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Plein Air Painting: What It Is & How to Join the Fun

The Art League Blog is taking a trip down memory lane and reposting some of our most popular resources! Please enjoy this post from the vault, originally published April 4, 2015 and updated with fresh links.

When the weather’s beautiful and the skies are blue, it doesn’t matter what you’re doing — reading, cooking, writing a blog post — you want to do it outside.

For painters, that’s called painting en plein air. It’s a French phrase that means, simply, “in the open air.” Why don’t we call it painting al fresco? Because the French got there first! (Specifically, the Impressionists were famous plein air aficionados, taking advantage of the first portable paint tubes.)

Painting outside isn’t just about enjoying the sun and the breeze, although that’s certainly a big part of the fun. It’s also a great way to paint from direct observation, whether that means a landscape, a cityscape, or even something like a portrait.

Median Trees #1 and #2 by Mike Francis.

Median Trees #1 and #2 by Mike Francis.

So what do I need to get started?

“When I sit down to make a sketch from nature, the first thing I try to do is to forget that I have ever seen a picture.”
— celebrated plein air artist John Constable

Packing for a plein air painting session is like packing for a hike: travel light, be prepared, and you’ll be a happy painter!

  1. Paints: Some oil painters use alkyd paints for their faster drying time. Color-wise, each of our instructors has their own recommended palette, but the lists for Mike Francis, Fred Markham, and Sara Linda Poly have these colors in common: Titanium White, Ivory Black, Alizarin Crimson, Quinacridone Red (a.k.a. Permanent Rose), Ultramarine Blue, and Cadmium Yellow Medium.
  2. Palette: Something that won’t blow away! Glass, plexiglas, and wood are all recommended.
  3. Easel: This will likely be your biggest new purchase. A French easel is larger, but heavier. A pochade box is more portable for longer trips and smaller paintings. Pochade boxes mount on top of tripod legs, which you might have to purchase separately. Sara Linda Poly recommends the Easyl, Open Box M, Sienna, and Sun Eden brands. Some models will have a hook to hang your solvent, and some have shelves for your other supplies. If they don’t, you may need to keep them on the ground.
  4. Other: You’ll definitely miss sunscreen and/or a hat if you forget it. Depending on your location, a warm jacket, windbreaker, and bug spray might be necessary. Bring a water bottle and snacks to prolong your painting time! Finally, bring a trash bag for used rags so you can leave the landscape as pristine as you painted it.

What classes are available? (updated for 2018)

The Art League offers a few classes and workshops for plein air painting every year. Other classes sometimes take field trips outside, but these are geared toward plein air:

  1. Plein Air Landscape Painting (Intermediate) with Sara Linda Poly (starts April 24)
  2. Landscape Painting with Fred Markham (starts April 28)
  3. Eastern Shore Workshop with Mike Francis (June 23–27)
  4. A Week in the Indiana Countryside with Diane Tesler (August 6–10)

Browse the school catalog

Alone at Last, 12" x 12", by Sara Linda Poly

Alone at Last, 12″ x 12″, by Sara Linda Poly

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Did you know: The Art League's Art Camp is the longest running visual arts camp in the area! We've been here for more than 30 years! While sadly we can't find any photos from the '80s (please let us know if you have any lying around), let's take a look back at the last several years of burgeoning kid artists and eight years of fun at Art Camp!

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