Plein air: how a tube revolutionised painting

by Vincenza Napoli

En plein air, French for ‘in the open air’, is the style of creating paintings outside. But let’s get something straight: plein air paintings are not just landscapes. They’re not nearly as plain as that. (Pun very much intended).

Plein air paintings are not to be confused with mere sketches or studies made outside. They are artworks that are painted outside, from start to finish.

The tendency to leave the studio and to paint within nature began during a time in which landscape painters were considered by France’s Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture to be the lowest of all genres. This was because they didn’t believe landscapes required the same amount of skill as, for example, painting an anatomically accurate person. But boy, were they about to be proven wrong.

To discover the difference between painting in a studio and painting outside, read on.

When did it start?

Plein air painting largely began in France in the 1830s in response to the notion of idealised Italian landscapes. For context, Italy in the 19th century was the place to be, and not just because of the pasta. Rivalling Paris, Rome had been the centre of the art world since the Renaissance. Artists from across Europe studied in Rome (including the French) and consequently brought the Italian approach to painting back home.

Influenced by the artist, John Constable, (Remember Constable from the Royal Academy?) a group of landscape painters escaped to regions outside of Paris, such as the Forest of Fontainebleau, to paint. With a collective interest in depicting nature as they see it - not in the idealistic style of the Italians - these groups of artists became known as the Barbizon School. Despite the elements, these artists took their easels outside, subsequently pioneering the technique of plein air painting.

What does paint have to do with it?

While the Barbizon School is characterised by a group of artists painting en plein air, it wasn’t until the invention of paint in a tube in 1870 that made the technique more widely accessible.

While we may take this design (which is the same that is used for toothpaste) for granted now, the introduction of pre-made paint tubes revolutionised the speed at which artists could paint, as well as allowing flexibility of location, so that artists could more easily take their work outside. Who would’ve thought a tube of paint would be so revolutionary?

What about the Impressionists?

Established by the Barbizon School and made accessible by the paint tube, painting en plein air is most closely associated with the Impressionists who popularised the technique.

Impressionism is defined by quick and obvious brushstrokes used to depict landscapes and everyday life scenes as subjects. While the Barbizon School used plein air painting to create a uniquely French style of landscape painting, the Impressionists used it to explore their interest in the ephemeral nature of sunlight.

The best examples of the exploration of sunlight on subject matter are the Haystacks painted by Claude Monet. By returning to the haystacks over and over again, Monet was able to study the effects of seasonal changing light on the same subject. This fleeting nature of light encouraged Impressionist artists, such as Monet, to use rapid and very obvious brushstrokes. While the Italian model attempted to capture scenes almost as accurately as a photograph therefore hiding the brushstrokes, the Impressionists’ deliberately attempt to reveal the brushstrokes. Therefore, there is a sense that the scene portrayed is not a frozen snapshot in time but instead has life and movement.

What makes it special?

So the question is, how does painting en plein air differ from painting within a studio setting?

Well, for one, you’re not in your studio. When painting outside, you have to pack as lightly as possible. Deciding if you should bring an extra brush or if you could do without another shade of blue paint suddenly becomes important considerations. An easel that is not only easy to travel with, but can also withstand wind or rain is also vital.

When painting from a photo or a sketch, you have a limited image to work with. However, when working en plein air, it’s easy to be overwhelmed with a 360-degree scene of a stunning landscape. Therefore, an artist is faced with the difficult task of choosing which details of the scene they wish to paint.

Arguably the most challenging aspect of painting en plein air is the environment. Not only do plein air painters work with wind, rain or heat, but they are also faced with a deadline. The everchanging light that the Impressionists were fascinated by forces a plein air painter to work fast.

Painting en plein air is much more than just a change of scenery. In addition to the environmental challenges, the style transports the artist right into the subject and removes any visual limitations experienced painting inside a studio.

The same fascinations of the Barbizon School and the Impressionists continue to inspire painters today, including our artists on Artfinder. Just a few months ago, Artfinder sent a handful of artists to a residency at an estate in Brittany, France. Just like the French painters of the 1800s, these artists created works from start to finish in the beautiful French countryside.


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