“En plein air”, the French term, means to paint outside in the open air. To paint all in one sitting either in the studio or outside is called “alla prima”. Most plein air painting is done in one sitting, alla prima, but some artists continue to work on a single painting more than one day. This direct approach to painting was first done by the French Impressionists. Up until this time, painting was done in the studio over a period of time, often a romanticized view of nature. The “experience”, their “impressions” of a scene are what the French Impressionists were after.
The camera was developed at this time. This gave artists and added tool, both good and bad. They could paint their “feelings”, but still render detail in a painting. Some artists did and still do render a lot of detail in their paintings. The buying public has often thought that a detailed painting was a “perfect” redition of a scene. The artist can give a painting feeling and a soul that the camera cannot capture. Over the last 150 years art has fluctuated between “feelings” and “impressions” and slavishly rendered detail.
Most artwork falls somewhere in between. It can be a grand scene or intimate detail to express your “feelings”. When communicating through art you may look for color, texture or contrast. The eye usually is attracted to light values. To follow through with your idea, you will first need to simplify, take out anything that isn’t necessary. After deciding what your focal point is, you will squint at the scene. This simplifies the colors, details and values. The large masses form the basis of your composition. You then consider various design elements in the composition.
Once you are ready to start painting, most artists use thin paint to block in the painting. Some schools of thought block in the darks first, others paint shapes of colors, one next to the other. Then, you will move onto refining and details, which are a personal preference for the artist. The brushstrokes and/or the palette knife in the refining of the painting are as individual to the artist as handwriting is. This helps to define the artists’ “style”, which is another topic.
When I am plein air painting, I feel a rush, an excitement that I usually don’t get in the studio. This helps to give my paintings “feelings” and an “impression” of the scene. The decisions I make help, or sometimes fail, to convey those emotions to the viewer.