En plein air anyone? Why would you abandon your nice warm studio to paint outside?
Updated: Nov 16, 2022
As the days get longer and the weather warms, heralding the approach of Spring and summer, I start to get excited at the thought of painting outside again. Yup! I freely admit that I am a fair weather painter when it comes to painting 'en plein air'.
Don't get me wrong I have painted in freezing cold gales where the wind blows in sideways so hard and so strong that its difficult to get the paint to stick to your canvas. But usually, for me during the winter months I focus on studio work where its warm and you can enjoy home comforts such as hot coffee and podcasts.
However the approach of early spring with its vibrant colours erupting from the grey of winter brings with it the allure of painting outside. So what is the attraction? What makes artists lug heavy easels and paints miles in the countryside to find that perfect spot to paint en plein air, when you could as easily paint from a photograph?
It was back in the 1800's when artists first started venturing outside of their studios to paint. Paint tubes had been invented which enabled artist to easily transport painting equipment and so ushered in the arrival of a new artistic movement known as the impressionists. Claude Monet, its founder spent his life time trying to capture nature as he saw it painting outside and is quoted as saying:
'The richness I achieve comes from nature, the source of my inspiration.'
– Claude Monet
For me, being outside in nature as opposed to a studio, is like comparing listening to your favourite piece of music at home and listening to the same piece of music performed live at a concert. At home you can hear it clearly, each nuance and beat finally balanced and tuned, you can listen uninterrupted and be inspired, allowing it to sooth your soul or lift your spirits. Any imperfection in the orchestra or vocals are irradiated by multiple retakes leaving a seemly effortless masterpiece.
Whereas a concert is raw and real and human. Its live, you cant do retakes. What happens, happens. The vocalist may be slightly off key or a musician misses a beat, maybe you cant hear properly because of the roar of the crowd. Yet the atmosphere felt is electric and emotive. Its the same music yet a completely different experience and its the same with choosing where to paint.
For example, with a photograph in the studio you can crop and edit it to within an inch of its life to get that perfect composition. All of your tools are on hand. If you run out water to wash your brushes, no worries, just go to the sink to top up. You can zoom in to achieve fine details and have time to go over any mistakes multiple times, creating a beautifully rendered artwork...which there is nothing wrong with.
Painting en plien air however, is more challenging. You have to carry all your tools with you and physically create a workable studio space outside. If you forget anything, that's it (unless painting with an art buddy or in a group which I highly recommend as its much more fun and safe if painting in secluded locations). You have to be prepared for and battle with all extremes of weather plus a curious public who will want to comment (not always favourably) on your artwork and maybe offer a helpful critique.
But the thrill of being outside 'in nature', soaking up the atmosphere of a place, marvelling at the majesty and miracle of nature you will usually find reflected in any artworks painted en plein air. Rather than imagining what something looks like it hones your skills of really seeing things in forms rather than an object. You learn to work quickly to capture the changing light and cast shadows. The emotion and passion portrayed in a random collection of frantic brush marks and paint is often what connects the viewer to the artwork. It may not be perfectly rendered and sometimes appear unfinished but the emotion that it provokes has a unique charm all of its own.