En Plein Air: A Celebration of Outdoor Painting

On early mornings in fall, when a golden sun cuts through the morning mist to reveal fields and flowers and trees changing color in the cooling days, I am reminded how truly difficult it is to capture nature’s beauty on film. While the details of a moment can be imprinted, there is something of the essence of the moment that is lost: the smell of dying leaves, the crispness of the autumn air, the way the breaking light plays tricks through the treetops. No iPhone camera can hold that, and it takes a very skilled photographer to transport those sorts of experiential details via their prints.

Enter plein air painting. When artists paint en plein air, they leave the comfort of their studio and venture out to the great outdoors. They capture light and color as it changes throughout the day, and aim to translate the beauty of being in nature directly to the canvas.

The French phrase en plein air literally means “in full air,” but it connotes something much more than that: something like being out in the open, exposed to the elements and with all of nature at your fingertips. There is an excited wistfulness to the phrase, a childlike wonder and open-handed gratitude.

For centuries, artists have painted en plein air, but the practice became especially popular during the French Impressionist period. Artists like Monet and Renoir would paint scenes over and over, each painting capturing a different type of light as the hours wore on. Below are some paintings from the Haystacks series Monet did at Giverny, where you can see what a change in color a few hours of daylight makes.

Today we have the convenience of photography to aid artists in painting natural landscapes. An artist can take a picture of a landscape, enlarge the photo, even sketch the lay of the land directly from a projection of the photograph, all in their studio. Many artists, though, still choose to paint en plein air. They want to stay as true to the colors and light of the landscape in the moment they experience it, rather than go through a secondary medium’s translation of the color and light.

This month, as we close out a wonderful summer, we've invited over twenty-five local artists to submit plein air paintings. Many names you may recognize, many may be new to you. Each piece captures some intangible part of summer, of clouds and sunlight through trees, of barns and buildings.

The show runs from September 6 - 29th, and is available online as well. We will hold a closing artist’s reception September 29th, from 6-9pm, where you can meet the artists and view their summer’s plein air work.

September 10, 2018 — Carolyn Carter

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