The Joys and Benefits of Plein Air
Updated: Sep 20, 2022
There are some great skills to be gained from painting outside, which is why I think every artist should practice plein air painting (even if it's just in your backyard).
As I settled in at my easel I felt a familiar sense of calm wash over me and realized that it's the feeling I associate with plein air painting- which is maybe why I happily push aside any negative aspects that come with painting outside (bugs, wind, schlepping supplies in and out of the car).
Painting plein air is a meditative activity for me, I find that once I slip into "the zone" I work very intuitively. It's amazing how relaxing it can be to concentrate on the same view for an hour or two, just letting it all sink in. I can't quite decide if I feel like I've absorbed the environment, or it's absorbed me, but I've noticed that the plein air scenes I paint stick in my mind differently than the scenes I've simply sketched or photographed and painted later back in the studio.
When I paint outside I feel refreshed and inspired by the experience. Perhaps it's because simply spending time in nature is beneficial to our well-being, as well as our physical and mental health. But those aren't the only benefits I receive, my artistic practice has also improved from working outside.
Since everything is always changing with plein air, you have to move quickly, which has helped me learn to work more efficiently and to focus on what matters. If you spend too much time in your head or fussing with extraneous details, before you know it there's a totally different scene in front of you and you haven't really gotten anywhere. The quick pace needed to effectively work outside has taught me to let the non-essential parts go in order to focus on the most important things- which is a good lesson in both composition and focal point emphasis. My understanding of color has also improved. There's nothing better than direct observation when it comes to color, but for the sake of practicality, plein air often requires a smaller or more limited palette (remember there's all that schlepping of materials) so you learn how to work with color in a more varied and complex way.
While all these benefits are great I don't want to present too rosy a picture, plein air can be challenging and like most skills- it takes practice. It also takes a bit of knowledge about how best to set yourself up for success. One thing that's very helpful in that regard is seeing what type of gear other artists bring outside with them, so in my next post I'll discuss my gear.