The new Impressionism?

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Has plein air painting become the new impressionism?

When I began my fine art career in the early 80’s, Impressionism was all the rage. Galleries began identifying their artists as Impressionists, and many artists jumped right on the bandwagon with them. Whether they were impressionists or not didn’t really matter because just about everything was being identified as Impressionism. The public ate it up.

Are we seeing the same today regarding Plein Air?

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Jean Stern, Executive Director of the Irvine Museum in Irvine, CA says just about as much. In an excellent article titled “Plein Air Painting: A Vehicle, Not a Destination”, published in the Summer 2011 edition of Plein Air Magazine, Stern writes…

“Quite often, as seen in countless art magazine advertisements, the legitimacy of plein air painting has been subverted to accommodate those who seek to appropriate the popularity and commercial success now attendant to that designation. Today, there are many who describe themselves as ‘plein air painters’ who, in fact, are not.”

We’ve all seen photos of artists, standing before the motif, with a highly detailed painting on a large canvas…clearly suggesting that the work was done en plein air. Plein air painting has become a badge of honor, a status symbol.

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As Mr. Stern points out, “Plein Air is not a philosophy and it is not the artist’s Nirvana. It is not the end product. It is, in fact, the beginning.”

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Collectors today seem to be asking more and more, “Is this painting a plein air piece?” Plein air painting is the new “in thing” and plein air painters are coming out of the woodwork. Because of its popularity, in some cases, paintings are being passed off as having been done in plein air when indeed they were not. The galleries and artists aren’t the only ones culpable in this, as I believe part of the problem rests with plein air organizations and those hosting such events.

It’s very possible that I’ve missed it, but I am not aware of any of these organizations actually defining, definitively establishing what qualifies as a plein air painting. I’ve heard that at least 50% of the painting must have been completed outdoors in front of the subject, while others declare it’s all or nothing with absolutely no studio work allowed, even for touch-ups. If a clear, consistent definition were established, I think it would be a good thing and could help us avoid creating a “new Impressionism”.

Mr. Stern doesn’t believe that plein air painting is the end product. I don’t think he means it as presented, for we all know plein air paintings can be a beautiful end product. I think he was saying that plein air painting is not an end in itself but a precursor to a more refined work. He says as much here.

“It is tempting to keep painting the small, carefully observed, brilliant little jewels that tend to sell well, and unfortunately, many artists do just that. The plein air sketch confirms its reason for being when it leads to a refined, studio-painted final work.”

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Plein air work is an absolute necessity for any landscape painter, but as I have seen many times, it can be a crutch that the artist leans on, giving them a sense of security and accomplishment, when in reality there exists an inability to go beyond the sketch toward the creation of a highly refined studio painting based on that outdoor work.

I have always viewed my outdoor work as a way to learn…a way to improve the studio painting. It seems Jean Stern and I are on the same page.

“Once an artist has achieved a practical proficiency in painting outdoors, after meeting the artistic challenges as well as the natural inconveniences, it is time to use those sketches to fulfill the promise of plein air and paint the large, final work in the studio.”

Forget everything I've said. I'm a firm believer in plein air painting. Who cares about the finished product. The more painting in plein air the better.

Forget everything I’ve said. I’m a firm believer in plein air painting. Who cares about the finished product. The more painting done in plein air the better.


I’m heading to the beach. I hear there are some beautiful subjects there.


Excerpts from Mr. Stern’s article are granted by permission of PleinAir Magazine

For subscription information, please click HERE


Interested in plein air painting and need a place to start, visit the Outdoor Painters Society

John Pototschnik is an Art Renewal Center Associate Living Master
To view his work and bio, please click HERE


Scheduled Workshops for 2014

22-24 May  –  Dahlonega, GA

20-22 June  –  Lowell, MI

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1-3 October  –  Portland, ME

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