A Short Guide to Understanding Plein Air Art

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A Short Guide to Understanding Plein Air Art

“Every second of life is unique, no two are the same and are more precious than snowflakes.”

Understanding Plein Air Art

 A short guide wrote by Rebecca Grantham (Originally wrote in 2005, freshly updated 2017)

The definition of plein air or en plein air:

Plein Air is a French phrase that translates "in the open air". Plein air is pronounced plan air or sometimes plane air. This term is used to describe artworks that have been created chiefly outdoors, rather than in the studio. Photo reference is generally not used.

The roots of plein air painting:

Are found In 19th-century Europe with John Constable and the Barbizon group near France. With the invention of portable pigments, artists took their sketchbooks in hand and traveled outside to paint and draw nature on site. Their combined efforts laid the groundwork for the impressionist giants, Claude Monet, Edouard Manet, Winslow Homer, Camille Pissarro, and John Singer Sargent. Who challenged and revolutionized the application of paint and the truth of how the eye saw form, light, and color within artistic interpretation.

Plein air's modern popularity:

Has been aided by the development of easily portable painting equipment and materials. Such as the pochade box and the wonderful ingenuity of artists, from using mint tins and tackle boxes to house their paint and supplies. Whatever they can pack their art supplies into they do and then they go outside into the wild and find their inspiration. Artists continue to invent ways to transport themselves and their supplies to a site that begs to be captured.


Alla Prima: Is a title given to artworks that are created completely, in one session on site, from start to finish.
Completed On-site: Is to be used for a work of art where more than one session is needed to complete the piece on site, there should be no more work done once the painting has left the original location.

There are still some works that can be considered plein air where no more than 10% of the finished work is completed away from the inspiration in the studio. It is up to the artist to specifically and honestly describe their work, and state the plein air level of completion regarding their completed artwork.

What subject matters qualify?
Any and all outdoor, on-site works. Contemporary plein airists create abstracts, cityscapes, landscapes, portraiture, figurative, poetry and wildlife.
What styles qualify?
With the freedom and creativity of today, plein air works can be very representational, impressionistic, figurative, romantic, luminous, poetic and even abstract.
What medium is primary to plein air?
There are no rules in art or plein air creating. Paper, canvas, pen & ink, scratch boards, oil, acrylic, watercolor paints, hard/soft/oil pastel, colored pencils, crayons truly any medium can be used. The method is left to the artist to choose their weapon for executing the changing moments they are after.
Why outside? wouldn't it be easier to work from a photograph?
Sure it would be easier to work from a photo, but that would take the life and fun out of why you would choose plein air to begin with. It would defeat the entire purpose. The difference between working plein air and from a photograph are akin to the difference between seeing your favorite band live in concert or just a listening to a recorded version. If you have ever been to a live concert of your favorite musician you know the difference in the life and energy of that experience. This is the same for the artist creating. The living energy of the moments they are experiencing if done well, transfers itself onto and into the artwork.
Plein air painting is a passion like none other.
It takes complete concentration to the point of unawareness of self or unconscious absentness. It takes training every sensory nerve to a level of heightened awareness of time, color, light, temperature, sound, sight, atmosphere, and emotion. It takes unparalleled translation from eye, to head, to spirit, to hand, to canvas.

"There are no two seconds alike in nature or life!"

"A leaf steps with the wind in time, the clouds move swiftly across the sky trailing their shadows across the land, light, dark, bright, calm. Flitter-flutter flower petals brush against each other and whisper "try to catch me". Peek a boo, Look up, the sun has moved, see how the shadows have changed. "

Like a great waltz or a supreme game of tag.. these are the results of an artist and nature combined.

It is these premises that spring forth such gorgeous and timeless works, that reach far beyond their frames into the hearts and spirits of the artists, viewers and collectors alike. Rebecca Grantham 17'

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