Many people I encounter during my painting travels often wonder what it means to paint “en plein air”. The term is French and literally means “in the open air.” For an artist it means painting outdoors. For landscape painters, studying a subject directly from life is their greatest tool. Nature can be an inexhaustible source of inspiration for an artist.
The practice of painting on location has seen a great resurgence in the last 15 years or so. Although, it was done previously, painting plein air didn’t really take hold until the mid19th century. Largely due to the difficulties and inconveniences of traveling outdoors, those early painting pioneers were limited to quick watercolor sketches with few color choices. Inventions such as the humble paint tube and lightweight poshade box, in addition to a greater availability of colors greatly facilitated the painting process. French impressionists such as Monet, Pisarro, and Renoir and painterly realists like Sargent, Sorolla, and Zorn regularly painted on location outdoors. Today, the practice of painting on location continues and aside from modern comforts and tools, the practice is essentially the same; direct observation of light and color.
Personally, I spend a significant number of days each year painting outdoors and studying and observing nature’s everyday miracles. Effects of light, atmosphere, weather conditions, seasons, as well as rhythmic movement of clouds, waves or a busy street continually fascinate me. These moments out of doors are an essential muse. When painting en pleinair, I spend several hours on a given piece and then move on to another idea if time and energy permit. I typically use a canvas 12” x 16” or smaller so I have plenty of time to address the subject and idea properly. These pieces are often loose, fresh and spontaneous. Often, I feel completely fulfilled with a piece painted out on location; I decide not to take the idea any further but leave the work in its state of freshness.
Although I am usually satisfied with the work I have produced in the field, at times I don’t feel the creative cycle is complete until I take my best observations into the studio and create a larger, more refined painting. Additionally, certain stunning subjects such as: a busy street, a quickly changing sunset, a narrow pathway, or a windy cliff aren’t conducive to painting on location. In these situations, I have to be content with taking photographs and relying on experience to create the same mood as if I were there. Photographs are a useful tool but cannot replace the experience gained from repeated outdoor study. I have found the more time I spend outdoors painting, the better I am able to glean important aspects of a photograph. I can then create a similar freshness whether indoors or out. As I look back over any given year, perhaps more of my time is spent painting in the studio than on location. However, it is my time spent outdoors observing Mother Nature directly that ultimately inspires all of my works.