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  • Russ Ramsey

Plein Air Painting—It's the Little Things

For this Art Wednesday we’ll look at the practice of Plein Air painting, borrowed from the French phrase meaning, “in the open air.” As obvious as it might seem to us now, it wasn’t always easy to paint outside.

Homer, Artists Sketching in the White Mountains, 1868


The French Impressionists really popularized Plein Air painting because they wanted to paint the ephemeral quality of light as it changed the appearance of the world before them. By the time you get to the Impressionists, it’s like someone turned on the lights. Next time you’re in an art museum, take notice of how much brighter art gets after the mid-1800’s.

Monet, The Poppy Field near Argenteuil, 1873


John Goffe Rand invented the tin paint tube in 1841. Before the invention of the compressible tin tube, many artists kept their paint in pig bladders which were filled by syringe and closed with a tack, or a piece of bone or ivory. They were fragile and subject to rupturing when carried in a paintbox. As a result, much of the world’s art before the tin tube was created indoors, in artists’ studios, close to their equipment. Colors were limited to what artists could mix themselves or buy locally. The works were unnaturally dark.

Rubens, Landscape with a Rainbow, 1636


John Goffe Rand patented his invention, describing it as an “improvement in the construction of vessels or apparatus for preserving paint.” He worked “on” art, not just “in” it. This is the drawing he submitted to the Patent Office in 1841.

John Goffe Rand patent drawing


When you paint outside, you experience the nuance of direct light, the muted light of overcast skies, the brilliant colors under full sun. Plein Air made painting as much about light as subject matter.

Monet Painting by the Edge of a Wood, 1885


Plein Air has challenges. Van Gogh wrote, “Out of doors, exposed to the wind, sun, people’s curiosity, one works as one can, filling one’s canvas regardless.” Scholar Mary Schafer noticed a grasshopper leg embedded into Vincent’s Olive Trees (1889)

Van Gogh, Olive Trees (with grasshopper leg), 1889


Cassatt, Constable, van Gogh, Bazille, Monet, Manet, Pissarro, Cezanne, Gauguin, Homer, Morisot, Renoir, Singer-Sergeant, Sisley, and all the painters in the Hudson River School, including Albert Bierstadt, were all Plein Air painters. It’s amazing how such a simple thing changed the world of art.

Bierstadt, Valley of the Yosemite, 1864

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