Plein air painting locations, past and present
‘En plein air’, the familiar term for painting outdoors was popularised by the French impressionist painters. Many artists choose this method of painting directly from natural light, not only for its technique but also for the pleasure of live painting. Originally travel was part of the experience, as artists searched for the perfect destination. Today, the perfect setting may be far away but could simply be on your doorstep. Some locations, however, remain magical, and continue to be appreciated in the same way they have been for centuries.
Dedham Vale and the River Stour
Long associated with English landscape painter John Constable, (1776-1837) the Dedham Vale and River Stour are on the border between counties Essex and Suffolk.
Now a designated area of outstanding natural beauty, in Constable’s time the river Stour was used for transporting materials to and from the mills owned and run by Constable’s father. An early industrial place of work, it was depicted in several paintings including ‘Flatford Mill, Scene from a navigable river.’ Constable pioneered the ‘plein-air’ oil sketch which he then developed in the studio to create finished works. ‘Flatford Mill’ was the first picture painted almost entirely on location. Working directly from nature gave Constable’s landscapes an exciting new naturalism. Upon seeing ‘The Haywain’ in Paris, Eugene Delacroix is said to reworked the sky for his painting, ‘Massacre at Chios’.
| John Constable, Flatford Mill ('Scene on a Navigable River'), 1816-17
Today, Dedham Vale is not a renowned painting destination, however it remains a beautiful and interesting natural landscape which artists will surely continue to discover.Argenteuil and Etretat
The genre of ‘plein-air’ painting is forever associated with the French Impressionists. Working directly from nature, these artists painted with sketchy, irregular marks using bright colours onto light-tinted grounds, a radical departure from historical techniques.
The location at the heart of Impressionism is a small town on the outskirts of Paris called Argenteuil. Originally known for its superior agricultural produce, by the 1870’s Argenteuil had factories and a railway line that brought Parisians out to enjoy weekend picnics and regattas on the Seine. This combination of rural, industrial and urban life was the ‘modernity’ that was so attractive to the Impressionists. Monet moved to Argenteuil in 1871 and lived there for six, highly productive years. Manet, Caillebotte, Renoir and Sisley all painted at Argenteuil, making it one of the most painted locations in art history. Argenteuil is now firmly a Parisian suburb but other locations associated with the Impressionists look much as they would have in the late 19th century.
| Claude Monet, The cliffs at Etretat, 1885
Clark Art Institute, Williamstown
Both these locations are important landmarks in art history and Etretat remains largely unchanged, its beauty still captures the imagination of today's artists who seek this famous destination. Argenteuil, on the other hand, is no longer visited in the same way but keeps its place in the history of impressionism.
| Edouard Manet, Claude Monet et sa femme dans son bateau-atelier, 1874
Neue pinakothek, Munich. Credit Édouard Manet [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
‘Olana’ on the Hudson River
‘Through American Eyes: Frederic Church and the Landscape Oil Sketch.’ Is at the National Gallery, London until the 28th April 2013 and then at the Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh from 11th May - 8th September 2013. Frederic Church (1826-1900) was a founder member of the Hudson River school of painting which was characterised by realism and a fidelity to nature. A proponent of the ‘plein-air’ oil sketch, Church developed these in the studio into finished compositions. As the United States spread westward the Hudson River School artists followed and painted the great, newly discovered landscapes, the Sierra Nevada and particularly the Yosemite Valley. However, it is with the Hudson Valley that Church is most closely associated (ill.4) and it is here that he built his house Olana, a grand building in the Arab style with spectacular views over the Hudson and out to the Catskills.
Now a New York State historic site, Olana and its extensive grounds are open to visitors and artists year round for painting.
From the seaside to urban scenes, artists now choose locations with an interesting subject and good light, but wherever you choose to paint this, the basic rules are to make your kit lightweight and portable. Experienced ‘plein-air’ painter Graham Giles recommends taking a core of essential colours; Titanium white, Ultramarine blue, Permanent magenta, Cadmium yellow and Raw umber, plus a few others appropriate to the subject. All Winsor & Newton artists’ colour ranges can be used outdoors, but materials such as our sketch box easels, Artists' Water Colour sets and Artists’ Oilbar are firm favourites.
Landscape and Ideology: The English Rustic Tradition, 1740-1860, Ann Bermingham. University of California Press, 1989
The Painting of Modern Life, T.J Clark, Princeton University Press, 1999
1.John Constable. Flatford Mill ('Scene on a Navigable River') 1816-17. Tate Britain
2.Edouard Manet, Claude Monet et sa femme dans son bateau-atelier, 1874. Neue pinakothek, Munich
3.Claude Monet, The cliffs at Etretat, 1885, Clark art institute, Williamstown.
4.Frederic Church, Sunrise (the rising sun) October-December 1862.
NY state office of parks and recreation, Olana state historic site, Hudson NY OL, 1981,12.AB