Exploring Plein Air Painting: What Type of Painting is Plein Air?

When it comes to painting, there are many techniques and styles to choose from. One style that has gained popularity in recent years is known as Plein Air painting. This type of painting involves creating artwork while outdoors, in natural light. Artists who choose to paint this way find inspiration in the beauty of nature, and it’s no surprise that the paintings that come from this style are often breathtaking.

Plein Air painting is an age-old technique that has been around for centuries. However, it wasn’t until the 1800s that this style of painting became widely recognized and appreciated. Some of the most famous Plein Air painters include Monet, Cézanne, and Van Gogh. These artists saw the beauty in the natural world around them and captured it in their paintings. Today, many artists still choose to paint in this style, as it allows them to connect with nature in a powerful and meaningful way.

So, what makes Plein Air painting different from other techniques? Well, for starters, the artist is outdoors, in the natural environment, capturing the beauty around them as it unfolds. This means that they must deal with the changing light, weather, and other elements that can impact their painting. It’s a challenging but rewarding way to paint, and many artists find that it helps them to grow and develop as artists. Whether you’re an experienced painter or just starting out, trying Plein Air painting is an experience you won’t forget.

History of Plein Air Painting

Plein air painting, also known as outdoor painting, is a term derived from the French phrase “en plein air,” which means “in the open air.” It is a style of painting where artists paint landscapes, cityscapes, or other natural surroundings outdoors, rather than in a studio or indoor setting. The history of plein air painting dates back to the mid-1800s where it gained popularity among artists in Europe and North America.

  • In the early 19th century, the invention of the portable paint tube made it easier for artists to paint outside of their studios.
  • French artist Claude Monet is widely regarded as the father of plein air painting and one of the most prominent figures of the Impressionist movement.
  • Plein air painting gained traction in the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s through the works of American artists such as Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, and Childe Hassam.

The popularity of plein air painting waned in the early 20th century with the rise of abstract art and modernism. However, it experienced a resurgence in the 1980s and 1990s through the works of contemporary artists such as Richard Schmid, Clyde Aspevig, and Plein Air Painters of America.

Today, plein air painting remains a beloved style among artists and art enthusiasts alike, with numerous organizations, competitions, and workshops dedicated to the practice. It continues to capture the beauty and essence of the natural world while providing a challenge for artists to capture the ever-changing light and atmospheric conditions of the great outdoors.

Famous Plein Air Painters

Plein air painting is a unique art form that involves painting outdoors, capturing the changing light and atmosphere of a landscape. The art form has had several famous proponents over the years. Unlike traditional painters who often worked indoors, these artists took their canvases and paints out into the wilderness to capture the beauty of nature.

  • Claude Monet: One of the most well-known artists in the world, Monet was a master of capturing light and atmosphere in his landscapes. He is often credited with popularizing plein air painting, and many of his most famous works were painted outdoors.
  • Vincent van Gogh: Despite his short career, van Gogh left an indelible mark on the art world with his vibrant, colorful paintings. Many of his most famous works were painted on location, with the artist battling intense heat, cold, and sometimes even rain and snow.
  • Winslow Homer: A leading figure in American art, Homer is best known for his paintings of the New England coast. His plein air works often feature dramatic seascapes and rugged landscapes.

Impact of Famous Plein Air Painters

The work of these famous plein air painters helped popularize the art form, paving the way for future generations of artists who wanted to capture the beauty of nature in their work. Today, plein air painting is still a popular art form practiced by artists around the world.

Artist Years Active Famous Works
Claude Monet 1840-1926 Water Lilies, Rouen Cathedral series, Haystacks
Vincent van Gogh 1853-1890 The Starry Night, Wheat Field with Cypresses, Sunflowers
Winslow Homer 1836-1910 The Gulf Stream, Breezing Up (A Fair Wind), The Herring Net

These artists and many more have left an indelible mark on the art world with their beautiful, inspiring works. Their ability to capture the beauty of nature through plein air painting has inspired countless artists to follow in their footsteps.

Techniques for Plein Air Painting

Plein air painting is a French term that means open-air painting. It is the practice of painting in an outdoor setting, typically in the natural surroundings like landscapes, seascapes, or cityscapes. The technique requires the artist to capture the moment’s impression, and it is done rapidly to capture the changing light and weather conditions. Before going outdoors, it is essential to have your painting equipment list ready, including your easel, brushes, paint, and canvas. Learning these techniques is essential for beginners to paint with ease, confidence, and creativity.

  • Plan your composition: Before starting any painting, it is important to determine your composition. Take a few minutes to analyze the surroundings and decide what you want to depict in your painting. It is also important to consider the lighting, angles, and colors to create a balanced painting.
  • Create a painting sketch: Making a quick sketch in a sketchbook helps in planning the composition, angles, and scale before starting painting on the canvas. Also, these quick sketches will catch fleeting moments, and you can quickly note down the basic forms, values, and tonal relationships.
  • Use large brushes: Using a large brush reduces the need for detail and helps capture the essence of the scene. It also allows you to work quickly and capture movement, light, and shadow. Consider using less paint and larger brushstrokes to create a looser and more fluid painting.

Materials for Plein Air Painting

Having the correct materials is essential for Plein air painting. The correct materials can make the painting process more enjoyable and easier. Below are some essential tools that you will need for Plein air painting:

Materials Explanation
Easel An easel is used to hold the canvas or drawing board in place while painting. It is available in various sizes, shapes, and designs to fit anyone’s preference.
Paints Acrylic and oil paints are commonly used for Plein air paintings because of their versatility and quick drying time. Also, consider the color palette, and try to limit the colors that you bring.
Brushes Use a variety of large and small brushes to create different textures and to paint details. Brushes should be durable and lightweight to withstand outdoor conditions.
Palette Use a flat, sturdy, and light palette where you can mix the colors. A white surface reflects the colors, making it easier to evaluate the color accurately.
Canvas or Paper Using lightweight and easy to carry canvases or watercolor paper is recommended for Plein air painting. Prepare all canvas or paper sizes before heading to the field to save time.

With enough practice, the techniques for Plein air painting and choosing the right materials, you can create beautiful works of art that capture nature’s beauty while enjoying the great outdoors.

Benefits of Plein Air Painting for Artists

Plein air painting is a style of painting outside, directly from nature, or outdoors. It is a French term that means “in the open air.” The practice of plein air painting can be beneficial in many ways, not only for the finished product but also for the artist themselves. Here are some of the benefits of plein air painting for artists.

1. Inspiration: Nature provides a unique inspiration that cannot be replicated in a studio. Plein air painting allows the artist to capture a moment in time, to experience the weather, the light, and the sounds of the surroundings.

2. Challenges: Plein air painting presents unique challenges, such as changing weather and lighting conditions, which can be used to stretch an artist’s skills and abilities.

3. Freshness: The immediacy of plein air painting often results in fresh and spontaneous artworks. The process of plein air painting creates a sense of urgency that can translate into a greater energy and excitement in the finished artwork.

4. Improved Skills: Through plein air painting, artists can develop better observational and painting skills. The challenge of painting from life causes the artist to consider more carefully the colors, values, and composition, resulting in a more accurate representation of the scene.

Here is a breakdown of how plein air painting can improve the artist’s skills:

Skill How Plein Air Painting Helps
Color and Value Observing directly from life increases the artist’s ability to accurately perceive the colors and values in a scene.
Composition Plein air painting forces the artist to make quick decisions about the composition of the painting.
Drawing and Proportions Plein air painting requires the artist to quickly draw and lay out the proportions of the scene accurately.

Plein air painting can help artists to improve their skills and produce unique and fresh artwork that captures the essence of a moment in time.

Equipment Needed for Plein Air Painting

Plein air, or outdoor painting, is a form of painting that requires a specific set of equipment to be successful. The equipment needed for plein air painting will depend on the individual artist’s preferences, style, and medium of choice. Here are some essential equipment needed for plein air painting:

  • Easel: An easel is essential for outdoor painting. It provides the artist with a stable platform to work on and allows them to adjust the height and angle of their painting surface.
  • Painting Surface: The painting surface can range from canvas to paper, and its size is determined by the artist’s preferences.
  • Paints: The paints used for plein air painting can vary based on the medium used. Oil paints, watercolors, and acrylic paints are common mediums for plein air painting.
  • Brushes: Brushes come in different shapes and sizes, and an artist will select brushes based on the effect they want to achieve in their painting.
  • Solvents: Solvents are required for oil painters to thin their paints and clean their brushes. Painters who use watercolors or acrylics may use water as a solvent.

In addition to these essentials, there are several optional pieces of equipment that plein air painters may choose to use:

  • Palette knife: A palette knife can be used for mixing colors and applying paint to the painting surface.
  • Misting Bottle: A misting bottle can be used to keep the painting surface damp and help with blending colors for watercolor artists.
  • Sun Hat: An artist’s comfort is also essential. A sun hat can keep the sun out of the artist’s eyes, and a large umbrella can provide shade while painting outdoors.

Choosing the Right Equipment for You

When selecting equipment for plein air painting, an artist must consider their own preferences, style, and what medium they will use. For example, watercolor painters will need less equipment than oil painters, and acrylic painters may need more time to work with their paints due to their faster drying time than oil paints.

It’s also important to consider how much you can carry and transport to your location. Backpack easels are available for those who prefer to hike to their locations to paint.

A Plein Air Painting Equipment Checklist

To help artists keep track of their equipment needs, a checklist of necessary equipment is recommended. Here is a checklist of plein air painting equipment:

Equipment Oil Painters Watercolor Painters Acrylic Painters
Painting Surface
Palette Knife
Misting Bottle
Sun Hat

By having the right equipment for plein air painting, artists can create beautiful artwork while enjoying the beauty and inspiration of the outdoor environment.

Best Locations for Plein Air Painting

Plein air painting is a form of art that involves painting outdoors in natural light. It is gaining popularity among artists due to its ability to capture the essence of nature and the unique beauty of every season. However, it can be overwhelming for beginners to figure out where to go for their first plein air experience. Here are some of the best locations that will inspire you for your next outdoor masterpiece!

  • Beaches: Beaches offer a serene and peaceful setting. With the sound of waves crashing against the shore, the warmth of the sun, and the salty breeze, painting at the beach will give you a relaxing and calming experience. Plus, the varying colors of the sky at sunrise and sunset will make your painting more vibrant and interesting.
  • Forests: If you want to capture the beauty of foliage, forests are the place to go. The varying colors of the leaves and the gentle sound of the rustling tree leaves are sure to inspire you. Moreover, the shady forests provide the perfect balance of light and shade that will help you improve your painting technique.
  • Mountains: If you want to challenge your skills, then mountains are the best option. The breathtaking views of the mountain ranges and the varying shades of green and brown will help you improve your landscape painting skills. In addition, the changing light and shadow effects of the mountains will make your painting more interesting.
  • Lakes and Waterfalls: If you are fascinated by water bodies, then lakes and waterfalls are ideal for you. With the varying shades of blue and green and the sound of water splashing, lakes and waterfalls provide a peaceful and serene setting to paint. Additionally, capturing the reflections and movements of the water will improve your painting skills.
  • Parks and Gardens: If you are looking for a colorful and vibrant setting, then parks and gardens are the perfect locations. With the beautiful arrays of flowers and plants, you can capture the beauty of nature in every color. Moreover, parks provide a lively and bustling background that adds energy to your painting.
  • Cityscapes: If you want to capture the city life and the hustle and bustle of the streets, then cityscapes are the perfect option. With the various buildings, cityscapes provide great perspectives and architectural elements that will help you hone your painting skills. Furthermore, the vibrant colors and lighting effects of cityscapes make it an enticing location for plein air painting.


Plein air painting is all about exploring and discovering the beauty and uniqueness of nature. The above-listed locations will not only inspire you but also help you hone your painting skills. So, find your inspiration and get ready to paint your next masterpiece!

Challenges Faced by Plein Air Painters

Painting outdoors, or “en plein air” as it is known in the art world, presents a unique set of challenges for artists. From weather changes to time constraints, plein air painters must be adaptable and resourceful in order to create a successful painting. Below are seven common challenges faced by plein air painters:

  • Weather: Outdoor painting exposes artists to the elements, which can be unpredictable and change quickly. Rain, wind, and extreme heat or cold can all make it difficult to work comfortably and may affect the painting’s outcome.
  • Light: The light outdoors is constantly changing, which can make it challenging to create a painting with consistent lighting. Artists must be able to quickly adjust to shifting shadow patterns and changing hues.
  • Distractions: It’s difficult to control the environment around you when painting outdoors. Unexpected noises, curious passersby, and distracting scenery can all make it difficult to focus on the painting at hand.
  • Mobility: Plein air painters must be able to transport their supplies to and from a location, which can be a challenge if the site is difficult to access or requires a long hike. Artists must also be able to carry everything they need with them, which can be cumbersome and may limit their ability to paint for extended periods of time.
  • Time constraints: Painting outdoors is often dictated by the time of day or season, which means artists may only have a limited amount of time to work with ideal lighting conditions. This can put pressure on artists to finish quickly and may affect the quality of the finished painting.
  • Equipment: Outdoor painting requires specialized equipment that can withstand the elements, including easels, paints, and canvases. Artists must also have adequate storage for their supplies, as well as a sheltered area to work if the weather turns bad.
  • Composition: Creating a successful composition outdoors requires a different approach than indoor painting. Artists must work with the existing scenery and landscape, which may require them to make difficult composition decisions in real-time.


Plein air painting is a challenging but rewarding discipline that requires artists to be adaptable, resourceful, and patient. By understanding the challenges of painting outdoors, artists can better prepare themselves to create successful paintings that capture the beauty and essence of the environment around them.

FAQs About Plein Air Painting

1. What is plein air painting?
Plein air painting is a type of artwork created outdoors, directly inspired by the natural scenery. It’s a French term which translates to “in the open air”.

2. What types of painting materials can be used for plein air painting?
Artists can use a variety of materials for plein air painting, such as oils, acrylics, watercolors, pastels, and gouache. However, some artists may prefer some materials over others, depending on their preferred style.

3. How does plein air painting differ from studio painting?
Plein air painting differs from studio painting in that it requires the artist to paint on location, in the midst of the natural environment. This means the artist must work quickly, take in and capture the natural light and atmosphere, and adjust to changing conditions.

4. When did plein air painting become popular?
Plein air painting became popular in the mid 19th century, thanks to the invention of portable painting supplies and the rise of impressionism. It was seen as a way for artists to capture the fleeting beauty of the natural world in a more authentic way.

5. Who are some famous plein air painters?
Some famous plein air painters include Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh, John Singer Sargent, and Winslow Homer. Additionally, many contemporary artists also practice plein air painting.

6. What are some benefits of plein air painting?
Some benefits of plein air painting include honing one’s observational skills, practice with working quickly and effectively, and an increased sensitivity to natural light and color. It can also be a great way to connect with nature and find inspiration.

Closing Thoughts

Thanks for reading about plein air painting! Whether you’re an artist or someone who simply enjoys art, understanding what this genre entails can help deepen your appreciation for it. Be sure to come back to this site for more insights and inspiration on a variety of topics. Happy creating!