En Plain Air Painting, Life Through the Eyes of an Artist

En plein air painting is a French term that means out of doors painting. In other words, the act of painting outside in the open. This matter of painting has been around for as long as painting has existed, but this exact term became popular with painters such as Claude Monet and John Singer Sargent. For centuries, this painting method was used, and is still used to this day, but what does it truly convey?


Painting as a concept is fundamentally different from a photograph because it is the artist’s interpretation of the subject, even if it is as close to life as it could be. Every paint stroke, every pencil etch, is the artist giving their view of the subject in a way no one else can portray but themselves. Plein air painting takes this idea to a whole other level by creating their interpretation of life as it occurs. Not looking back on a reference of a single moment of time, but rather painting an ever changing moment with no real expectation of who or what they may put within their piece.


This concept of portraying a specific period in time is very evident within paintings during the Impressionist Era. In many of these paintings, you can feel the movement of the objects within the painting due to the constraints that come with painting outside. You can feel the light on the trees, the swaying of the grasses, and other common outdoor feelings through these paintings because the painters felt these things and were able to translate them into a visual medium. Being outside also lets the artist feel all of the senses that come with being outside. The smell of the grass, the cold air on their face, the sound of leaves crunching, can all be translated directly onto their piece which you cannot do in a studio.


You may look at a lot of these plein air paintings and think, “These look very messy and rushed compared to traditional reference methods,” and you would be right. Many plein air paintings lack the true structure that studio paintings have, but that is what gives them a real feeling. While painting outside you may have to change the painting due to occurrences such as the sun moving, which will affect the shadows within the piece or even people entering and leaving the scene. The quick reactions of the artist can allow for the piece to amplify certain colors which in turn creates the feeling of the scene.


Watching life happen as a viewer looking in is a beautiful thing. It is chaotic and messy, but moments of peace and tranquility shine through when you are not expecting. This is why the practice of plein air painting is a treat to look at. It can remind us to take a step back from our busy lives, and take a look around. Next time you are out and about and have a chance to sit down, maybe try taking out a pencil and a sketchbook and draw what you see.

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