Plein Air Art: A Rich Tradition
By Kelly Kane
Art instruction extends far beyond formal educational institutions. Today, we have a variety of options for beginning or extending our art education — from years devoted to atelier study to a four-week course or weekend workshop. Which opportunity we choose depends on our personality, what we want to achieve, and how much time and money we can devote to it.
Historically, art was taught in Europe via “ateliers” — French for “workshops.” In this system, burgeoning artists worked alongside masters in their studios for several years. At the core of their study was a mastery of drawing, followed by a concentration on painting or sculpture, using traditional methods and skills associated with realism. Although ateliers fell out of favor in the mid-20th century, an appreciation for the qualities they promoted was rekindled in the 1970s, and this means of study enjoyed a resurgence.
Modern ateliers follow many of the same teaching principles, with an emphasis on learning to draw well. But while their predecessors focused on still life or human anatomy, many now also address the landscape and its recurring forms. For those interested in this course of study, less formal courses and workshops likewise provide access to prominent contemporary painters willing to pass on their knowledge.
Art workshops generally last anywhere from three to 14 days, and may oﬀer the opportunity to travel within the United States or abroad. Typical routines include painting demonstrations by the instructor, one-on-one assistance, and critiques of student work. Not part of the organized curriculum, but no less important, are the camaraderie and support of fellow participants.
United in a passion for painting and love of art, many students form lifelong friendships. Often, these newfound friends are a great resource for information about other workshop opportunities, travel advice, and helpful painting tips. If nothing else, it’s comforting to know that everyone shares the same doubts and fears — and to have someone to celebrate the successes with as well.
No matter which opportunity seems right for you, it’s important to do your research. Find out as much as you can about the qualities the instructor emphasizes in his or her own work, as well as their teaching style — do they primarily like to lecture or demo for the class, or do they also oﬀer individual advice to students as the participants work on their own paintings? What is the daily routine — how much time each day is allotted for the students to work on their own pieces? If plein air experience is a priority for you, how much time is spent outdoors? What have past students said about the experience?
A number of our best-loved artists passed through the studio of Charles Gleyre, including Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, and James Abbott McNeill Whistler. The atelier of Léon Bonnat produced another star-studded lineup of artists, each displaying their own unique style, including Marius Vasselon, Raoul Dufy, Thomas Eakins, John Singer Sargent, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Closer to home, Frederic Edwin Church studied at the side of Thomas Cole for two years, then passed on his knowledge to students of his own. Indeed, you can trace the lineage of many Western European and North American masters to an atelier or similar course of study.
Fortunately, that rich tradition continues today. The 2019 Artists’ Workshop Guide (read it here) is chock-full of opportunities for you to take the ﬁrst (or next) step on your painting journey. Which one is right for you?