Plein and Simple

On a recent post, I made reference to doing ‘plein air’ painting. Some readers thought it was a typo, others wanted to know if the antonym would be ‘fancy air’ painting. Art, like most human endeavors, has its own jargon. Much of it based in French, Italian, or Latin. Like most professionals, I sometimes forget my audience and use terms that leave some people scratching their head.

The term ‘plein air’ is French, meaning, “in the open air” and primarily refers to painting. It developed in the late 19th century with the advancement of tube paints and portable easels. Prior, Academic artists worked almost entirely in the Studio, from initial sketch to final painting.

Being able to see the world outside of the artists studio (and the artist’s contrived models and costumes) allowed a new group of artists to paint from life outside the wall, and focus on color and light. This group came to be known as the Impressionists. This method of painting spread across Europe and eventually across the Atlantic to the United States, and continues to be popular throughout the world.

While ‘plein air’ could easily be substituted for ‘outside’, the term has rich connotations for artists describing the work as natural observations on expression, color, tone, and light. ‘Plein air’ paintings are usually done in a single sitting, resulting in impressions of a place rather than photo-realistic renderings. Whether the outdoor sketches are the final product or a preliminary work for a more refined painting is largely artist preference. Early impressionists were criticized of trying to pass of ‘unfinished’ works. Outdoor sketches certainly existed before the term ‘plein air’ but it was only in the 19th century that it was accepted as a finished product by itself.

Leave a Reply