If you have been out and about and noticed some strange people painting at easels, you have encountered a plein air painter! Plein air is a French term which translated, means "open air". The French impressionists brought attention to it in the 1800's, and it's now becoming a popular movement in the art world, with many plein air competitions in the United States, and around the world.
As one of this unique breed myself, I can tell you many a stranger has questioned me, "Why don't you just take a picture?" Well the simple answer is that while photography is excellent for capturing shapes, there is a surprising amount of information it can't convey. The diagram below illustrates the range of visual information print material and screens can convey compared to what the human eye can perceive.
Plein air paintings usually need to be done quickly because the light and shadows are changing as the artist works. For this reason, most plein air pieces are on the small side, which also makes them relatively inexpensive. They may not have the detail of a studio painting, but a good plein air painting captures the essence of the day in a way that most studio paintings don't. Color relationships get skewed by the camera, but an experienced plein air painter can capture them.
Many plein air painters use their plein air pieces as studies for larger studio pieces. But plein air paintings seem to have a life and personality all their own. And so often there's a story behind them, kind of like the stories of fisherman! There is a kinship among plein air painters, because honestly, it isn't easy. It can be so much work just to gather everything you need and get out the door. And you never know what challenges you'll encounter. Pictured below is a recent outing I did in the Columbia Gorge, famous for its east wind.
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Nice to see this, looking forward to reading your posts.
This is the best explanation I have ever read. I am off soon for a whole week of plein air painting and looking forward to it. The best part is the need for sunscreen