A Technique of the Modern Age: The History of Plein Air Painting
May 24, 2016

A Technique of the Modern Age: The History of Plein Air Painting

Gustave Courbet, Bonjour Monsieur Courbet” (1854) Gustav Courbet depicts himself with all his painting gear in his pack, greeting friends on his way to paint out of doors. This is the most iconic representation of plein air painting.  

The practice of painting en plein air (a french phrase that translates loosely to painting in “full” or “open” air) is a favorite pursuit of many of our landscape painters here at Art Elements. As this is a phrase we hear often around the gallery, I thought it might be fun to dig a little bit into the history of this particular painting tradition to learn a little more about it, and to see what gets our artists like Don Bishop, Romona Youngquist Mandy Main, Michael Orwick, and Molly Reeves so excited.

Art Elements artist Don Bishop, paints a lavender field en plein air

Art Elements Artist Romona Youngquist, Sunflower Farm, 6x8


As the phrase suggests, painting en plein air, essentially involves hauling one’s materials out to the remote location of your choice and painting directly from nature, rather than using a sketch, photograph or memory to reconstruct what was seen from within the confines of a studio. This was a favorite practice of French impressionist, like Claude Monet, Pierre- Aguste Renoir and Paul Cézanne.

John Singer Sargent, Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of a Wood (1885) now located at the Tate Gallery in London


For me, the notion of plein air painting conjures romantic images of the solitary and meditative artist at work in an entirely natural environment. There is something deeply organic and pure about this notion, as if this might be the way that painting originated.

Plein air painting is in fact, just the opposite, a modern invention, and one that is directly tied to the technological developments of the industrial era. Plein air painting might never have taken off had it not been for a simple modern invention.

In 1841 a man by the name of John Goffe Rand invented something simple, and revolutionary, the collapsible zinc paint tube with a stopper cap.

John Goffe’s patent drawings


Prior to this, paints were mixed in the studio by the individual artist, and once they were mixed they had to be carried in glass jars if they were to be transported anywhere. Considering the vast amount of colors and pigments that an oil painter might use to complete one work, the idea of packing up all of those glass jars and trekking out with them, sometimes many miles, to capture a desired scene, was basically impossible. But thanks to Mr. Goffes’s invention, artists were suddenly much more mobile! What’s more, paint could be mass produced and purchased by artists ready to use in the tube. I can’t help but this as the 19th century painters version of the i-phone, suddenly it’s a whole new world thanks to one little invention. Goffe’s pre-packaged paint tubes dramatically changed his customer’s relationship to their world and how they could depict it in their art.

Even thought when we think if plein air painting we often thing of the French impressionists, who popularized the practice, it actually began a generation earlier with the Romantics. English landscape artists John Constable and J.M.W. Turner were actually were actually some of the first artists to make names for themselves painting in this style. technique. Like our own Romona Youngquist, Constable loved to depicted pastoral imagery, often painting farm houses, barns or workers in their fields.

John Constable, The Haywain, 1821, now in the collection of the national gallery London. Constable predated the impressionists and was of the generation of Romnatic painters.


The barbazon school and the American Hudson River school of painters also took advantage of this opportunity prior to the impressionist co-opting of the practice.

So in fact, while we might tend to think of plein air painting as a return to nature, it would not have actually been possible if it were not for the technological advancements of the 19th century. And in fact, what these painters started a tradition of depicting not, unspoiled nature, but instead images of agriculture and industry, that our very on landscape painters continue to draw from today.


Our painters here at art elements, like their barbazon and impressionist forebearers enjoy the experience of plein air painting in a group. Romona, Don and Michael Orwick occasionally paint en plein air together (that is one afternoon picnic that I would love to be invited to).

These artists are surrounded by some of the most stunning natural and agricultural scenery in the country, thanks to the environment that has allowed our wine industry to flourish in this area as well. Romona describes a desire to “capture what she sees” and to share it. I think we can all connect with that feeling, of driving down a beautiful country road and seeing an expanse of landscape, a sunrise, a sunset, a passing storm that is so gorgeous you wish there was a way to capture its beauty and take it with you. By making the journey directly into nature with their canvas and paints, our beloved plein air painters are tapping into both an innate human desire to pursue beauty, and a tradition in western art that is rooted in one of the greatest artistic movements to date.