Plein Air Fairhope

“The mountains are a calling and I must go.” – John Muir

Plein Air Painting: A Brief History

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.

Plein Air Fairhope: Finding Inspiration on the Eastern Shore

At the Eastern Shore Art Center, we are often greeted with tourists and newcomers that revel in the beauty of this “artsy, little Alabama town”. Locals appreciate the art in our eateries as much as the menus!  From public sculptures to our city’s murals to the numerous galleries, you don’t have to look too hard to find color, texture, and creativity. But where are the artists…


In early March, we began working with local artist and instructor, Cat Pope, to implement ESAC’s first plein air paint out. Our goal is to encourage local and visiting artists to explore our fair city, seeking out idyllic locales and inspirational nooks and crannies. The paint out, beginning Nov 7th and ending on Nov 9th, will also give locals and visitors a chance to see artists “ in action en plein air”! The work produced throughout the event will be displayed in the Courtyard Gallery at ESAC throughout December 2019. Just as the plein air paintings as the mid 19thcentury allowed someone to experience a foggy morning in the Adirondack mountains, the Plein Air Fairhope Exhibit will be full of art that will allow individuals to experience the natural light of our city.

But can’t I just paint from a photograph?

While painting from a picture or finishing a piece in studio are completely acceptable practices, there is a certain magic that is captured when plein air is “done right”.


To gain a better understanding of what plein air entails, Academy Director Reanna Watson met with local artist Cat Pope.

What does painting “en plein air” mean to you? What is your typical routine?

En plein air simply means, “in open air.” Any painting done on location, historically in the outdoors, falls into this category. Plein air painting isn’t limited to landscapes, however, it can include cafe scenes, downtown streets, a shipyard, etc.


Routine is different for each artist, and I am in no way a seasoned plein air warrior. Usually I pack a hiking backpack the night before so I can get an early start (I always check the weather, too). I have my Daytripper field easel with travel palette, and my limited colors are already squeezed out. In oils you have that luxury of slow drying time. The rest of my items include 4-5 brushes and a roll of paper towels with a plastic trash bag. It is highly imperative to leave no trace wherever I paint – especially outdoors.


I’ll spend around two hours at a scene, any longer and the sun will have changed dramatically. Plus, my eyes get tired, and no good painting efforts come after that happens.

What challenges are presented by plein air painting?

Painting presents its own challenges, and anytime you add in the outdoor elements, you’re in for a unique experience! The sun is changing by the hour, which alters your directional light and shadows; clouds can change shape or disappear entirely, figures you were inspired by have finished their picnic meal and moved on . . . the challenges are endless! Another challenge painters grapple with is packing supplies. I am a natural over-packer, so limiting your gear down to the essentials is key.

Do you notice a difference in the result of painting from a photograph vs en plein air? Is it a technique that you can practice enough to successfully execute “indoors”?

Plein air painting aims to capture the essence of a scene, rather than a documentation of time and place. It is not unrealistic for artists to see a drastic difference in style when they work en plein air. Grappling with those challenges outdoors will alter the way you paint. I also know several artists who will paint en plein air to do small sketches and studies for larger works. A seasoned painter can harness the spirit of plein air in their studio work, yes, but they do keep a dedicated plein air practice in their creative time.

What are some of the other paint outs you have participated in?

I have participated as a student for the past two years at Plein Air South in Apilachicola, FL. I have also painted en plein air at John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, NC, and on my own locally around Mobile Bay. There are several artists in our area that enjoy plein air as well, and it’s been so exciting to help plan Plein Air Fairhope to celebrate this creative process in our community.

What is your favorite time of day/atmosphere/outdoor scene to paint?

I love drama in paintings, so when the sun is bright and cast directly on a subject, it makes the most magical, effervescent shadows. Your eyes perceive so much color when painting from life, a camera and photograph cannot come close to what that experience is visually.

What are the plein air “essentials”? What do you not want to be caught in the field without?

Outside of my painting gear, bring a hat! Also: bug spray, sunscreen, extra water, and a painting buddy when you can. Plein air is more fun with friends.

Event Details: Plein Air Fairhope, November 7-9, 2019

Join ESAC for a community celebration of painting in the great outdoors! 40 painters will be taking it to the streets – and the bay front pier!


From sunrise to sunset, artists will set up throughout the city with portable easels, chairs, and umbrellas. Work created during the “paint out” will be on exhibit and available for purchase at ESAC November 9-December 21, 2019.  Click below to see a list of participating artists and a map of the recommended zones they will be stationed in.

Have you tried Plein Air Painting? Let us know your experiences in the comments below!


  • The absolute best way to study painting! A photograph never accurately captures the subtleties of value or color. Nor can it rival the individual nuances of each painters vision. Painting within the window of limited time available until the angle of the sun changes the shape of everything , is both a challenge and the reason that plein air paintings look so fresh and immediate.

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