What is Plein Air Painting? - LePrince Charleston Art Galleries on King Street

What is Plein Air Painting?

Plein Air Painting: History, Examples, and Process

Plein air painting, a French term that translates to "open air," is a style of painting in which artists create their artwork outdoors, capturing the natural scenery and light in real-time. This approach allows artists to observe and depict the landscape, colors, and atmospheric conditions more accurately, as they experience the environment firsthand.

Plein air painting gained popularity during the 19th century, particularly among the Impressionist painters, who sought to capture the fleeting effects of light and color in the natural world. Artists such as Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Camille Pissarro were known for their plein air works, which often featured vibrant colors and loose brushstrokes to convey the atmosphere and mood of the scenes they painted.

Today, plein air painting remains a popular practice among landscape artists and enthusiasts, who continue to embrace the challenge and reward of capturing the beauty of nature directly on canvas.  Our Charleston art galleries feature plein air painters Gary Bradley, Ignat Ignatov, Tibor Nagy, and Marc Anderson.  If you happen to be walking the streets of downtown Charleston, SC you may just run into artist Ignat Ignatov. 

What is an artist goal when painting in plein air?

When painting a plein air painting, an artist's primary goal is to capture the essence of the scene, including the natural light, atmosphere, colors, and mood, as they experience it in real-time. This type of painting encourages the artist to closely observe the environment and translate their impressions onto the canvas with immediacy and spontaneity.

Some specific goals of of this style may include:

  1. Capturing the natural light: Plein air artists aim to represent the unique quality of light present at the moment they are painting, which can change rapidly due to weather conditions, time of day, or the shifting of shadows. As such these paintings are typically smaller in size and contain looser brushstrokes.  As their is a sense of immediacy, the final painting if not continued in the studio will generally convey as of spontaneity.   

  2. Rendering accurate colors: Artists seek to reproduce the true colors they observe in the landscape, often mixing their paints on-site to match the hues and tones they see in nature.

  3. Conveying atmosphere and mood: By painting outdoors, artists can better depict the mood and ambience of the scene, whether it's the tranquility of a calm day or the energy of a bustling city street.

  4. Enhancing observational skills: Painting outdoors allows artists to sharpen their observational skills and deepen their understanding of the natural world, as they must respond to the ever-changing conditions of the environment.  

Ultimately, the goal of plein air painting is to create an artwork that reflects the artist's direct experience of the landscape, capturing the fleeting beauty of nature in a way that is both authentic and evocative.

You may be familiar with these plein-air paintings:

While it can be difficult to pinpoint specific plein air paintings in terms of their auction prices, since many famous artists painted both plein air and studio works, I can provide you with examples of famous landscape paintings that are likely to have been painted en plein air or exhibit plein air qualities.

Here are some examples:

  1. Claude Monet's "Haystacks" series (1890-1891): Monet is known for his numerous series of paintings that capture the same subject under varying light and weather conditions, often painted en plein air. One of his "Haystacks" paintings, titled "Meules" (1890), was sold at Sotheby's auction house in 2019 for $110.7 million, setting a record for the artist.

  2. Pierre-Auguste Renoir's "La Seine à Asnières" (1879): Renoir was a prominent Impressionist painter who frequently worked en plein air. His painting "La Seine à Asnières" captures the atmosphere and light of a sunny day by the river. The painting was sold at Christie's auction house in London in 2013 for approximately $8.8 million.

  3. Camille Pissarro's "Le Boulevard Montmartre, matinée de printemps" (1897): Pissarro was another key Impressionist artist who practiced plein air painting. "Le Boulevard Montmartre, matinée de printemps" is a prime example of his urban landscapes, showcasing the changing light and atmosphere of a bustling Parisian boulevard. This painting was sold at Sotheby's auction house in London in 2014 for $32.1 million.

Pictured at the top of this article is a Ignat Ignatov painting "Market" (24x30).  Ignat says,"Charleston has an abundance of scenes to paint. With the easel and paints in my backpack, I walk the streets of downtown, looking for interesting historic buildings to capture on canvas. The churches and old charming doorways are particularly interesting to me because they create artwork that combines architecture from another time and the warm southern light." 


Plein Air and Studio Paintings

Above on the left is the completed painting and to it's right a larger (48x48) studio version.  Plein air paintings can also serve as a "study" of color and values.  These paintings are like notes that an artist can take back to the studio and use to create a larger work. 

What sets a plein air painting apart form a studio painting?

Plein air paintings and studio paintings have distinct characteristics, primarily due to the differences in the environments and processes in which they are created. Here are some key aspects that set plein air paintings apart from studio paintings:

Direct observation:

Plein air paintings are created on-site, with the artist directly observing the landscape, colors, light, and atmosphere. In contrast, studio paintings are often based on reference photos, sketches, or memory, which may not capture the same level of detail or authenticity as working from direct observation.  

Spontaneity and immediacy:

Plein air paintings often have a sense of spontaneity and immediacy, as artists must work quickly to capture the changing conditions of the environment. Studio paintings, on the other hand, can be created at a more leisurely pace, allowing for greater planning and refinement.  

Atmospheric effects:

Plein air paintings typically emphasize the atmospheric conditions and quality of light at the time they are painted, resulting in a more accurate representation of the scene's mood and ambiance. Studio paintings may not capture these nuances as effectively, as they are created in controlled, artificial lighting conditions.

Brushwork and technique:

Due to the time constraints and the need to work quickly, plein air paintings often feature looser brushstrokes and more expressive techniques. Studio paintings, in contrast, can have more deliberate and controlled brushwork, as the artist has more time to refine the details and perfect the composition. 

Challenges of the environment:

Plein air paintings are created in the face of various environmental challenges, such as weather, insects, and changing light conditions. These factors can influence the final result, adding an element of unpredictability to the painting process. Studio paintings are created in a controlled environment, where the artist can manage the conditions more easily.

Marc Anderson Plein Air Painting


Marc Anderson's "Myakka Morning" is another great example of a plein air painting.  This was painted on site in Florida.

Overall, plein air paintings are characterized by their direct connection to the natural environment, spontaneity, and atmospheric effects, which set them apart from studio paintings that are created in more controlled and predictable settings.  

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