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  • Writer's pictureJames Spencer

Plein Air vs Studio Painting

Plein Air

The location in which a painting is created can have interesting effects on the final outcome of the piece. When painting ‘en plein air’ the artist must contend with the elements and they each come with their own challenges.


When painting in direct sunlight colours appear to have a luminous glow. The intensity and saturation can make judging values tricky but given the choice, somewhat unsurprisingly, I’d take sunshine over any other weather condition. The sun is perpetually travelling through the sky, constantly altering the shadows and colours. The artist must find their own method for winning an impossible race against time.


I’d like you to hold in your mind the image of a ship setting it’s sail and then that sail suddenly catching the power the wind. Now substitute the ship for an easel and the sail for a canvas. Well, I’m sure that you get the picture. It’s going to be a bumpy ride so hold on tight!


Rain can create wonderful effects to paint but it’s when rain gets onto the palette or painting surface things that the problems begin. The rain makes the surface slippery and prevents the paint from adhering to the substrate.

That being said, the advantages of painting outside easily outweigh any difficulties posed by the weather. When you paint outside you feel alive. The process is direct and full of energy. It’s exciting! You respond to the environment with immediacy and haste. Time is of the essence, the plein air artist must always remember that the colours, tones and hues which they see now are subject to change at any moment due to the weather conditions. Many feel that the intensity of painting out of doors comes across in the work itself. It is often this lively, expressive manner of painting which artists endeavour to bring to their studio work although recreating the same fervour in the studio is easier said than done.

Standing On The Shoulders of Giants

Another aspect of plein air painting that I love is the feeling that you are following in the footsteps of great artists such as Turner, Constable and The Impressionists. The experience of these artists (especially The Impressionists with the invention of the paint tube) would be recognisable to any plein air painter working today. I can imagine them looking out at the horizon, squinting to bring out the contrast and of course, cursing that approaching rain cloud. Being a plein air painter feels as though you are part of a club. There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, because plein air painters tend to be lovely, supportive people. Secondly because they all know what it’s like to be in that flow state, totally absorbed in capturing the landscape. I feel this creates a mutual respect between artists who work outside.


Time To Finesse

Painting in the studio is distinctly different to painting outside because the artist is able to control factors such as lighting and timescale without having to contest the weather. This allows for a  more finessed approach. The studio gives the artist the opportunity to rework a specific aspect of a piece until the desired outcome is reached. This is a luxury unavailable to artists who work solely ‘en plein air' where time is at a premium. The means that the end product of studio painting is often far more refined than work completed out of doors. This is not always a positive as many artists will tell you how easy it is to overwork a piece. The mind plays tricks on the artist, telling them “maybe just one more dab of blue here and perhaps I should just neaten up that edge there?”. In actual fact the artist is undoing their hard work in the pursuit of unattainable perfection. It’s a very easy trap to fall in to, especially when working it the studio. Knowing when to stop is a real skill and is usually acquired through years experience.


Another aspect of working in the studio is the access to reference material to support the work. There is a lot of debate around the use of photography in painting and personally I feel that it can be an extremely useful tool. For years I have worked directly from the subject, both en plein air and in the studio but more recently I have begun to experiment with the use of photography. I find it particularly useful when I want to paint a view from hard to reach locations for example a freezing mountain summit or an incredible view by a busy main road. Photography lets me quickly capture the scene and turn it into a painting back at the studio where I can give it the time it requires. This method is also very handy for capturing fleeting effects of light and weather. For example, a golden ray of sunshine breaks through the clouds and illuminates a village on the distant hillside. This effect may last for just a few seconds but with a camera handy the artist is able to preserve the moment and develop it at their leisure in the studio.


Of course there can be no winner here, every artist has to find a way of working that suits them. Personally I feel that the combination of working both inside and outside of the studio is hugely beneficial to my practice. This is because each approach allows me to develop skills which carry-over. Being forced to paint quickly when working en plein air has helped me to work with more efficiency in the studio. Also, taking the time to really get to know my palette in the studio means that when painting en plein air I know exactly what colours to mix to produce certain tones and hues.

If you’re an artist considering having a go at plein air painting for the first time then I’d thoroughly recommend it. Embrace the feeling of living in the moment and go for it!

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