Lorwen C. Nagle
Contemporary Impressionist – Symbolist Paintings

Painting Landscapes En Plein Air

En plein air is a borrowed French phrase whose equivalent meaning is “open (in full) air. To a certain extent, artists have always been working in the open, but before the 19th century it had been common practice for artists to complete their works in their studios. During the 19th century plein air painting became an artistic practice in its own right, and in the 1870s, the French impressionists became known for their quick and spontaneous sketches of nature.


Around the same time, on the other side of the Atlantic, the Hudson River School of painters and the Cape Ann painters were outside painting scenes of America – the local fishing villages, the beaches, harbor life, and the glorious scenes of the wilderness. All of these painters were working at their craft in a spontaneous gestural way. The Cape Ann artist helped to form the school of American Impressionism. And, generations of landscape and marine artists have found inspiration on Cape Ann, including myself.


Since that time, generations of landscape and marine artists have found inspiration on Cape Ann — from the beaches to the rocky Atlantic coastline. And, the Rockport Art Association and museum is an entity that provides access to viewing endless generations of unique landscape paintings.


In recent years (since Y2K), plein air painting and oil painted landscapes have seen a surge in popularity. Articles regarding the rise of Plein Air painting in the 21st century, say that it has become popular because of the skill required to participate, and the public festival atmosphere it creates in the communities where plein air events are hosted. At the same time, the list of reasons could go on and on. People love to look at locally painted scenes and it appears artists love to paint the effects of nature. There is a Plein Air Magazine and even iPhone applications for painting outdoors. The applications help an artist, on site, determine the values of the scene. But, nothing helps the landscape painter like practicing their craft outdoors.


Sitting out in the open and painting, allowed artists to capture the light and the colors directly onto the canvas. It was fashionable, and still is, to complete one’s painting in one “sitting.” Thus, plein air paintings eliminated the process of underpainting and drawing prior to painting. While painting outdoors, artists found that timing made a difference. If you were out in the evening painting, the water and sky seemed to optically merge. Many landscape painters tried to capture this vision as well as other natural phenomena.