What Is Plein Air Painting?

You may have heard others refer to painting en plein air, which is sometimes pronounced “plain” and sometimes pronounced “plen.” The phrase comes from the French word for “outside.” But enough about pronunciations — what is plein air painting?

Simply put: Plein air painting is the same as painting outside. Thousands of artists have begun this practice by taking their supplies into cities and urban areas to reflect the hustle and bustle of people in their daily lives, as well as to the mountains, streams, forests, and deserts to capture the magnificence of nature on canvas. “I’ve been involved in the arts for more than 20 years, and one of the most exciting phenomena to happen in that time has been the explosion of interest painting outdoors,” says Kelly Kane, editor of PleinAir Magazine. Now, you, too, can be a part of this movement.

Sign up for our free newsletter to learn more about painting outdoors, and get a free download with 240 plein air painting tips!

Plein air painting for beginners
A common scene from the Plein Air Convention & Expo

Why Plein Air Painting?

Outdoor painters love plein air for many reasons. One of the most common is the act of being outside and connecting with nature, along with the fact that when painting outdoors, one must make quick decisions about elements such as composition and color. Working quickly keeps you in the moment and lets you get the essence of the scene onto your canvas before the light or other factors change.

Some artists consider the painting complete the moment they pack up their gear. Others will finish their work in the studio with their studies and photo references — there is no wrong way.

To learn more about this movement, watch our “Outside The Lines” documentary, from the publisher’s of PleinAir Magazine:

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How Do You Paint En Plein Air?

There are some logistics to consider when painting outside, and that’s why our team at Plein Air Magazine has put together 240 tips for beginners, including the following:

Spend more time understanding what you are trying to paint,” says Ken Auster. “Edit out anything that you cannot understand intellectually. Define the focal point — the hook, the thing that caught your eye. Build the painting around the focal point like a spider web. The closer you are to the focal point, the tighter the brushwork, and the further from the focal point, the looser it gets. All roads lead to the focal point; no jumping around in the painting.”

Have a sense of humor at the easel,” says Brenda Boylan. “This keeps things simple and not overworked — not to mention, the ‘fun factor’ is definitely increased.”

Learn to see it as it is, and not how it was,” says Ryan S. Brown. “Separate yourself from the small steps that made the work better in order to see whether it is fully resolved yet. Self-critiquing is difficult because we see everything that has gone into the piece. When we make a change or a correction, it is easy to convince ourselves that it’s right, or that it’s fully resolved, because we see how much better it looks than it did in previous stages. It’s necessary to blind yourself to how much better it looks and see it as though you’ve never looked at it before. Try to figure out whether it’s fully resolved or if it still needs some adjusting.”

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What is plein air painting?
“View From Above,” by Carol Jenkins, is a plein air oil painting that won in the PleinAir Salon’s Best Building category (February/March 2018).


One More Tip for Plein Air Artists

Never lose your passion for painting,” says John D. Cogan. “Each of us as an artist fell in love with line, with shape, with color. Take pleasure in using these to create more beauty. Enjoy the line as it follows the pencil point, indulge the sensuous flow of paint as you layer thick color onto the canvas, feel the form as you mold it in clay. Love what you do as an artist, and you cannot help but do it well.”

Are you ready to begin connecting with nature by painting outdoors? Start today with this free download when you sign up for our free newsletter, brought to you by PleinAir Magazine. Each week brings you new landscape painting advice, tips for artists in general, and a sense of being part of the largest art movement in history!

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