5 Plein Air Painting Secrets & Techniques to Enrich Your Art

By Milan Art Institute on October 20, 2020
5 Plein Air Painting Secrets & Techniques to Enrich Your Art

October in Athens, Georgia is like an extension of summer in many ways, making it an excellent time of the year to get in some plein air painting (or urban sketching if your time is limited). 

For artists who are all about making paintings in their own personal open air workshop, it's hard to beat the view! So many places in Athens are worthy of becoming the subject of an oil painting done on site. 

For those who don’t live in Athens, it’s likely that many places in your own hometown are equally worthy of becoming the subject of an on-site painting.

Plein air painting is also a way to level up your skills as an artist, particularly if you start with an oil sketch. It also offers art students the opportunity to paint from life, which is excellent training for the artist's brain. 

Learning to see like an artist partly involves being able to translate what you see in 3D into a 2D format, and while this isn't all there is to seeing the world the way an artist does, it's an excellent start. 

By nature, plein air painting encourages you to paint without photographs. Rather, you paint directly from life.

The purpose of this blog about art techniques is to give you a brief overview of the practice of plein air painting and to hopefully, encourage you to get out and draw and sketch more from life. 

1. What Does En Plein Air Mean?

“En plein air,” or more commonly, plein air, is French for “out-of-doors,” and according to the Tate Museum, it is the practice of creating a painting entirely outdoors, as opposed to in the studio. 

While it was common for artists to paint preparatory drawings of landscapes they wanted to paint, the finished landscape painting came from the artists’ studios.  

And here’s an art history fun fact. En plein air became a way of painting in the 19th century, when tubes of paint came into existence. Before that time, artists had to create their own paints. Because of this, it was difficult to transport the art supplies they needed to make a painting on site. It was much easier to paint in a studio.

2. Who Are Some Famous Plein Air Painters?

This form of landscape painting got its start with the Romantic movement in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Artist John Constable is said to have pioneered the practice. 

It later became popular with the French Impressionists, and artists, like Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro and Pierre-Auguste Renior were notable plein air painters.

Modern American painter, Thomas Kinkade, also practiced plein air painting under the brush name of Robert Girrard, because he found that painting outdoors allowed him to understand the secrets of the plein air masters better.

These are some of the best-known plein air painters. 

3. Is There a Difference Between Plein Air and Urban Sketching?

The short answer to this is, “Yes,” though the longer answer acknowledges that en plein air and urban sketching have a great deal in common, despite the differences between the two, according to Pentalic

Both can involve getting outside and painting the natural world. Of the two, plein air often takes longer to do. En plein air painters usually use pastels or paint to make their creations. 

On the other hand, urban sketchers sketch the scenes in front of them, and while they may paint their creations with watercolors, they may also use markers or colored pencils. Urban sketchers may also choose to use no colors at all. That is they may just sketch the scene in front of them with pencil or ink. 

Additionally, some plein air painters may “edit” a scene to make it look better. This means that the painter may leave out a telephone pole or move some element in the scene to create a better composition.

Urban sketching, and by extension, travel sketching, is really about recording an event and is much more journalistic in nature. The idea is to tell the story of a place that the urban sketcher has been. The subsequent entry in the urban sketcher’s journal can also include written text for this reason. 

Finally, while urban sketching can take place outdoors, like plein air painting does, it’s also acceptable for the artist to draw the insides of buildings, like museums, a coffee shop or even concerts and the people who attend them. The urban sketcher honors each location he or she paints or draws, regardless of whether it's indoors or outside.

The idea of urban sketching is to record the experience through drawing instead of through photography. That's why you're likely to see an urban sketcher making sketches in their sketchbook on city streets, in a park or even in front of a cafe as they sip coffee.

4. What Are Some Common Plein Air Painting Supplies?

The supplies you’ll take with you to paint outside can vary, depending on your preferences. 

Here’s a quick overview of some supplies you might want to take with you. Please note: You don’t have to take all of these supplies with you. In fact, you’ll want to pack light. These are just some suggested art supplies you can add to your plein air painting setup.

  • A portable plein air easel 
  • A pochade box
  • Camera tripod
  • A plein air bag
  • A foldable lawn chair
  • Wet panel carrier (This is a canvas carrier for your wed canvases)
  • Painter’s palette
  • Containers for your solvents
  • Oil paints: A limited palette of 3 primary colors + black and white to simplify things 
  • Or a set of watercolor paints
  • Pens and markers
  • Watercolor pencils
  • Rags and paper towels
  • Paint brushes: 1 small, 1 medium, 1 large
  • Small canvases
  • Watercolor paper or sketchbooks
  • Mini trading cards
  • Large plastic bag to carry small art supplies in

Finally, it’s important to note that you should bring along items that allow you to enjoy the weather when you're painting plein air for long periods of time. That may mean bringing an umbrella to paint under, as well as sunscreen. 

Snacks and plenty of water are helpful, too. Finally, be sure to dress as the occasion dictates. 

5. Should I Take Plein Air Painting Classes or Workshops?

Many art students find it difficult to master some of the techniques of plein air painting without the help of an instructor. Plein air painting workshops or classes are places where students can receive guidance on principles, like linear perspective or employing the principles of color temperature to make paintings look really juicy and lively.

Plein air painting classes or workshops additionally help art students bridge the gap, so to speak, allowing them to match their painting skills with their painting desires. In other words, formal instruction in plein air painting techniques will eventually allow you to paint anything your eyes can see.

We did an online class on painting while you travel and on plein air painting that you might find helpful. The video of our plein air painting class is below. 

It offers our insights into plein air painting, as well as giving you more tips about the art supplies you might want to take along when you are traveling as an artist.

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Milan Art Institute
Milan Art Institute

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