About Plein Air - What is a Plein Air Painting?

The goal of plein air painting is to enable the artist to experience an outdoor scene and then capture its specific light effects, atmosphere, and mood, as well as the artist’s own feelings about the scene, in a way that feels authentic to the viewer. The subject is usually (although not necessarily) a landscape. The scene should be recognizable as to time and place, but is usually “painterly”, that is characterized by color, stroke, and texture rather than by line. But what is a plein air painting in this day and age of digital cameras and high-end projectors?

Certainly a plein air painting is one that was painted outside from direct, real-time observation of a scene. Usually the plein air painting process was employed when painting the scene. But for painters submitting to a “plein air only” show, an important question remains: Can the painting be partially painted in the studio or does it have to be completed outside?

There are several schools of thought about this. Competitive paint outs have, almost of necessity, promoted a painting technique called Alla Prima, in which the painter completes a painting in a single painting session. Many masterful plein air painters employ this technique, and it is a joy and a wonder to see them do it.

Another school of thought says that the artist should paint only when at the scene, but can use multiple painting sessions to complete their work, provided that the lighting and atmospheric aspects remain similar. They believe that the only way to complete a successful plein air painting – one that truly captures the scene – requires this.

And then there is a school of thought that sees plein air painting more of a means than an end. These artists often de-emphasize the artwork resulting from a plein air painting session, referring to the outcome as a “study” to be used in a larger, studio work. These studies can be of different types, such as color, field or value studies, sketches, or small paintings, all of which are outcomes of using the plein air painting process. They believe that a study of this type should never be altered or “improved” in the studio, since changing it would destroy its veracity.

The PAPJC’s position is that works resulting from any of these three approaches can be called plein air paintings. Further, we contend that a work begun in the field using the plein air process can be finished in the studio with the following proviso: the artist must have executed a significant portion of the plein air process in completing the painting.

The proof is in the pudding. Regardless of what percentage of the painting was executed in the field, the resulting work will have that robust, fresh, authentic, spontaneous look unique to plein air paintings, and it will have none of the faults that creep in when relying on a photograph. These characteristics all contribute to that je ne sais quoi common to all good plein air paintings.


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