Plein Air Painting Techniques

Painting en plein air captures the essence of an outdoor environment.
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When an artist paints en plein air it means she is painting outdoors. According to Plein Air Painters of America, this "painting from life" challenges artists to concentrate on a setting's sights, light, sound and even temperature, and capture them on canvas. Plein-air painting began in the 19th century when English artist John Constable suggested artists should trust their vision to uncover the truth in nature.

Determining Subject

Plein-air painting outdoors offers a plethora of possibilities, but painting outdoors does not mean you need to paint a sweeping landscape. Focus your artful eye on a compelling scene within a larger setting to create a provocative painting. For example; concentrate on an aspect of an outdoor festival, such as a performer or a food concession. Similarly, a harbor scene might zero in on just a few close-ups of boats. Before you begin painting outside, sit in a comfortable space and take in the sights, sounds and smells of your space. Feeling the essence of the environment helps you to better recreate it in your painting.

Positioning Your Easel

Painting outside does not offer the privacy of a professional or at-home studio. Often, people are intrigued by seeing a painter with his easel and may want to speak with you about your art. Be courteous, but you don't need to engage in distracting conversation. Tell bystanders they are free to look, but you need to concentrate on your work. Position your your easel carefully, with your back to a door or wall if possible, to avoid people creeping up behind you.


The time of day you choose to paint outdoors has a profound effect on the mood of your painting. Colors in the morning and evening are cool tones, while afternoon colors are warm. Beach paintings are lovely at sunset, allowing you a spectrum of brilliant tones. But you need work quickly to capture fleeting light conditions at this time. It's worth the effort because the results can be splendid.

Color Palette

When you're in your studio, it's much easier to mix paints than on-location, especially if you're hurrying to capture a fleeting scene with changing light. Seasoned plein air painters often use a familiar color palette, with paints they've mixed before. If you're taking a workshop, and the instructor assigned a palette, familiarize yourself with mixing them before you take your easel outside.