What Every Artist Can Learn From Plein Air Painting

28 Apr 2014

Great Basin, Mount Katahdin, Maine, by Frederic Edwin Church, 1852, oil painting.
Great Basin, Mount Katahdin, Maine, by Frederic Edwin Church, 1852, oil painting.

I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that plein air painting is something artists of all styles, subject matter, and strengths can enjoy. Throughout history numerous landscape approaches have emerged either in tandem with or in opposition to the stylistic movements that were being pioneered indoors by figure, portrait, or still life painters. Whether those plein air paintings were used as preparatory sketches for larger studio pieces or considered finished works in their own right, working outdoors from nature has always been of supreme importance to many great landscape painters.

Although the tradition of painting on-site had its initial roots in the classical world of Claude Lorraine and Nicolas Poussin and was moved forward by Romantic-era painters Corot and Constable, it found footing in America through the naturalistic sentiments of the Hudson River School painters and in France by the nonacademic Barbizon School. Soon after, the movement became revolutionized by the forwarding-thinking French Impressionists and quickly entered America via the Golden Gate of California, after which it spread like wildfire across the country, finding further adaptation along the way.

On the Hills to Settignano, by Telemaco Signorini, 1885, oil painting, 14 1/2 x 20. Private collection.  The Vladimirka Road, by Issac Levitan, 1892, oil painting, 31 x 48.
On the Hills to Settignano, by Telemaco Signorini,
1885, oil painting, 14 1/2 x 20. Private collection.
 The Vladimirka Road, by Issac Levitan, 1892, oil painting, 31 x 48.

Mist Over Point Lobos, by Guy Rose, 1918, oil painting, 20 x 24.
Mist Over Point Lobos, by Guy Rose,
1918, oil painting, 20 x 24.
Today, you can still find plein air artists working in various styles that are often regionally related and tie back to the historic artists who spearheaded these movements, such as today’s New York-area artists who recently started the Hudson River Fellowship modeled after the ideals of the late-1800 Hudson River School; the California Art Club landscape painters who are still heavily connected to the great California Impressionists who help found their club in 1909; the New England art colonies of Maine, Massachusetts, and Connecticut who are advancing colorist theories first developed in those communities more than 100 years ago; or artists all over the country and world who continue to be influenced by the international landscape legacies of the Italian Macchiaioli, Russian Itinerants, and French Impressionists.

The outdoors is not only a great classroom for artists of all stylistic interpretations but also for artists of other subject matter. Because painting outdoors requires consummate observational skills and quick, accurate decision making, figure painters who spend time working outdoors often find their understanding of how light affects form—and their ability to more naturally and accurately record it—increasing. What’s more, painting en plein air can be an enjoyable way to recharge your creative batteries after long winters or endless indoor painting sessions. In a previous interview for the Plein Air blog, classical figure and landscape painter Jacob Collins noted that, “I spend so much of my time cooped up in a dark studio, and some of the most enjoyable times I have spent in the last 20 years have been trips I've made with my friends painting outside.”

Regardless of whether you’re exclusively a plein air painter or one who specializes in several subject matter; an artist following academic practices or one drawn to a looser, more Impressionist style; an oil painter, watercolorist, pastelist, or acrylic painter; or someone who just needs to feel light on your face and fresh air in your lungs when you paint, the good news is that in the great outdoors, there’s room for everyone. 

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Margo5 wrote
on 10 May 2010 8:47 AM

Allison, thank you for the article. It is good to see more information on this.

Linda Fisler wrote
on 10 May 2010 9:15 AM

Allison and Courtney,

Looking forward to seeing what you have in store for us!

Thanks for a very nice article Allison!

All the best,


on 10 May 2010 9:47 AM

Nice introduction to plein aire theme. I enjoy the history and hope you will write more in depth about it in future articles. I look forward to more!

on 10 May 2010 9:59 AM

Welcome back Allison!  Wonderful blog entry!  Looking forward to reading more of your work!

Cheers :D

TammyB26 wrote
on 10 May 2010 10:37 AM


I look forward to following this blog; I am a watercolorist and it is a tremendous challenge to paint plein air.  Any tips you can provide in that genre will be appreciated.


j.b2 wrote
on 10 May 2010 12:08 PM

Good one!

Plein Air painting has taught me to move at a faster pace when I paint. I used to paint at a snail's pace but now I move along & am much happier with my work. Painting in the dead of winter outdoors when it's around 0 will get you moving..

Everyone should at least try Plein Air painting once!!!

on 10 May 2010 2:52 PM

Great Allison, I belong to a small plein air group, and it is great to be out of doors in the companionship of others who have the same passion and adiction.  We actually have shows together and arrange for workshops through our local art communities and clubs.  We do many field trips to paint as well as gallery hop to get inspiration and to keep up with the latest trends. carol

on 10 May 2010 8:14 PM

Allison & Courtney, it was an enjoyable article to read.  I belong to four art associations in Southern California, two are just for Plein Air, one has a plein air meeting each Friday.  So, it is unavoidable to ignore plein air in Southern California.  In the past 10 years I have come to learn and develop my own plein air style.  Looking back I see that it's been an amazing journey.  I have kept notes and journals since I began.  I read them once in awhile to keep my spirits up when I need to.  There are so many places to paint around here, it's exhausting and exhilarating.  I think it's even beneficial to a still life studio painter to set up a display on a patio table to get the atmosphere and sense of natural light.  


Geowil wrote
on 12 May 2010 7:07 PM

A great article and I look forward to follow-ups. Over the past 20 or so years I have recorded my travels for my own pleasure and the few who have expressed interest. Watercolour is my prefered medium capturing the fantastic light

australia has to offer most of the time. Keep up the good work.

Roddy wrote
on 14 May 2010 6:12 AM

I have a friend who is going to get me out into the field, but I'd love to hear from others about how and what they load into their pochades for a plein air painting session.  

rhoustons wrote
on 20 May 2010 7:56 AM

Great article. I have not done much plein air painting. But it is one of my goals. One of my favorite modern plein air painters is Kasey Sealy. I think his paintings are extraordinary.

eubie wrote
on 20 Jun 2010 7:28 PM

Enjoying this blog and look forward to more information.Joined a Plein-air group , meeting new people,learning and beginning to find a quick painting style..

eubie wrote
on 20 Aug 2010 7:39 AM

Could you do a blog on Plein-Air painting in each state.  Does American Artist still have a competition or Blog on each state at a particular month?  There doesnt seem to be any step by step procedure..I have joined a plein-air group here in Austin,Tx. and would like more input..thanks

on 16 Nov 2010 7:01 PM

What is the best easel/pallette for plein air painting?