When artists paint real objects arranged in a still life composition or live models posing before them, they are doing what is known as “Painting from Life.” When an artist takes his/her easel and paints outdoors, this is known as “En Plein Air painting,” derived from French and pronounced “ohn plen air” which literally means “in the open air.”
Working in natural light became important in the mid-19th century when a group of artists became interested in focusing their attention on painting people in their natural surroundings to depict everyday life. They became known as Realists and were the foundation of the Barbizon School of artists. This was the foundation of what later became known as Impressionism, in which artists such as Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Edouard Degas, Auguste Renoir, etc. became famous, and took their newly invented paint tubes to use outdoors.
When one goes painting en plein air, the artist seeks to represent the truth. It’s somewhat challenging because the painter should allow himself/herself to become completely absorbed in the surroundings; the atmosphere and mood, the sounds, the light, the temperature, the colours, the actual shapes around them, and then relay what they see and understand in their heads, onto the canvas/paper in paint.
The artist has to trust their own eyes and hand to interpret all the information offered by the wondrous sight before them to create a painting. The utter delight at actually being at one with the canvas and the surroundings is an experience like no other; to feel the sunlight on your skin, or to hear the breeze and birds, to observe the moving clouds and shifting shadows portrays a truth of that instant experienced by the artists. It is this that creates a reaction in the viewer – where for a while, they too can share in the delight of virtually being in that place too.
Like when you look back at your holiday photographs, you are momentarily transported there again, but no photo can ever actually measure up to actually being in that place. Painting from a photograph is a similar experience. So try painting en plein air at least once. Give it a whirl – you may never look back!
Painting en plein air does have its challenges: like being exposed to the elements such as the temperature, the wind or the changing light in that environment, but capturing a scene quickly renders the work fresh and vibrant, and whether the painting is a masterpiece or not, the involvement in the practice itself is really rewarding. I say this because when you take the technique of painting dynamically and confidently back into the studio, your work prospers and you reap the benefits in your paintings done there too.
En plein air doesn’t just mean landscapes necessarily, but street scenes, café scenes, park scenes, river scenes, children’s playgrounds etc. The choices are endless!
Plan a plein air excursion, equip yourself appropriately with sun hat, raincoat, bug spray, umbrella/parasol and lots of water and give it a try. At least once! You’ll be so happy you did.
If you live in the Cape Town area, and you are interested in trying it out, I am hosting a long weekend workshop with my friend and fellow artist, Liné Ryan du Preez, in a quaint little town called Riebeek Kasteel, where two of the workshop classes will be plein air excursions. You can come and participate for the whole weekend, or just for a day. You can see more details or have a look at the brochure here.
We’d love to see you there!