Painting Landscapes en Plein Air
This Historic Pastime Revives Every Spring
It's wildflower season in Texas and with a bit of artistic flourish and a keen enough eye, you can savor the variety of color by capturing it on canvas. Brush up on a little art history with us before you take your paints en plein air. Scroll to the bottom to discover active plein air groups across Texas!
More Than a Technique
En plein air. If your Texan tongue crudely translated the French phrase to something like “plain ol’ air,” you wouldn’t be far off. Literally “in the open air,” the expression, which is often used to describe the practice of painting outdoors, is as much a way of life as it is an artistic method, and one that nature-loving Texans can get behind.
Ironically, the tradition begins with Leonardo da Vinci, a painter whose lifetime pre-dated the invention of portable paints that would’ve allowed him to transport his easel outside. Leonardo’s legendary passion for subjects other than painting led to his interest in the anatomy of the human eye and its optical function. In particular, he was fascinated by how the human eye filters images. Using a practice he invented called sfumato, he was able to replicate the biological technology of human eyesight by softening all the edges in his paintings by layering smudged color. The result can be observed in the famous “Mona Lisa,” whose eyes and smirk have captivated viewers for hundreds of years. If you’ve ever wondered if her eyes were actually moving, it’s because the slightly out-of-focus picture is seemingly produced by your very own eyes. That’s sfumato.
By the 19th century, French Impressionist painters were exploring a new practice, possibly informed by sfumato. Though landscape paintings and pastoral scenes were nothing new, the act of painting in the open air was, in addition to a logistical improvement, an exercise in immediacy and science of vision. Nature was their muse, as seated portraits were supplanted by the dynamic conditions of the outdoors where artists painted what they saw, if only for a moment.
The Tradition Evolves
The practice of painting outdoors flourished during this period mostly due to the invention of portable tubes of paint. Before this, artists were relegated to the indoors where they could more easily hand-mix their paints. Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, two of the most well known Impressionists, were known to paint mostly outdoors, where the diffuse light translated into hazy scenes akin to Leonardo’s smudging. The artists used pure color, squeezed from their newfangled aluminum tubes of paint, to capture the landscape with quick, loose, expressive brushwork. To see these paintings today is a kind of optical manipulation: the limited palette and soft shapes demand the brain and eyes work together to conjure the scene.
At the time, this style was thought of as unusual, and was even ridiculed as being unfinished and amateur. Indeed, to these artists the act of recording fleeting sensory effects of light and atmosphere was a radical one. And as persistent as annual wildflowers, they remained committed to this transient version of beauty.
Today, heritage travelers flock to Giverny, a place in France where Monet painted his most iconic scenes. In droves, they come for the same reason: to plant their feet in that sacred spot just as the artist did. Once there, en plein air, one can appreciate the thrill of the art form, the fading light, a shadow that fidgets in the breeze. The very best you can hope to capture is an impression. Nature, after all, is unknowable.
But another painter, this time one that Texas can claim in part, Georgia O’Keeffe, may argue that knowing isn’t the point; nature is not for us to analyze, but to meditate upon. O’Keefe spent several years, arguably her most formative as an artist, painting en plein air among the Palo Duro Canyons in the Plains of Canyon, TX. In her work, abstraction does not look so abstract. There’s visual precision, but like in Impressionism, you don’t immediately understand what you’re looking at.
Light Coming on the Plains, No. II. 1917. Watercolor.
In a letter to Alfred Stieglitz, dated April 19, 1917, Canyon, Texas, Georgia O'Keefe described her view, "such wonderful long strips of color in the plains—spring color—From a higher part in the road out east the town is just a little streak in the long ribbon line—horizon way above the town—It makes paint seem impossible—wonderful light greens and blues and grays and lavenders...tremendous clouds—I wouldn't have missed the sky for a whole lot—but could very well have gotten along without the rest of it."
From "Georgia O'Keeffe's Wartime Texas Letters," Amy Von Lintel, Texas A & M University Press.
Now It's Your Turn
You too can take to the distinctive landscapes of Texas with your watercolors or oils. Whether you’re looking out onto the mountainous terrain of the Plains Trail Region or the coastal plains of the Tropical Trail Region, what you capture will be the ultimate souvenir, having put to mark the immediacy of your environment–not just the colors and shapes, but the feeling of being here.
Find the perfect setting: Explore Historic Botanical Gardens in Texas.
Join a painting group!
Plein air groups and societies are still active across the state. Here are a few to get you started: