During the summer of 1825, artist Thomas Cole hiked the Catskill mountains. Accompanying his mountaineering gear was a cumbersome studio easel. The following autumn, he returned from his mountain journey with several breathtaking paintings depicting the mountain glens, sunset, and wildlife. That November, his work appeared in the New York Evening Post. For many early 19thcentury Americans, this was their first glimpse of the scenic mountains.
In the mid 1800’s, institutions like the Hudson River School (New York) and the Barbizon School (France) enabled artists to hone their craft of capturing outdoor scenes. Leaving the studio behind, artists from France, Italy, and America began painting en plein air (outdoors). Scenes depicting various weather conditions, moments from morning to night, and the daily routines of urban life were captured by artists like Claude Monet, Thomas Renoir, Winslow Homer, and Mary Cassat. Before the advent of photography, it was plein air that allowed many individuals to envisage the corners of the world far from their own.
Plein air painting is an outdoor activity that celebrates the beauty of the natural world and natural light. When Thomas Cole took to the mountains with oil pigments and brushes, he was intent on capturing a world that was beginning to fade. His paintings depict a landscape that was soon to be overtaken by urban development and timber companies.Claude Monet abandoned the studio because he felt that to best obtain the closeness and likeness of the outdoors, one needed to be outdoors. Painting en plein air became even more popular with the invention of the Pochade box, also known as the field easel.
At present day, Plein Air paint outs are held from coast to coast and many artists continue to celebrate the discipline. For some, plein air painting simply means painting outdoors. Other plein air enthusiasts are much more diligent in adhering to the plein air discipline, completing pieces in one sitting. The challenge of plein air painting is the capture of fugitive light and weather changes of the outdoors. A skilled plein air artist can produce spontaneous pieces that are breathtaking and multi dimensional. But behind the spontaneity there is an organized palette, well stocked travel easel, and an understanding of composition.