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En plein air (French pronunciation: [ɑ̃ plɛn ɛʁ]) is a French expression which means “in the open air” and is particularly used to describe the act of painting outdoors, which is also called peinture sur le motif (“painting of the object(s) or what the eye actually sees”) in French. In painting, “sur le motif” reproduces the actual visual conditions seen at the time of the painting. This contrasts with painting according to studio or academic rules, which creates a pre-determined look. “En plein air” can also be used to describe other activities where a person partakes in an outdoor environment.
Artists have long painted outdoors, but in the mid-19th century working in natural light became particularly important to the Barbizon school, the Hudson River School and Impressionism. The popularity of painting en plein air increased in the 1840s with the introduction of paints in tubes (resembling modern toothpaste tubes). Previously, painters made their own paints by grinding and mixing dry pigmentpowders with linseed oil. The Newlyn School in England is considered another major proponent of the technique in the latter 19th century.
It was during this period that the “Box Easel”, typically known as the French Box Easel or field easel, was invented. It is uncertain who developed it first, but these highly portable easels, with telescopic legs and built-in paint box and palette, made treks into the forest and up the hillsides less onerous. Still made today, they remain a popular choice even for home use since they fold up to the size of a brief caseand thus are easy to store.
French Impressionist painters such as Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir advocated en plein air painting, and much of their work was done outdoors, in the diffuse light provided by a large white umbrella. In the second half of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century in Russia, painters such as Vasily Polenov, Isaac Levitan, Valentin Serov, Konstantin Korovin and I. E. Grabar were known for painting en plein air. American Impressionists, too, such as those of the Old Lyme school, were avid painters en plein air. American Impressionist painters noted for this style during this era included, Guy Rose, Robert William Wood, Mary DeNeale Morgan, John Gamble, and Arthur Hill Gilbert. The Canadian Group of Seven and Tom Thomson are examples of en plein air advocates.