Why You Should Be Painting en Plein Air, According to Artists

Practiced by the Old Masters for centuries, the fresh air can do wonders for your masterpiece.

Have you found that your studio or that little nook of your home where you regularly paint just isn't inspiring you the same way that it used to? It might be time to try painting en plein air. It's French for exactly what it sounds like: outdoor painting. Plein air painting was made popular by the French Impressionists, but it's increasingly popular today, says artist Amanda Klein. Typically, those who paint en plein air are landscape painters, who use the opportunity to get a direct view of the subject of their art. And many of these artists choose to use oils or acrylics, since they're easy to transport.

artist painting on canvas outdoors in field
recep-bg / Getty Images

But it's a practice all artists can—and should—experiment with, regardless of their chosen medium. "There is nothing more important for an artists to do, no matter at what stage in their career they are than to paint from life as much as possible," says Lisa Gleim, Atlanta Artist Collective. Here, a look at why.

It takes you away from digital distractions.

Painting is a meditative activity, says Emily Antonian Li Mandri of MLE. "To be able to completely disconnect from the digital world and paint outside is the ultimate expression of painting as mediation." The point is to put down the phone, get away from computer screens and software, and allow your eye and mind to apply brush to canvas or paper, adds Emilie Dulles, owner of Dulles Designs.

It enhances creative expression.

"Plein air painting is all about the experience: getting out of the house, into nature, and engaging your senses," says Warwick Goldswain, an art educator for Shaw Academy. Sure, you can look at a photo, but when you look at a photo, you are an outsider, he explains. "Plein air painting takes you beyond the photo into the real thing. Suddenly, you become aware of rustling trees, swirling clouds, and your relationship to the living world."

And each and every time you paint en plein air, even if it's in the same location, there's different stimuli around you, explains Laura Connelly, artist and founder of Stellar Villa. These stimuli, no matter how small, help heighten your senses and put your creative gears in motion. "Also, while working outside, you are a witness to the beauty of the world which can be inspirational not only to the theme of your artistic creation but also to smaller attributes of the work such as color palettes and shading techniques," she says.

It helps you capture authentic scenes.

Plein air painting gives you more creative control, says Goldswain: "Compositionally, your eyes are not bound by the photo edge or camera viewfinder. You can walk through the landscape and make a day of it by experimenting with different compositions and different locations." And the more you see, the better you can paint the scene.

It's the best way to capture and match actual colors.

"Painting outside en plein air is simply the best way to capture and match actual colors to any scene, time of day, and especially season you wish to study and capture, be it the oranges and pinks of a spring summer sunset, or the wintery whites and blues of a crisp evening-lit snowfall," says Dulles. For best results, try to visit a particular perch, outdoor façade, or subject vista you wish to study and paint en plein air in the same spot at least two or three times, she explains.

It encourages risk taking.

"On a technical level, plein air painting forces you to take risks and work quickly due to the time limit of working on location," says Goldswain. "This is a great way to break free from the habit of being cautious and overworking your painting." The emphasis becomes the process rather than the product, which helps to take the pressure off, he explains. "You're forced to lay on larger areas of strong color, giving your painting a fresh look."

It's mentally refreshing.

Lastly, plein air painting is healthy and fun. Exploring an outdoor locale allows you to be physically active, plus affords you the opportunity to soak up some sunlight. And if you're the social type, Goldswain says a plein air painting group is a great way to make some new friends.

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