What is Plein Air Painting?

“Plein Air” is a French phrase for being out in nature.  Plein air painters  receive their artistic inspiration directly from the landscape.

The fleeting and beautiful effects of light and shadow as they change, the movement of clouds and sky, are all challenging aspects that the artist deals with in creating a successful plein air work of art. 

A true plein air painting is created in one painting session lasting usually no more than 2 hours. 

After 2 hours the light and aspect of the scene have changed so much that it is best to start a new painting. Attempting to chase the light is a trap all painters need to be aware of and avoid if possible.

Plein Air Paintings are Usually Smaller Paintings

These paintings are typically small. The panel size is usually no more than 11” x 14” or 12” x 16” with commonly used sizes being 8" x 10" and 9" x 12".

Quite small panels of 5” x 7” can be very useful and fun to paint. They capture the true spirit of “plein air” in that they can be painted in less than an hour, and require no adjustments during such a short time for changing light and weather conditions.
It is recommended that beginners to outdoor painting start with these small panels.  Some experienced  landscape artists do paint large canvas outdoors.  They are very skilled and used to dealing with the challenges of the wind and weather.

Bold Brush Strokes and Big Brushes

Plein Air paintings are characterized  by bold brush strokes using big brushes,  fresh paint application and one's inner critic being firmly given the day off.  

By fresh paint application, we mean loading our brush with paint and then putting the paint down onto the painting surface with confidence – this means no second guessing and going back in to re-do the stroke.

 Let it be. It will speak for you.  

A Limited Palette

Vibrant color mixing is done quickly from a limited palette of paint colors. 

Try the following colors for your initial palette selection:  Yellow Ochre, Cadmium Yellow Light, Cadmium Red Light, Alizarin Crimson, Ultramarine Blue, Cobalt Blue, White.
It is very freeing to be able to mix every color we can possibly need from a few tubes of paint – and easier on the packing as well.
Traveling light is very important and the limited palette really helps with this of course.

Monet Was a Plein Air Painter

The French Impressionist painter, Monet, was one of the pioneers of outdoor painting. 

His famous series of Haystack paintings are an inspirational example. 

Monet set up 3 or 4 easels in front of  a haystack scene outdoors, and moved from one easel  to the other as the light changed on the haystacks through out the day.   

Depicting the same scene under many different lighting and weather conditions is a great exercise.  It allows us to take a familiar subject and then find new ways to make it interesting by varying composition, color palette and design.

Check out our Monthly Painting Challenge to participate in this skill building practice.

Benefits of Plein Air Painting

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