En Plein Air

23 Aug


“out-of-doors, n. That part of one’s environment upon which no government has been able to collect taxes. Chiefly useful to inspire poets.”  -Ambrose Bierce

I’ve been thinking about art lately, particularly the painters in the 1800’s that started painting outside. I think they were on to something.

Back in the mid-19th century the world was changing very rapidly. The Industrial Revolution was reshuffling the norms of society, bringing even more people into crowded cities, and rearranging “The Way Things Used To Be.” But at the same time it was creating fantastic innovations. Telegraphs made it possible to hold conversations across continents and photography was changing the way we saw the world. Innovations in transportation, most importantly, railroads, were making it possible for more people to escape from the overcrowded cities to the countryside or seashore for a holiday.


Reading (1873) by Berthe Moriost, on display at the Cleveland Museum of Art

Other innovations were changing the world of art. Rather than mixing their own paints artists could buy pre-mixed paints in metal tubes that looked like toothpaste. (Except, you know, prettier.) Portable box easels made it possible to move the painter’s studio outside. This trendy new way of painting “En Plein Air,” swept through artistic movements both in Europe and the United States. Claude Monet, Vincet VanGogh, Pierre-August Renoir, and Winslow Homer were all artists that painted en plein air.

An October Day in the White Mountains (1854) by John Frederick Kensett, on display at the Cleveland Museum of Art

Now, I don’t pretend to be talented when it comes to drawing or painting. I enjoy it, but I’m happy when my trees can be recognized as trees. But I started packing art supplies on my hikes to see what would inspire me en plein air.


First, I learned that drawing is….hard. It’s one thing to sit down and decide you are going to draw a tree, but it’s another thing entirely to sit down in front of a real tree and try to copy it. No matter how much you erase and shade and sigh heavily, the tree still stands right in front of you stubbornly refusing to look anything like your drawing.


The second thing I learned is that drawing really makes you see the details. You notice the way the forest canopy changes the light. You see the way a color changes when the sun is shining directly on it. You see how the forest looks more blue from far away.  You see the world with a whole new pair of eyes, and it’s yours to capture in whatever medium you choose.


Finally, I discovered that if you bring friends along you will have a great time but get remarkably little art done. While this practice isn’t going to transform me into the next VanGogh, I am fine with it all the same.



“Working outdoors or from life puts you in direct contact with the life force, not just the light and the landscape, but also the vitality of the world around you.”  -George Carlson

3 Responses to “En Plein Air”

  1. A Quirk of Fate August 25, 2011 at 12:21 pm #

    How dare you inspire me to get outside and be more in tuned to nature? Just when I was getting comfortable with the “but it’s so hot out there” excuse 😛


  1. Backpacking, En Plein Air « - October 2, 2012

    […] Back in the beginning of August (which feels like a million years ago) I went backpacking in the Ansel Adams Wilderness. While I did bring my camera, I also plundered Adrienne’s idea of stashing watercolors in my pack and capturing the scenery en plein air. […]

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