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Plein-Air Painting: A Holistic Technique

Originally a French phrase, to paint “en plein air” is to paint outdoors. In English, the phrase translates literally to “in the open air” [1]. While painting outdoors has been a common practice for hundreds of years,  “plein air” painting was first categorized as an art form by the French Impressionists [2].

What first drew impressionists to this style was the ease with which they could capture the essence of their surroundings while outdoors [2]. Painting en plein air allows all the artist’s senses to be simultaneously engaged; in contrast to working inside and being confined to the four walls of an indoor studio, working en plein air activates an artist’s sight, smell, touch, and perception of sounds [3]. Engagement of the artist’s senses has the potential to trigger an emotional response for the artist, which may influence the ways in which they portray their environment in their works and how their audiences interpret their paintings and drawings. Some plein-air artists have adopted the philosophy that painting outdoors yields more authentic, holistic, and emotionally evocative works [3].

Although the outdoors had inspired artists for centuries before French Impressionism, the advent of the box easel and transportable paint tubes in the 1870s allowed artists to work outside with greater ease and further popularized the technique [4]. Like the French Impressionists, contemporary artists like Michelle Austen, whose works are currently on display at Winchester Galleries, continue to work en plein air to capture the magic of the outdoors.  


[1] ‘Plein Air’, Word Reference. Retrieved 02/03/2021

[2] ‘What is Plein Air Painting?’, Artists Network. Retrieved 02/03/2021

[3] ‘The Advantages of Plein Air Painting’, Fine Art Views. Retrieved 02/03/2021

[4] ‘History of Plein Air’, Canadian Plein Air Painting. Retrieved 02/03/2021


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