Artists Sketching in the White Mountains (1868), by Winslow Homer
Oil on panel
You might hear a number of pronunciations: ‘plan-air’, ‘ple-ner’ or ‘playn-air’, the latter being the most common anglicized form, unless you do actually speak french or wish to remain faithful to the origin, in which case, ‘ple-ner’.
The expression ‘Plein air’ comes from the french phrase en plein air, meaning ‘in the open air’ and is popularly used to describe painting outdoors or a painting that has been completed on location, outdoors.
Purists will only apply the term ‘plein air’ to a work that was completed outdoors, just as ‘alla prima’ only applies to a painting completed on the first attempt, in one sitting. Others will accept a final touch-up in the studio just as some interchange alla prima with ‘wet-on-wet’. Either way, it is desirable to maintain the fresh, immediate brush strokes that typically characterise a plein air painting, and further, more considered brush work in the studio, risks losing this effect and turning the picture stale.
The value of plein air painting to the artist, is that the subject is presented raw and thus unhindered by the limitations of a reproduction that might otherwise serve as reference (such as a printed image). This frees the artist to interpret with their own eyes the scene before them. This can be both liberating and daunting as one is forced to make all the fundamental decisions in composing their picture from scratch. But the rewards can be poetically authentic and honest, which in the days of photo-shopped imaging, I believe is becoming an increasingly appreciated quality in art and will continue to be so as we see our landscape changing with global warming.
To the viewer, a good plein air painting presents a truth and purity about the artist and the subject rendered. Some paintings will capture a simple moment of beauty in nature, others will go further and ask us to reflect on a particular theme, such as the human condition. Ultimately, a good plein air painting will stir us and leave an echo in the mind. All plein air work affirms an important connection with the outdoor environment.