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Why Paint Plein Air?

Why Paint Plein Air?
Plein air painting is the practice of painting outdoors from direct observation of nature.

When I tell people that I do most of my painting on location I know in the back of their minds they are wondering “what’s up with that - why’s isn’t he painting in the comfort of his studio.”

I have a plein air workshop scheduled for April, so I figure it might be helpful if I can put words to why I think plein air work is so crucial to developing as an artist.

The camera is a poor substitution for the human eye
When I was first studying art I used to hear people talk about how the camera cannot capture all that we can see. I’d nod and I thought I knew what they were talking about. As I’ve developed as an artist I now realize that I didn’t really appreciate the extent to which this statement is true. The camera either washes out the highlights or loses all color variation in the shadows. The camera can only capture a limited range of values and colors whereas the eye can see the full range. Once you begin to see this difference (and it takes quite a bit of practice to really appreciate the magnitude of this difference) you can never go back. I now feel as if I have my hands tied behind my back if I need to paint in the studio without at a minimum having plein air sketches and my memory of the location to supplement any photo reference.

Forced to paint fast and loose
I started painting plein air to loosen my painting up When I caught myself standing in front of a big canvas with these little brushes I concluded I needed to shake things up. This was the moment I starting painting in the field. When painting plein air you have no choice but to paint fast and loose. You have about 90 minutes to capture the light (and sometimes much less time). You learn to observer more accurately, paint more decisively, and you build a visual memory that will serve you well for the rest of your life.

Opportunity to really learn how light and atmosphere affect all that we see
When your try plein air for the first time you’re likely to find it very difficult and frustrating. Even accomplished painters struggle when first painting from nature. There is just so much information and things are changing all the time. However, working through this adversity lets you slowly build up a much greater understanding of how light and atmosphere (moisture, haze, etc.) effect what we see. This knowledge will ultimately help inform all your painting. Just know going in that your first dozen paintings are going to stink and go easy on yourself. It’s well worth the effort because your paintings will get better and – likely exceeding where you were with your studio work.

Healthier way to work
Since I’ve been painting plein air I’ve noticed a notable improvement in my health. Physically I can now stand for an entire day (or week :-) without experiencing any discomfort or pain, and mentally I feel refreshed. When outside there is no accumulation of dust (when working with pastels) or solvents (when working with oils). The sunshine is good for us and gives us an opportunity to add some vitamin D to the system (studies are showing we take in WAY too little vitamin D). To top it off, the University of Essex found that spending time in nature is the equivalent of taking a dose of an anti-depressant. So cut back on the Prozac and start plein air painting!

Stay away from the computer
Plein air painting keeps you away from the computer and other day-to-day interruptions. It’s easy to get sidetracked when working in the studio and I’m much more focused when painting on location.

Makes driving more enjoyable
Everywhere I go I see more: more color, interesting compositions, negative shapes. To top it off all these bits of information help inform my painting. Painting plein air teaches you to process vast amounts of information and to wean it down into the fewest possible number of marks to express a feeling or sense of place. This ability then makes it possible to process scenes while speeding down the highway. You’d be amazed at how much more enjoyable this visual acuity can make a long road trip.

Camaraderie of painting with other like-minded people
I started this piece lamenting that most people have a hard time understanding why we paint outdoors in the first place. Doing it with others that have tasted the joy and understand the benefits of painting this way helps confirm that we’re not insane :-)

Joy of being outdoors
Plus it’s just a joy to be outdoors.