En plein air is a French expression meaning “in the open air,” and refers to the act of painting outdoors with the artist’s subject in full view. Plein air artists capture the spirit and essence of a landscape or subject by incorporating natural light, color and movement into their works.
Artists have long painted outdoors, but in the mid-1800s painting landscapes and other scenes on location finally became practical due to two important inventions: paints in tubes and the box easel.
Before these innovations, each painter made their own paints by grinding and mixing pigment powders with various oils — a process difficult to perform away from the studio.
The box easel, also known as the “French Easel,” included telescopic legs for easy set up and a compartment for carrying paints, brushes, a palette and other supplies. These easels are still a popular choice of artists today since they fold up to the size of a brief case and are easy to store and transport. Finally, the later introduction of canvas panels (canvas stretched over flat boards) made it possible for artists to easily carry all of their equipment and supplies to a variety of new outdoor locations.
The high point of plein air art came with the emergence of Impressionism. Artists of that period included Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Cezanne and Van Gogh. Interest in outdoor painting has remained constant since the 20th century. Today’s artists carry on the traditions of these past masters by capturing the light and movement in landscapes that can only come from seeing the subject outdoors in its natural form.
The last 20 years has seen a resurgence of interest in plein air painting in the United States. During this time, groups of plein air artists began gathering together to paint at single locations or within certain geographic boundaries. These “Paint Outs” are now very popular and give artists a chance to share their talents and creativity with the public and with one another.