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What is Plein Air Painting We paint from life in order to learn how to see. If you can paint light, you can paint everything under the sun. --Frank LaLumia, PAPA Signature Member

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What is Plein Air Painting

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what is plein air painting
What is Plein Air Painting

We paint from life in order to learn how to see. If you can paint light, you can paint everything under the sun.--Frank LaLumia, PAPA Signature Member

Painting from life is a pursuit unlike any other painting technique. It challenges artists to concentrate every sensory nerve on the information in front them. They absorb it all, from sight to sound, from temperature to atmosphere, and then channel those feelings from head to hand, re-creating the vision in paints on paper or canvas.

The roots of painting from life are found in 19th-century Europe. Englishman John Constable believed the artist should forget about formulas and trust his own vision in finding truth in nature. To find that truth, he made sketches outdoors, then elaborated on them in the studio.

Around the same time in France, in a small village outside Paris called Barbizon, a group of artists focused their attentions on peasant life and the natural world surrounding it. Like Constable, Francois Millet and Gustave Courbet challenged conventions of the day, choosing everyday subjects rather than the traditional cliches and presenting them in natural settings, the information for which came from sketches made in the field.

These realists, as they came to be called, laid the groundwork for the mid-19th century revolution in France that took painting from life to its logical conclusion. Lead by Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Edouard Degas, Auguste Renoir, et. al. the impressionists espoused the belief that you should trust your eyes. Using newly developed theories of how the eye physically registers color, they maintained that what you saw in nature was not form, but rather light on form. And light could be conveyed by color. To prove their theories, they took their paint tubes and easels outdoors, where they re-created the world as colors which suggested light. Rebuffed at first for what appeared to be unfinished paintings, the impressionist vision soon became a standard for truthfully conveying the outdoor experience.

Painting en plein air (in the open air) would forever change how we see the world. Artists in the United States were attracted to the concept, and many, like Californian Guy Rose, traveled to France to study with Monet. Suddenly, places with remarkable light were of particular interest to painters, including the both the East and West Coasts, and the American Southwest, where painting colonies formed. The goal of teachers and students alike was to capture the light and colors peculiar to the place.

Today, painting from life is a pursuit that continues to challenge the finest artists in the world, and no group is better known for upholding that credo than the Plein-Air Painters of America.


NedMuellerTitle: “Pelican Cove”Technique: oil on linen - alla prima Size unframed: 12" x 16" “I was moved by the bright, sun-filled atmosphere of the ocean and land and shrubs at Laguna Beach. The contrast between the water and yellow cliffs was lovely."


DavidJenksTitle:“Elk Coast: Evening”Technique: oil on canvas Size 24" x 30" “I was inspired by the setting sun reflected off the coastal cliffs and the atmosphere in the early spring.”


LindyDuncanTitle: “Carmel Beach Cypress”Technique: oil on board Size 12" x 16" “I never tire of the wonderful cypress trees set against the sea at the end of Ocean Avenue in Carmel. Each one has personality."


FrankGannonTitle: “Knight’s Valley”Technique: oil on board Size 12" x 16" “I painted this scene at sunset as part of a series of four paintings.”