I gave a talk on plein air painting as background to my exhibit during Art Basel at Red Dot Miami 2018 Mana Wynwood.
Plein Air Painting
Plein air painting is a technique of landscape painting where the majority of the work starts outdoors and is finished indoors in the studio. Prior to plein air painting, works were composed entirely indoors from sketches and other studies that were drawn from several sources including older paintings from antiquity.
Here in Monet’s painting, color was captured from perhaps many visits at the same time of day. This meant bringing the painting or a sketch back outdoors and then back to the studio for refinement.
Claude Monet, Fishing Boats Leaving the Harbor
Plein air painting became very popular in France and led to the rise of Impressionism. Transportation options included stagecoaches and railroads (and later horseless carriages) for reliable transportation to and from the landscape subject area. Present technologies including cameras and cell phone cameras allow many pictures at a point in time.
The landscape needs to be accessible to multiple visits to capture the quality of light and related landscape details and scale, especially the ability to visit at a particular time of day, hence the importance transportation and accessibility.
In French Impressionism, the popular venues were in Paris and its suburbs with its many parks and gardens. Americans traveled to local gardens and national parks (the Hudson River School). The English and Scottish artists had equally good access to many natural vistas including lakes, ports and gardens.
Outdoor scenes with water produce luminosity so these became preferred. For example, lakes, rivers, coastlines, mist, fog, dew, and snow. Niagara Falls below is an example of technical excellence in this genre.
Frederic Edwin Church, Niagara Falls
The artist needs to maintain the same level of concentration outdoors that is available in the studio. So parks and nature sites that allow solitude are preferred.
Surprisingly, plein air painting did not originate in France but in Italy. The Macchioli in Tuscany advanced a painting style using macchia or patches of color, producing a style characterized by spontaneity The French impressionists further refined plein air through particular luminescence effects brought about by advancements in techniques and materials including technical advancements in paint quality and variety.
The first impressionist exhibition took place in France in 1874. This was a turning point in the history of painting as prior to impressionism, classically trained artists in France and Italy became draftsmen before they graduated to painting in a style of painting known as academic painting. This was a tradition kept in check through government control. The impressionists broke with tradition and painted directly on the canvas, doing away with sketches or preparatory studies. They were aided by technological advances in the production of pigments from the early to mid nineteenth century. A greater palette allowed greater expression when faced with recording immediate perceptions in plein air.
There is no use of black paint since black is a combination of all other colors and can be mixed on demand. There is limited or no use of brown paint for the same reason, it can be mixed on demand by combining other colors. Titanium white and its equivalent is used to help create other shades.
The portrait painter John Goffe Rand invented the paint tube in 1841 and this afforded portability along with traveling paint boxes (pochade) and easels. This allowed use of pre-mixed paints which could be further mixed on a palette.
Thus, plein air painting is about capturing a moment in time and place.