beginner List
A bag to carry everything you need
Containers with lids to hold your paints
Your choice of paints! Learn how to work with a limited oil palette.
An easel to mix your paints in
Primed canvas boards for oil or sheets of paper for watercolor
A travel brush set with palette knife in an easy-to-carry case like the Renoir Collection for oil or the Turner Collection for water media.
Rags or paper towels for cleaning
Containers with lids for painting mediums or water
A drying box to hold your canvas securely (for oil)
A camera! To take photos of your reference
A brush washer
A lightweight pochade box with adjustable tripod stands for different terrain is a good investment, or
A portable easel for bigger paintings. This is also a good investment when you decide to take your practice to the next level.
#3 Outerwear is important
Going out in nature for a plein air painting session is not only delightful, but also good for the body, especially after months of being stuck indoors. However, that doesn’t mean you’ll neglect to protect your body from whatever nature throws at you while outdoors. Remember that your comfort level directly affects your painting session. So prepare the right outerwear depending on your planned location.
See Canadian artist Paula Formanek’s plein air painting set-up and outerwear. Well fit for the location she chose for a painting session.
Here’s a list of the possible things you’ll need.
- Sunscreen – a must-have!
- A windbreaker for unexpected strong winds and light rain
- A hat or cap to protect your head and face
- A scarf or a jacket to layer
- A big umbrella
Can you paint plein air with acrylics?
Are you an artist working primarily on acrylic and wondering if you can use them for your plein air painting sessions? The answer is yes! Acrylics are water-based paints making them easier to thin to resemble watercolor by adding more water. Otherwise, use the heavy bodied variants to imitate the effects of oil-like impasto textures. Just remember to regularly spritz water to naturally slow down the drying of the paint on your canvas and palette.
Here’s a vibrant acrylic painting of the mountain at Sheep Creek by Alaska-based artist Constance Baltuck, painted en plein air.
Plein air painting is such a rewarding activity that an artist should do once in a while. Like I mentioned, there’s no need to buy plein air specific tools. The things you need will vary depending on your own creative process and the location you choose. And besides, we creatives can always improvise.
Do you have your own plein air painting tips and modified process? What’s on your packing list? Share them below so we can start a conversation and compare notes. Happy painting!
— MEET THE AUTHOR—
Fabrianne is the Ambassador of Art Buzz at ZenART, resident eccentric pocket-sized art curator, editor, and art world liaison. She builds and develops relationships with the arts community and makes sure that ZenART’s inspirational articles get to you “hot off the press.” She co-founded an online contemporary art gallery, worked with over 100 artists on exhibitions and performances, wears only black clothes and when she’s not creating buzz or curating and saturating in art, still daydreams of becoming a quirky Wes Anderson film character.
References and further reading:
Auricchio, L., Met Museum, The Transformation of Landscape Painting in France, https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/lafr/hd_lafr.htm
Britannica, Plein-air Painting, https://www.britannica.com/art/plein-air-painting
McGrath, K., Architectural Digest, This Van Gogh Painting has a Grasshopper Embedded in it, https://www.architecturaldigest.com/story/researchers-just-found-a-grasshopper-in-a-van-gogh-painting
V&A Museum, John Constable, Boat Building near Flatford Mill, https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O17291/boat-building-near-flatford-mill-oil-painting-constable-john-ra/
Artists Network, 18 Free Plein Air Painting Techniques, https://www.artistsnetwork.com/plein-air-painting/
Virtual Art Academy, A Guide to Plein Air Painting, https://www.virtualartacademy.com/plein-air-painting/#16_Tips_For_Plein_Air_Painting
Artists Network, Alla Prima Painting: A Modified Method, https://www.artistsnetwork.com/art-mediums/oil-painting/alla-prima-painting-a-modified-method/