Plein air, a French word, literally translates as 'open air', and is defined as painting or drawing done outside, in the open air. The equivalent term in Italian would be alfresco. These works were taken directly from nature, and infused with a feeling of the open air. A relatively recent practice, painting outdoors became an important dimension of the landscape work of the Impressionists and painters of the Barbizon school. Although plein air painting should not be considered as synonymous with Impressionism or quick sketching, it became central to Impressionism.
The term is largely associated with the Impressionist artists of the late 1800s, a time when artists began to paint subject matter not normally seen: real people doing real, everyday things, and they came out of their studios into the open air to create their works. Impressionist artists were particularly interested in the influence of changing light outdoors on color. The popularity of plein air painting was aided by the development of easily portable painting equipment and materials, including paints sold in tubes.
Painting from life is a pursuit unlike any other painting technique. It challenges artists to concentrate completely on the information in front of them. Their senses absorb it all, from sight to sound, from temperature to atmosphere, and then channel these feelings into their vision in paint on paper or canvas. The roots of painting from life are found in 19th century Europe. In England, John Constable believed the artist should forget about formulas and trust his own vision in finding truth in nature. To find that 'truth', he made sketches outdoors, and then elaborated upon them in his studio. In France, at about the same time, in a small village called Barbizon, outside Paris, a group of artists focused their attentions on peasant life and the natural world surrounding it. Like Constable, Francois Millet and Gustave Courbet challenged conventions of their day, choosing everyday people and objects as their subjects.
These realists, as they came to be called, laid the groundwork for the mid-19th century revolution in France that took painting from life to its next development. Led by Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Edouard Degas, Auguste Renoir, and others, the Impressionists espoused the belief that you should trust your eyes. To prove their theories, they took their paint tubes and easels outdoors, where they re-created the world as colors which suggested light.
Painting en plein air would forever change how we see the world. Artists in the United States were attracted to the concept, and many, like Californian Guy Rose, traveled to France to study with Monet. Suddenly, places with remarkable light were of particular interest to painters, on both the East and West coasts, as well as the American Southwest. In many of these areas painting colonies were formed. The goal of teachers and students alike was to capture the light and colors peculiar to these particular locales. Winslow Homer, Childe Hassam, and Thomas Hill are just a few of countless American artists well regarded for their plein air works. Philip Leslie Hale was known to pose models outdoors in his aunt's garden at Matunuck, Rhode Island, to obtain the effect of vibrant sunlight. Boston painter Edmund Tarbell's works were well received by the press, one critic noting that 'the effect of open air and real afternoon sunshine is unmistakanly there." William Merritt Chase is noted not only for his own plein air paintings of parks and seashores, but also for his outdoor summer teaching of art at such places as the Shinnecock Summer Art School on Long Island, Carmel, California, as well as abroad. On the West Coast, noted California plein air artists include: William Wendt, Edgar Payne, Jack Wilkinson Smith, Selden Connor Gile, Charles Rollo Peters, Hanson Puthuff, and Franz Bischoff.
Open-air artists attempt to capture an immediate impression of what the eye sees, rather than what the viewer knows or feels about the work. They study how light appears on subjects in different weather and at different times of the day, an interest that can be traced back to Realism. They prefer to work outdoors in natural light, rather than in their studio with sketches, and often their art tends to have brilliant colors that almost shimmer in their intensity.
Today, painting from life is a pursuit that continues to challenge the finest artists in the world. There are numerous associations of plein air painters, noteworthy among them being PAPA (Plein Air Painters of America) which was founded by Denise Burns, and counts among its signature members such artists as Peter Adams, Frank LaLumia, and George Strickland. The National Academy of Professional Plein Air Painters is another association, and its contemporary members include Deborah Chapin, Richard McDaniel, among many others.
Compiled by Teta Collins. Credit for much of the above information is given to the website of the Plein Air Painters of America (PAPA) and to that of the National Academy of Professional Plein Air Painters.