What is plein air painting?
Special to The Union
There are hundreds of methods of creating a fine art painting, and one of them is called “plein air painting”, which is simply a French term meaning “painting outdoors on location”. Most non-French-speaking Americans pronounce it “plenn air”.
It may seem like a trendy new word, but actually the history of plein air painting is a long one. There is documentation that Albert Durer, the great German draftsman of the 16th century, made watercolor sketches as he trekked through Europe.
In the 19th century, British landscape painter John Constable made numerous outdoor studies in preparation for his large studio works, capturing what he called a “fresh and blowing” quality. Eugene Boudin is the French artist who introduced plein air painting to young Claude Monet, who, along with his likeminded friends, developed the practice into the artistic revolution known as Impressionism.
In the United States the 19th century Hudson River School painted outdoors, and the famed Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Hill captured the newly discovered West in location sketches to be used for grand studio paintings. The early 20th century boomed with plein air impressionists all over the country, culminating in the sundrenched visions of light and color by the California Impressionists along the coast from the Bay Area to San Diego.
We artists who paint en plein air feel a connection with these great artists each time we head out and set up our easels, battling the heat, cold, wind, showers, and insects for the joy of capturing a fleeting moment of sunlight on a stand of trees. We could easily paint in our studios from photographs or from imagination, but there is no comparison to the true colors we see outdoors, and the actual feeling of “being there” that works its way into our paintings.
Plein air works, especially those done “alla prima,” or in one sitting, are by virtue of the necessarily fast painting process, not smoothly finished, photographic likenesses. They are usually small pieces full of joyous color and rich texture, showing the artist’s struggle to capture the scene before the light changes.
To get a more finished look, we might return to the same spot several times at the same time of day, Or the alla prima painting can serve as a reference that is truer than a photograph, for a larger studio piece. But nothing is quite as fresh or beautiful as the little plein air gem, for in it is recorded the artist’s experience of the day, every struggle and every triumph.
Plein air painting is enjoying a resurgence of popularity today, as dozens of artists and painting groups head out to paint their local scene, or travel to picturesque spots all over the world. There are an increasing number of plein air festivals popping up all over the United States, usually sponsored by a local host gallery that arranges for the artists to spend several days painting the town or a special local attraction.
The public is invited to watch them work, get to know them and to understand their motivations and struggles. The paintings are then auctioned off at a gala reception or fair, and often some of the proceeds are donated to a specific charity such as land conservation or park improvement.
The usual “quick-draw” event is the biggest challenge, where the artists gather to complete a painting of a given subject or location in a limited time, usually two hours, while the public looks on. While it is a competition and prizes are given, it is the artists’ camaraderie and mutual support that makes it fun for all.
So, when you see us set up along the road with our easels and brushes, hats and insect repellent, feel free to stop, say hi and have a look”most of us don’t mind. It’s our way of sharing the gift that we have been given and the craft we have worked hard to perfect: the ability to capture a poetic moment in a too-quickly changing world.
About the artist
Marilyn Rose is a Nevada City artist who has studied with many renowned professional artists and has been painting en plein air for 10 years. She is a founding member of the Nevada County Plein Air Painters, an artist member of Oil painters of America, Laguna Plein Air Painters, the American Impressionist Society, and an artist-patron member of the California Art Club.
One of her Nevada County plein air paintings was purchased as part of the California State fair’s permanent collection in 2005. She has been accepted into many national and local juried exhibits and is participating in several plein air festivals in northern California. She is planning monthly workshops in plein air painting throughout 2006 in Nevada County and Fair Oaks.
Plein air and studio oil paintings of Nevada County scenes by Marilyn Rose are on continuous exhibit at LaMirage, 17325 Penn Valley Dr., PV. Call Caroline at 432-0226 or drop in to view during business hours, Tuesday through Saturday.
Contact Marilyn at 265-3754 for more information, or see her work on http://pages.sbcglobal.net/mmrose.
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