Tips for painting en plein air

‘Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of a Wood’, John Singer Sargent, 1885, © Tate

What is plein air painting?

En plein air is a French expression which translates as ‘in the open air’.  First popularised in the mid-nineteenth century by the Impressionists, the technique allows an artist to observe, experience and record the way that natural light plays upon their subject, instilling both an immediacy and a sense of impermanence into their painting.

Tips as to how to improve your plein air painting technique:

Do not fall into the trap of assuming that because you are painting the scene in front of you, you have to paint absolutely everything that you see.  Whilst you should not imagine or intellectualise about the scene, as this will prevent you from observing and recording, you are free to be selective, ensuring that your painting will be a personal rendering, or impression of the scene, rather than an objective record.

Natural light, which is what gives paintings created en plein air their distinctive atmosphere, is also what provides the greatest challenge to their successful rendering.  When you are outside, the light changes constantly, especially if you are painting on a cloudy or windy day.  If you find that the light and shadows change too quickly for you to record them adequately, create a series of paintings (or drawings/sketches) to record the scene as it appears at different times of the day.  Return the next day, and perhaps the day after that too, and continue working on your different paintings at the relevant times.  Once you have spent a few days at work you’ll probably find that there is a particular painting which emerges as your favourite.  You will also begin to develop a sensitive understanding of the way in which the light changes, and you may even be able to capture this transitional moment in one of your paintings.

‘Woodland Autumn Morning’, © Ceri Jones

An easy mistake to make is to make your palette far too complex.  On a sunny day, confronted with all the vibrant colours of the natural world, it is all too tempting to give in to a busy, powerful palette.  Should you do this, your painting will lose all of its subtlety and the predominance of bold, deep colours will make it much more difficult to capture the soft nuances and movement of natural light.

Do not feel that you have to remain completely true to the Impressionist model and paint without the aid of modern technology.  Whilst you should not rely overly on photographs, they can be invaluable as visual aids, especially if you are struggling to capture a particular moment – the way that light hits the water, for example.

If this piece has inspired you to pack up your brushes and head out into the wild outdoors, we’d love to see your plein air sketches, drawings and paintings!  Feel free to email images of your work to emmaw@parkerharris.co.uk, and we’ll give you a mention!

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