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En Plein Air
Launching Arabah
The idea
I first discovered something called “Plein Air Painting” standing in line at my local art supply store. Normally I would flip through a magazine - either South-western Art, American Artist, or American Art Review – as I stood at the checkout. I repeatedly found myself drawn to a certain type of image; landscapes that had a certain quality to them. They were often freely painted and yet carefully composed. They were both beautiful and held some deeper truth. I noted that the captions under the pictures I liked the most included the words “Plein air”. I had no clue what it meant.

Eventually I learned that plein air refers to paintings created outdoors, on location from observation. “Plein air painting,” literally translated from French as “open air painting”, has been the practice of fine artists going back centuries. But it was the Impressionists and Barbizon painters of the mid 19th century who really elevated this practice and made it popular. In their efforts to capture natural light and atmosphere, these artists took their tools and materials outdoors, drawing inspiration from and responding to nature directly. If you like Monet, Renoir, Polenov or even Canada's own Group of Seven, chances are that you find en plein air works as captivating as I do.

“There is something invaluable in working outdoors – not only for art but for the body and soul that produces that art.”

Jason Bouwman

Development of the portable French box easels combined with the advent of tubes of coloured paint made painting outdoors easier and caused the popularity of outdoor painting to surge in the 1870s. This popularity has endured throughout the 20th century and into the 21st century despite the many challenges associated with it.

Painting outside is challenging due to constantly changing light and atmospheric environmental conditions. Naturally, this necessitates speed and concrete decision making. It means concentrating on capturing the essence of a scene and not all of its details. Because of the changing conditions most outdoor painting sessions don’t last longer than a couple hours. And while this is not much time to complete a painting, in today's sped up, easily distracted world of digital communications, it feels like an eternity to remain in one place carefully observing and analyzing. Maybe it is for that reason that this ancient practice has become so relevant today.

Instead of clicking a button and moving on, painting requires prolonged immersion in the subject matter, it requires the painter to be present and there is something really good about that. Painting increases both our attention span and our appreciation of the beauty that surrounds us.


When painting outdoors artists also face a variety of conditions they are isolated from in the studio. Beating sun. Wind. Rain. Bugs. These conditions evoke emotions that find their way into the painting itself. Other times the challenges can prove to be too much. With flies in the paint, wind blowing an easel into the dirt, or rain washing the paint away there is a reason that artists who spend much of their time outdoors are affectionately called “Com-plein air painters.” Prepare as we might, being outdoors always provides us with opportunities to be humbled. There is something really good about that too; it produces character and resilience.

Not long after discovering what plein air painting was all about, I was inspired to try it myself. I threw a canvas board and some art supplies in a grocery bag, hopped in my truck, and drove north of town to find a suitable location. I still remember the exhilarating feeling I had sitting on my tailgate, inhaling the fresh country air as I tentatively laid my first brushstrokes; the sound of birds and rustling leaves made more evident by the lack of phone or email notifications. I’ve heard hunters describe early mornings spent in their tree stands with similar elation. When we stop to enjoy sustained, quiet, thoughtful observation of natural beauty - when we’re immersed in it - we become aware that the world around us is teeming with life. Insects buzz and crawl (sometimes into my paint), birds chirp, squirrels scurry. A local resident walks his dog and pauses just long enough to satisfy his curiosity and exchange pleasantries.


There is something invaluable in working outdoors – not only for art but for the body and soul that produces that art. Many studies support the idea that being outdoors benefits a persons mind, body, and spirit. Researchers are rediscovering the importance of making sure that children spend non-programmed time exploring nature. They have found that time spent outdoors can be critical to the development of children’s motor skills and cognitive functions. For adults being outdoors offers a simple antidote to today's fast-paced, sedentary lifestyle.

Whether you are an artist or not, I invite you outdoors. Slow down. Observe. Listen. Breathe. Reorient yourself to reality and to the present moment, en plein air. En-joy.

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Go behind the scenes of the Arabah project and get an inside look at the ongoing progress of this body of work.