People have, from the beginning of time, been creating visual art under the open sky. However, their work remained regional as they were limited on how far they could venture away from their dwellings (studios) by the restraints of transportation and the limitations of supplies. For example, until recently (last century and a half), most painters had to grind and mix their own pigments then apply them before they dried. Then in the 1870’s, someone figured out how to put paints in a tube. With that and the invention of the field easel, artists were free to venture out away from their homes and studios for extended painting sessions. French impressionists artists such as Monet, Pissarro and Renoir (including John Constable who predates them) advocated the practice of painting outdoors, which came to be known as painting ‘en plein air’.
Traveling on a parallel track was photography. Initially, it was monochrome, and therefore artists took little note of that technology. With the advancements of color photography around the turn of the 20th century, artists began to turn to photographs as reference material for their paintings. Following on the heals of photography came new styles of art, i.e., modernism, Fauvism (French), expressionism, abstract and others styles and trends, most of which drove artists back into their studios. To further isolate artists from nature, the development of digital technologies near the end of the 20th century captured and confined artists behind glowing screens in darkened rooms.
Nevertheless, there has remained a loyal cadre of plein air painters through the 1900’s. Now the 21st century has seen a resurgence of open air painting. Formal and loosely nit groups are forming around the world. They often connect through on-line communities then meet-up for paint-outs in their cities.
If you do a survey of 20th and pre-20th century art created outdoors, you will discover that most of the works were of rural scenery. Unique to the growing number of contemporary plein air painters from their predecessors is their overwhelming love for urban environments. However, painting on a bustling city street has its challenges and opportunities; most notably…curious onlookers. Let’s look at those. (Continued).