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), Dedham Vale and River Stour are on the border between the counties of Essex and Suffolk.
Now a designated area of outstanding natural beauty, in Constable’s time the Stour was used for transporting materials to and from the mills owned and run by his father. An early industrial place of work, it was depicted in several paintings including Flatford Mill (‘Scene on a Navigable River’). Constable pioneered the plein air oil sketch, which he then developed in the studio to create finished works. Flatford Mill was his first picture painted almost entirely on location. Working directly from nature gave Constable’s landscapes an exciting new naturalism; upon seeing Constable’s The Haywain in Paris, Eugène Delacroix is said to reworked the sky for his painting The Massacre at Chios.
Today, Dedham Vale is not a renowned painting destination, but 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 on 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 1870s 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. It is now firmly a Parisian suburb, but other locations associated with the Impressionists look much as they would have in the late 19th century.
Monet spent years of his childhood in Le Havre on the Normandy coast, and the painting that gave Impressionism its name, Impression, Sunrise, was created there. Normandy light is “pearl-like” but often changeable – exasperating for the plein air painter, but in keeping with Impressionism’s desire to capture fleeting effects of light. Along the coast from Le Havre is the seaside resort of Etretat, its startling chalk cliffs and clear light providing an inspirational subject for painters today just as it did for Monet, and before him Courbet and Delacroix.
Both these locations are important landmarks in art history and Etretat remains largely unchanged, its beauty still capturing the imagination of today’s artists. Argenteuil, on the other hand, is no longer visited in the same way, but keeps its place in the history of Impressionism.
Olana on the Hudson River
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, painting 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 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.
From the seaside to urban scenes, artists choose locations with an interesting subject and good light, but wherever you choose to paint, 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.
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
*Lead image: Claude Monet, The Cliffs at Etretat, 1885, oil on canvas, 65 x 82 cm, image source wikipedia