“En plein air” simply means “in the open air” and was originally synonymous with the idea of creating paintings out of doors, in natural light, rather than in a studio. Although not new, the practice became very popular among mid-19th century impressionists, partly with the availability of oil paints in prepackaged tubes. Suddenly the artist’s studio became much more portable.
The history of plein-air landscape painting in California is long and rich, with distinct styles evolving in different parts of the state. In northern California there was an early focus on capturing mood and tone rather than realistic details of dramatic landscapes, partly related to the cool, misty climate of the area. Stylistically, landscape painting evolved differently in southern California with its brilliant, nearly perpetual sunshine and the arid hills and valleys that characterize our region.
Today, it’s unclear whether “plein air” more aptly describes a visual style, work reminiscent of artists associated with the original plein-air “school,” or a method of working, doing one’s painting “on location” rather than in a studio. The term is used widely in both contexts.
So is it fair to use the term in connection with photography? I think so. When I wander the back roads and trails looking for scenes that capture the light and special character of the California landscape, albeit with different tools and techniques, I think I’m doing what the original plein-air painters did by going out into the landscape and trying to capture what they saw.
The images below were included in a small gallery exhibit here in Santa Barbara. I plan to add more images to this collection soon. The gold-accented frames look great, an homage to the gilt frames still used by many plein-air painters.