Summary: Plein air is defined as the act of capturing nature outdoors. Its origins and purpose have changed over time and while the term evokes a rich past, its contemporary manifestation is a distant echo of its roots in the 18th and 19th centuries.
It may not be as easy as you think to fully define painting outdoors, referred to by artists as “plein air.” For now, put aside the huge list of rules handed to artists when they participate in a competitive plein air event. Examine the roots of plein air and what painting outdoors meant to those who ventured outdoors to capture images of the landscape.
While this is a subject that could occupy a book (several have been written on this subject) or at least, an extremely long essay, for brevity’s sake the definition of plein air can be segmented into several basic concepts.
One of the first myths to dispel regarding the origins of plein air is that it started with the Impressionists and was promulgated via the introduction of the collapsible paint tube. The collapsible paint tube, patented by Rand, was invented in 1840-1841 and Impressionism commenced circa 1860. Those dates do not correlate with the existence of plein air sketches and paintings.
For art students who studied in Rome in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth were strongly encouraged to travel to the Roman Campagna and elsewhere to observe and capture nature by sketching and painting. (Morton, Munro, LuiJten, True to Nature, Open Air Painting in Europe, 1780 – 1870, National Gallery of Art, Fondation Custodia, The Fitzwilliam Museum - Exhibition Catalog.)
Being off by 80 years or more skews an important element of how plein air is defined and interpreted. Art students honing their skills used the exercise of painting outdoors to capture fleeting moments of light and shadow, the shape of trees, the diversity of weather conditions, rocks and, mountains plus a variety of architectural elements both ancient and contemporary.
One of the driving forces behind the desire to understand the natural world was born of the great “Age of Reason,” in the late 17th century. Curiosity about an abundance of scientific discoveries, and new directions in philosophical thought created the impetus for putting aside old beliefs, replacing them with understanding based on empirical evidence. Artistic expression followed suit by studying the natural world on-site and capturing it on paper and canvas.
Centuries earlier, ecclesiastical art surrendered to secular themes during the Renaissance. However, in landscape painting, the focus of much of the art was on themes from classic literature which included mythology and subject matter from ancient Greece and Rome, and not just capturing non-thematic natural elements. The Roman Campagna was a target-rich environment containing ruins of Roman buildings and monuments set in the landscape where they were constructed and had a rich history.
Even if paintings possessed a classical theme and were augmented with a romantic ambiance, rendering the natural world outside of an artist’s studio required visual references for the sake of verisimilitude. Venturing out into the world to capture the elements of nature was required so that artwork would have the assurance of believability. You can’t draw a forest and surrounding mountains unless you travel to where a forest and mountains are located so you can observe, study and render their likeness accurately.
Artists were attracted to traveling to view and capture ancient ruins so they could be depicted in art that had the blessing of the major academies. These plein air studies dripped with nostalgia for a past time period that was lost and crumbling.
So venturing out of doors to execute plein air work was the means to build a visual vocabulary of what appeared in nature. Simply put, plein air work became reference material. Plein air renderings provided key compositional elements and color notes that would be used to create studio pictures. But, these images were for mainly for their makers. Art historians note that plein air sketches were rarely shared with other artists and patrons. These pictures were not considered to be finished works of art, just like an author’s research notes are not published as part of a book or an academic paper. The formal academies insisted that pictures should be very formal and léché, (licked, - highly finished) which was quite the opposite of the work done outdoors by those who were building a portfolio of ideas for later studio work.)
It was not that early plein air painters rejected the idea of tightly honed studio pictures, they were doing plein air for gaining knowledge of how nature appears at different times of the day, changing atmospheres and with the architecture they wanted to draw accurately so that their studio work would have a foundation in the truthful rendering of the world they were observing.
From the perspective of examining plein air, I believe that the Impressionist movement was an evolutionary extension of the original idea of plein air sketching to create an entirely new approach to painting that relied heavily on outdoor subject matter. Impressionism is plein air taken in a different direction. Nature provided the raw image material that became interpreted through the lens of Impressionist techniques. The amalgamation of plein air with the mindset and material used by the Impressionists created a hybrid of capturing nature by directly witnessing it and applying color with visible brush strokes, capturing the color of light-striking objects and refraining from blending colors that cause them to be muted and dull. It is a stylistic movement that remains with us today in pictures that echo classical Impressionist expression along with many paintings that extend Impressionism with a fusion of the American school of color rendering that started in the 1890s.
Modern plein air appears to be interpreted as any painting done alla prima, outdoors and can resemble anything from highly finished, classical color application to the previously mentioned American approach of carefully observing light as it interacts with objects in the landscape.
Regardless of the painting style employed, plein air today is the opposite of the classical application of sequential layers of paint starting with an underpainting, or in some cases dead coloring followed by multiple campaigns of paint application to complete an artwork. Like television broadcasting of a breaking news event, plein air is live, not post-produced.
Observing plein air currently and categorizing what artists are producing, it appears to be a conjunction of various styles of painting encompassing Impressionism, Post Impressionism, a nod to Photo Realism, and even a dash of Abstract Expressionism. All of these movements appear to have a continuing influence on plein air.
If we take a close look at the work completed at the end of a plein air competition, we can find a huge variety of styles. We see everything including a loose application of paint, some highly polished work, and some fanciful interpretations of nature using abstract elements.
In my opinion, I believe the rules and competition restricted to specific geographical locations for plein air painting create interesting challenges along with some potential negative impacts. The challenge in a competitive event is to paint something interesting within a specific area over a short period of time. While some plein air events have copious amounts of inspiring subject matter, others do not. It creates a huge challenge to dig deep and build a strong composition, interesting subject matter, and appealing color. Bad weather can work against an artist. Fatigue can also play a role especially if many activities are scheduled that tax an artist’s creative energy.
The downside of restricting painting to a specific area, especially if the location is small, results in a lot of repetition of subjects. While it offers patrons different interpretations of the same scene, when the pictures are exhibited together, the show is slim on diversity. In some competitions, an area has only one or two geographic-environmental themes so artists are confined to depicting only those subjects.
Given our modern mindset, it is unlikely to see a return to the roots of plein air and view paintings rendered using classical themes that have an allegorical function. However, in some events, a location and theme have provided a dual purpose for plein air expression. For example, an exhibition of artwork explored the theme of abandoned industrial buildings depicting the decline of a region’s economic base. Another show focused on landscapes in open land in danger of being converted to suburban home sites. Both exhibitions contained wonderfully executed work imbued with deeper meaning.
My perspective on plein air has always been influenced by the past. I was spoiled during my working life by having access to view an outstanding permanent exhibition called “Small French Paintings,” at the National Gallery of Art. Each painting was a lesson in creating drama with light, painterly strokes that economically suggested the texture of rocks, trees, and classical architectural elements. Overall, I am not sure I can be a good judge of contemporary plein air artwork when my “yardstick” is embedded in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Given my academic background, I find that the use of the term “plein air” appears to have very little to do with its roots as academic exercises designed to practice drawing and painting from nature on inexpensive paper supports that would find their way into a portfolio and provide visual references for studio paintings. These plein air studies would not be exhibited. Displaying them for exhibition is a 20th-21st century phenomenon when the artists who made them gained a level of notoriety based on their studio work. With fame, even scraps of drawings became prized and were carefully matted and stored in solander boxes in museums.
Today most plein air work focuses on rendering images of a local environment. Modern plein air subject matter stays away from political themes, issues regarding the environment, social justice, crime, socio-economic problems, etc. The fuel for creating images resides in selecting local elements and building a strong composition, competent, solid drawing, attractive color, and in some cases, capturing a dramatic, fleeting atmospheric moment like a sunrise, sunset, nocturn, fog, or an approaching storm that freezes an amazing moment in time.
It appears that the current generation of artists cleverly borrowed the term “plein air” which gives the genre a historical context. But modern plein air has clearly evolved from the original intent of early plein air painters. The work is not for personal study any longer. It is executed, framed, and sold as a painting done out of doors. Given this shift in purpose, should modern outdoor work be given a name that differentiates it from its origins?
Does room still exist in a competitive event environment for outdoor oil sketches that capture the same spirit of late eighteenth and nineteenth century plein air artwork? Perhaps the “quick-draw” timed competitive events are the closest thing that mirrors traditional plein air painting.
It is interesting to see many styles of paintings appear in plein air competitions. Some works are highly refined, some are loose and painterly, elements of abstraction appear, high chroma paintings are displayed, still lives, and portraits are also exhibited. Despite appearing to be done outdoors, some questionable work involves paintings of figures underwater, any views where the easel had to have been set up in the middle of a busy urban street, images that had to be done from an airplane, and any work that captures stop-action that contains continuous physical movement so that the artist could study, draw and paint the subject. Perhaps these are the reasons why so many competitions have very specific rules about what is considered plein air.
This essay is merely food for thought about the origins and evolution of outdoor painting. From its humble beginnings as exercises for skill building to what it is today.
An acknowledgment goes out to the late Philip Conisbee, Senior Curator of European Paintings and Head of French Paintings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. He was tireless in his research and scholarly writing on the origins of plein air artwork. He produced a variety of articles and the notable exhibition, “Light of Italy: Corot and Early Open-Air Painting” at the Gallery in 1992. For me, personally, Philip’s organization of a permanent display of Small French Paintings, became my inspiration and solace over many years when I needed to refresh myself and view artwork after a quick lunch break. The more recent exhibition in 2020, “True to Nature, Open-air Painting in Europe 1780-1870” organized by Ger Luijten, Mary Morton, and Jane Munro gathered an amazing encyclopedic group of plein air artwork. We were fortunate to organize a tour of the exhibit provided by Mary Morton for several members of the Mid-Atlantic Plein Air Painters organization in 2020.
Syntax of Color