The Importance of Painting En Plein Air

| June 15, 2010

Plein Air Study by Martyn Chamberlin

By contributing author, Martyn Chamberlin

If you think about it, there are three ways painters can come up with subject matter. They can make it up, they can use photographs, or they can paint from life. I don’t recommend the first approach unless you’re quite experienced, for it’s difficult creating a convincing composition and color scheme from scratch.

The leaves us with two options. I know artists of all skill levels that spend the majority of their time working from photographs. So I want to talk about painting from life. Plein Air painting, or outdoor painting, is becoming increasingly popular among artists and collectors alike. While some artists are using them for future studio work, others are replacing the concept of studio painting with plein air studies. They paint strictly outdoors, regardless of the weather. While you have to decide for yourself which way is best, there are some undeniable benefits of plein air painting.

First, it forces artists to think and paint efficiently. It’s amazing how much time I waste in the studio just dazing at my work, thinking slowly about what I should do next. Outdoors however, things get uncomfortable quickly, with mosquitoes, rain, heat, and cold. So we work much more efficiently, often unconsciously.

Second, it forces us to think for ourselves. Not that working from photographs or make-believe doesn’t, but when we’re painting alla prima or directly from nature, we are forced to make all kinds of decisions we’re not used to making. It’s much harder to look at a backlit sky, for example, and decide what hues and values are there, than it is to decide from a light-absorbing photograph.

Third, we learn so much more. When I look at one of my plein air studies, I remember exactly the battles I faced, and how I coped with them, including color mixtures and brushes. It’s so easy to fall into a rut in the studio, and plein air painting kicks it out of us.

Of course, there are things that make plein air painting not so nice. It’s more work, it’s often uncomfortable, it’s far messier, and uses more paint. It’s impossible to do commissions, and very difficult to paint anything larger than a 16″x20.” But the payoffs are staggering. Plein air paintings are becoming more and more known for their incredible accuracy in color. I’m starting to leave my studio and paint outdoors. Will you?


About Martyn Chamberlin

Martyn Chamberlin is a 17-year-old aspiring artist from Bixby Oklahoma, who hopes to spend his career in fine art. He has been painting in oils since he was 13, and seeks to capture light, beauty, and accuracy. He is currently studying with Jerry Yarnell in Skiatook, OK.

Category: Fine Art and Painting

Comments (3)

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  1. AutumnLeaves says:

    What a well-spoken young man! Thanks for featuring Martyn’s words and his work, Lee. Thank you, Martyn, for some insight into plein aire painting.

  2. Lori Bonanni says:

    Martyn, I couldn’t agree with you more. The rewards of painting plein air are huge.

  3. You know Lee, I was hesitant to submit this painting because of the horrible perspective on the barn. What a rookie mistake!

    Thanks guys. I apologize for my strong opinions on subjects I know so little about; it’s definitely something I need to work on.

    This collaboration thingy is cool. Art bloggers need to do more of this. Who said CopyBlogger has to have all the fun? 🙂