Plein Air Painting:
An Old Tradition Renewed

By Michael Chesley Johnson, PSA



Benson Ridge Aspens
en plein air
By Michael Chesley Johnson
Oil on panel, 8" x 10"

  When I say en plein air to most people, I usually get a quizzical look. But, if I say it to one of my landscape painting friends, he grabs his paintbox and is rarin' to go. Although this French phrase simply means "in the open air," it is packed with meaning for landscape painters. Painting en plein air is an old tradition that has become a new passion among today's landscape artists.

But before we get into the history, why paint outdoors at all? Are we not painters more comfortable in the studio where we have all our tools and materials close at hand? Do we not have a better experience indoors, where we can brew a pot of coffee, spin up Puccini on the CD player, and paint through the night? Well, certainly, there is a great deal to be said for painting indoor. But the outdoor experience fires up a connection to the real world you just do not get when in the studio.

en plein air
By Michael Chesley Johnson
Pastel, 9" x 12"


Evening Light
en plein air
By Michael Chesley Johnson
Oil on panel, 8" x 10"


When I work outdoors, I am immersed totally in God's world – the fragrance of the pines, the sun beating down on my broad-brimmed hat, the vibrant colors lurking in the shadows. I like to compare that connection to Communion. I feel the Holy Spirit working through me, guiding my eye and hand. The joy is strangely and wonderfully addictive.

Of course, there are challenges. First, you have a time limit. If you plan to finish your painting in one session – in what is called "alla prima" fashion – you have no more than two hours in which to do so. As you paint, the sun constantly changes its position in the sky. Shadows lengthen or shorten, move across the landscape. The color of sunlight changes, going from morning's warm yellow to noon's cool greenish-yellow, and on to evening's warm orange. The challenge is to not "chase the sun", but to capture the moment that originally inspired you.

The tides present a similar challenge in the Bay of Fundy, where I paint in the summer. They can rise or drop as much as 20 feet in 6 hours – that's over 3 feet an hour! Rustic wharf buildings perched enticingly over a mirror-like expanse of water are soon high-and-dry above an expanse of seaweed and beached boats. You really have to see it to believe it.

Another challenge is the weather. Clouds can change the dramatic appeal of a landscape in seconds. A sudden gust of wind can blow your easel over. Cold will numb your fingers and cause you to drop a brush. If you paint in oil, you can stand a certain amount of drizzle coming down, but if you paint in pastel, the least drop will ruin your work. And the bugs! Oil paint attracts gnats, which become mired down in it. Then there are the mosquitoes and blackflies ...


Fog Rolling In, Hamilton Beach Cove
en plein air
By Michael Chesley Johnson
Pastel, 9" x 12"


But these and all the other challenges are part of the experience. Not everyone is cut out for plein air, just as not everyone is cut out for camping. Some revel in the pain and suffering. All of us revel in the joy.

So how did this all begin? Although artists have always gone out to sketch, outdoor painting really took off after 1841, when the collapsible paint tube was invented. Prior to this, oil painters had to load their paint into sacks made from pig's bladders – a nasty and cumbersome process, one must assume. The paint tube made transport of paint much easier. According to Renoir, "Without tubes of paint, there would have been no Impressionism." The Impressionists believed that to truly capture the light, one had to paint outdoors.

In the last 10 years or so, outdoor painting has become even more popular. Part of this is due to the decline of abstract painting and the resurgence of traditional, realistic painting. Further popularizing this "sport" is the arrival of groups such as Plein Air Painters of America and regional organizations. Besides providing members with the company of other, like-minded artists, these groups sponsor events called "paint-outs" in which members travel to spectacular locations to paint. These well-publicized events typically culminate in a group exhibition with an auction or sale. Some of the more famous paint-outs include the annual San Luis Obispo Plein Air Painting Festival and the Laguna Plein Air Painting Invitational.


Michael painting at Liberty Point, Campobello Island, NB


Of course, you do not have to get involved in paint-outs or groups to enjoy plein air painting. For me, painting outdoors is a solitary event. My wife and dog may accompany me, but usually they head off on a walk as I am setting up my easel. And I try to keep things simple. Once I hiked a mile or so into the San Juan Mountains of Colorado with nothing more than a sheet of paper, a drawing board, and a small set of pastels. I sat on the ground and worked in my lap.

Usually I have a bit more equipment – though not so much I cannot carry it all in one trip. Paintbox, tripod, and umbrella fit in a backpack. The paintbox contains my painting panels, a fistful of brushes and seven tubes of oil paint. I also take a water bottle, a broad-brimmed hat and, if I remember, sunblock and bug dope.

Once I find my location, my wife and the dog tramp off. (They know they have about two hours before I am done.) I smear on the sunblock and, if I need it, the bug dope. I set up my tripod and attach the paintbox and the clamp-on umbrella. I squeeze out a generous amount of paint and pick up my brush. But as I start to survey the land before me, I pause. I give thanks that I have this precious moment, and I pray that I will honor God's creation.

Then, I dive in.





  To view larger images, please click here.

Michael Chesley Johnson is a Signature Member of the Pastel Society of America (PSA) and Plein Air New Mexico. He teaches painting workshops throughout the US and in Canada. Michael is also a writer and is a Contributing Editor for The Pastel Journal and the author of The Art of Ann Templeton.

Web site:
Church of the Ascension - Cloudcroft, New Mexico


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2006 The Episcopal Church and Visual Arts