Art History Lab

Capturing Nature’s Beauty: Mastering the Plein-Air Painting Technique

Anto Plein-Air Painting

When you think of the great masterpieces of art, you would be forgiven for thinking that all of them were created in the studio, under controlled conditions with all the time in the world. However, this is not true for all works of art.

There is a style of painting that has been around for centuries where the painting is created outdoors and in the moment. This style is known as Plein-Air painting.

In this article, we will take an in-depth look at this art form, discussing its history, legacy, and how it has influenced contemporary art.

What is Plein-Air Painting?

Plein-air painting involves creating a painting outside in the open air, directly in front of the subject being painted. This technique is also known as ‘en plein air,’ which translates from French to mean ‘in the open air.’ In this type of painting, the artist works in situ and responds to the changing conditions of light, wind, and weather.

Plein-Air Painting originated in France in the late 18th century, and Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes is credited as the first to call for a return to painting outdoors in his books on landscape painting. The practice soon caught on and in the early 19th century, a group of landscape artists in the village of Barbizon, France, began painting directly from nature.

This group of artists became known as the Barbizon school, and their work greatly influenced the Impressionist movement that emerged in the mid-19th century.

The Influence of Plein-Air Painting

The Barbizon school had a significant impact on French art, but its legacy goes far beyond the borders of France. Many artists in Italy drew inspiration from the school, and this resulted in the formation of the Macchiaioli movement.

In the United States, the Impressionists were fascinated by the newly developed technology of oil paint in tubes, which allowed them the freedom to move away from the studio and work outdoors. Artists such as

John Singer Sargent, Childe Hassam, and Winslow Homer were all heavily influenced by the style of Plein-Air painting.

The Plein-Air Painting Technique

The technique of Plein-Air painting may seem simple, but it requires a great deal of skill, patience, and practice. The artist must be aware of the changing light and weather patterns, which means that they must work quickly to capture the scene before it is lost forever.

In addition, the artist must be well-equipped, meaning they must carry a portable easel, sketchbooks, and paints.

Pre-19th Century Challenges and Developments

Before the discovery of the oil paint tube, artists had to create their own paint by mixing raw pigments with oil binders. They would then have to transport these homemade paints in cumbersome containers, which made travelling and outdoor painting a near-impossible task.

However, the invention of the collapsible metal paint tube, which became widespread in the 19th century, revolutionized the art world. Not only did this make it easier for artists to travel and paint, but it also allowed them more freedom to experiment with color and composition.

Impressionism and the Plein-Air Movement

Impressionism was a radical art movement that emerged in the 1860s and the 1870s in Paris. The Impressionists were painters who wanted to capture the fleeting, transitory sensations of modern life, using loose brushwork and vivid colors to create an immediate and fleeting impression.

They were also known for their use of the Plein-Air technique, which allowed them to capture the beauty of nature in different lighting conditions.

One of the most famous Impressionist painter who used the Plein-Air technique was Claude Monet.

Monet’s paintings of Haystacks and Waterlilies are masterpieces of the Impressionist style, and they were created by painting in situ, capturing the moment as it happened.


In conclusion, Plein-Air painting is a beautiful and challenging art form that requires an artist to be mindful and present in the moment. This style has had a significant impact on the art world, influencing artists for centuries.

From the Barbizon school to the Impressionists, Plein-Air painting continues to inspire artists to this day.

Pros and Cons of Plein-Air Painting

Plein-Air Painting involves the creation of artworks outdoors and directly in front of the subject being painted. For artists who love the great outdoors, the joy of painting in the open air can be an exhilarating experience.

However, like all things, there are pros and cons to this method of painting. In this article, we will take a closer look at the benefits and challenges of Plein-Air painting.

Pros of Plein-Air Painting

Fun and Improvement of Artistic Skills

Plein-Air painting is an exciting, creative endeavor that many artists consider to be a form of leisure. The practice can help artists improve their artistic skills and develop their style.

When painting outdoors, artists have to consider and interpret different lighting conditions, weather, and changes in the environment. This process of capturing a moment induces a sense of satisfaction in the artist, who can then feel like theyve accomplished something significant.

Visual Stimuli and Fresh Air

When painting outside, artists are exposed to the natural beauty surrounding them. Plein-Air painting provides a unique opportunity for the artist to be immersed in nature while creating a beautiful and meaningful art piece.

The process also allows the artist to breathe fresh air, which can help clear their mind and reduce stress.


Plein-Air painting provides artists with the flexibility to choose when and where they paint. Since you can travel anywhere with your Plein-Air gear and set up with just a few steps, theres no need to be limited in terms of location and time.

The ability to change and select various landscapes with different lighting conditions provides the artist with infinite creative possibilities.

Training the Eye

When painting outside, artists have to rely on their senses to observe natural elements, such as the sky, trees, and water. Plein-Air painting can help artists train their eyes, which can improve their observation skills, help them perceive perspective differences, and build their color palette.

Cons of Plein-Air Painting

Time-Consuming Setup

Plein-Air painting requires a certain amount of setup. This includes carrying all the necessary equipment, setting up, and preparing the canvas and brushes.

Since this form of painting is often dependent on location choice, artists have to transport their equipment to whichever place theyve chosen to paint, which can sometimes be far away from home.

Exposure to Outdoor Elements

While painting outdoors, artists are exposed to various weather conditions. Heat, cold, wind, and rain can all affect the outcome of the painting, resulting in the artist having to work quickly and consider changes of color due to different lightning conditions.

Also, one would have to be prepared to protect their equipment from the elements.

Unwanted Attention

Painting in public spaces can sometimes attract unwanted attention from curious onlookers. While many people may admire your art, some may be too inquisitive or disturbing, leaving the artist to deal with distractions while trying to concentrate on their work.

Weather Changes

Weather patterns are by nature unpredictable and can lead to unforeseen circumstances while painting. For instance, a sudden shift in the weather conditions can mean the artist needs to pack up their equipment and move to another location, disrupting their creative flow.


Although Plein-Air painting can take you to beautiful outdoor locations, it can also come with certain challenges. Sometimes debris such as insects, leaves, twigs, or dust can get on the canvas while painting.

One has to be mindful of not letting outside elements get into the painting.

Limited Mobility

When you paint outdoors, your choice of location is critical for your creative process. However, your mobility may be limited depending on the terrain of the location and the nature of your equipment.

Carrying heavy equipment for long distances may not be suitable for all people.

Famous Plein-Air Painters and Paintings

John Constable

John Constable was an English Romantic painter known for his landscape paintings. His iconic depictions of the Dedham Vale in Essex became the hallmark of the landscape painting movement of the early 19th century.

Also noteworthy was his painting, Wivenhoe Park, which won him the silver medal at London’s Royal Academy in 1815.

Thodore Rousseau

Thodore Rousseau was a French painter who was part of the Barbizon school, a group of artists who painted from nature en plein air. He is best known for his landscapes depicting Frances Forest of Fontainebleau.

In his painting Cluster of Tall Trees Overlooking the Plain of Clair-Bois at the Edge of Bas-Brau, Rousseau captured the unexpected beauty of nature in a uniquely stunning way.

Oscar-Claude Monet

Oscar-Claude Monet was one of the most celebrated French Impressionist painters of the 19th century. Monet’s Springtime, one of his most famous paintings, exemplifies the Impressionist style and the Plein-Air technique.

The painting depicts a peaceful riverbank, where the trees, grass, and flowers blend into a colorful composition, capturing the essence of the outdoors in an instant.

John Singer Sargent

John Singer Sargent was an American painter best known for his portraiture. However, he was also a prolific landscape painter who used the Plein-Air technique to create beautiful artwork.

An Out-of-Doors Study is one of his most famous paintings, which he created outdoors during a visit to the Italian village of Capri. In


Plein-Air painting is an exciting and challenging art form that offers artists the chance to interact with nature in unique and creative ways. While it has its challenges, Plein-Air painting remains a popular technique amongst artists and art lovers alike.

Famous painters like John Constable,

Thodore Rousseau,

Oscar-Claude Monet, and

John Singer Sargent have contributed to the rich legacy of this remarkable art form, which continues to inspire artists today.

Important Tips for Engaging in Plein-Air Painting

Engaging in Plein-Air painting can be a rewarding experience that allows artists to connect with nature and capture the essence of a scene in the moment. However, it also presents unique challenges that require careful consideration and preparation.

In this article, we will explore some important tips that can enhance your Plein-Air painting experience and help you create successful artworks.

Mental Preparation

When engaging in Plein-Air painting, it’s important to mentally prepare yourself for the experience. Painting outdoors often attracts attention from passersby, which can be distracting.

Remember that this attention comes from a place of curiosity and appreciation, so it’s important to embrace it rather than feel self-conscious. Consider the visual stimulation of being in an inspiring location as an added bonus for your creative process.

Additionally, joining group painting sessions or workshops can be a great way to meet other artists, learn from one another, and share the experience.

Select a Location

Choosing the right location is crucial for a successful Plein-Air painting session. When selecting a site, consider the overall aesthetic appeal of the scene, the lighting conditions, and the accessibility of the location.

While photographs can serve as references, it’s always preferable to paint the actual site to capture the spatial cues accurately. Being physically present in the environment allows you to perceive the true colors, lighting, and atmosphere that photographs may not accurately convey.

Create a Compositional Thumbnail

Before diving into the painting, take some time to create a compositional thumbnail. This can be a quick line drawing or sketch that helps you plan the arrangement and balance of the elements within your painting.

Identify prominent shapes and landmarks and their placement within the composition. You can use a viewfinder or your fingers to frame different areas of the scene and explore various compositions before settling on one that best captures your vision.

Underpaint and Color Block-In

Starting with an underpainting can help establish the overall values and composition of the painting. A monochromatic underpainting can be done using a single color, such as a neutral gray or a complementary color to the dominant colors in your scene.

This underpainting serves as a foundation for the subsequent layers of color and helps establish the overall tonal relationships within your painting. Once the underpainting is dry, you can proceed with a color block-in, which involves blocking in the main areas of color with simplified shapes to establish the overall color scheme.

Mixture and Application of Color

Be mindful of how you mix and apply color during your Plein-Air painting session. To maintain color harmony and a cohesive look in your painting, limit your palette to a select number of colors.

This restriction can help you create a unified visual experience within your artwork. When mixing colors, experiment with different combinations to achieve the desired hue and value.

Apply the color in thin layers, gradually building up the intensity and thickness as needed. Utilize a soft brush to achieve smooth and blended transitions between colors.

Working Wet-on-Wet with Oil

If you’re working with oil paints, you have the option to work wet-on-wet, which involves layering wet paint on top of previously applied wet paint. This technique allows for the blending of colors and the creation of impasto textures.

To achieve this effect, you can layer thick paint onto the canvas, and use brushes or palette knives to create visible brush strokes and texture. Working wet-on-wet lends a sense of spontaneity and vibrancy to your Plein-Air paintings.


Engaging in Plein-Air painting can be a transformative experience for artists, providing an opportunity to connect with nature and capture its essence in a unique and immediate way. By mentally preparing yourself, selecting the right location, considering composition, using effective techniques like underpainting and color blocking, and being mindful of color mixing and application, you can make the most out of your Plein-Air painting sessions and create beautiful and compelling artworks that truly reflect your connection with the environment.

So, step outside, let nature inspire you, and embark on a Plein-Air painting adventure that will elevate your artistic practice to new heights. Engaging in Plein-Air painting is an enriching experience that allows artists to connect with nature and capture the essence of a scene in the moment.

Throughout this article, we have explored the pros and cons of Plein-Air painting, discussed famous Plein-Air painters and their works, and provided important tips for a successful Plein-Air painting experience. From mental preparation to location selection, compositional planning, color mixing, and application techniques, all these elements contribute to creating compelling Plein-Air artworks.

By embracing the challenges and joys of painting outdoors, artists can truly immerse themselves in the beauty of nature and share their unique perspective with the world. So, grab your easel, step outside, and let the world inspire your art.

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