Rachel Carson Marsh in Kennebunk, Maine,
8"x16" oil on treated paper
A plein air painting is a landscape painted on location out of doors. If you aren’t a painter, you’re probably wondering how that’s different from a painting created indoors, and if it makes a difference to the look of the painting.
Let’s start by talking about how plein air painting is done differently. First, when painting plein air, we “paint from life”. In other words, we aren’t taking a photograph, and using that as our reference to create the painting. One of the fun parts is scouting around looking for places that would make interesting paintings. Once such a place is found, we choose a section of what we see before us, and make a several freehand drawings in a sketchbook to test options. After a few minutes, there are often 3 or 4 sketches to choose from. Once we’ve found an option that we like, we draw it on the canvas. I usually do the drawing on canvas with paint rather than charcoal or a pencil.
One of our family boats, showing a monochrome block-in, or value underpainting,
and the final 8"x8" oil painting
The actual paint application is not very different indoors versus outdoors when painting with oil paint, since it doesn’t dry very quickly. Except for one thing. The scene before us is changing as the sun moves across the sky. So without a photograph to record the scene at a specific time, we have to get the painting done quickly, before the lighting changes. Usually about 2 hours is all we’ve got, unless we come back another day, and that requires the same weather conditions. If we’re at the ocean, then the tide is also changing as time goes by. And most complicated of all, is sunrise or sunset, where things change very fast. And if it’s sunrise on sunset over water, there are actually two scenes that are both changing fast. No wonder plein air paintings are often small!
Two paintings on different days of the same scene at Great Brook State Park in Massachusetts, both 6"x6" oils
Plein air painting requires a good bit of planning and some practice to see what works best for the painter. I don’t know how many times I’ve had to go back to the car to get something I forgot that I can’t paint without, like paper towels, or the tripod that my paint box sits on. A checklist is very helpful.
You might ask, if plein air paintings is that much trouble, why do painters do it? I think there are several reasons. First, it’s a lot of fun. And being outside is always something to be treasured. It’s also a challenge, and many of us love a challenge. And I like the fresh look of a painting done quickly from life. It’s easy to overwork a painting, and when working outside, there’s much less chance of that.
Three paintings done in quick succession as the sun was going down from the top of Mt Agamenticus in York, Maine,
all 5"x7" oils
Is a plein air painting better than one painted indoors? No, I’m not saying that. But it is different. And the experience the artist has while creating the painting is different, and I think that shows in the work. Both kinds of paintings are appealing, and we have many of each kind in our home.
Looking out my studio window, I’m glad to see the leaves on the trees and the nice weather. It’s time to go outside and paint. Yay for plein air season!
Bobbi - Painter. Sketcher. Teacher. Boat and Dog Lover.