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‘En plein air’, a French phrase meaning “open (in full) air”

As a painting practice, for both the study and formal practice have really been around for a long time – painting live on location of various rural, scenic and urban subjects. – in the mid-19th century, working in natural light became particularly important to the Impressionists, Barbizon, and Hudson River Schools. In the 1840s the introduction of paints in tubes helped propel it’s popularity.

Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of a Wood (1885) by John Singer Sargent. Oil on canvas. 54.0 × 64.8 cm. Tate Gallery, London.

Aside from the being outside, common aspects of the practice are observation, composition, studying light and the natural world, and colour.

Colour Theory has always been important to it, the science and technology of both light and paint reached a point in the 1800s where artists were inspired by new ideas, and given the means to capture them with more vivid, subtle and various colours.

Today, it’s still a thriving practice [sic]. More on that soon. What I want to present here is a new kink that technology has introduced and is lending to the form evolving again. The unexpected utility of virtual travel via utilities like Google Street View. Virtual Plein Air!

Ok, so drawing from photos is nothing new, Virtual Plein Air is a lot more flexible, letting you look around, and either frame your own compositions out of the larger view or use the window of the browser to do that. But is this as good as drawing in person from life? It’s a little different for sure, no elements, no wind in your hair, and probably everything is a bit smaller, depending on how you do it.

In class I use a huge projection screen so it’s closer to the scale of being somewhere in real life but probably you’re working with a smaller screen somehow. But yes, I think it’s of equal though sometimes different merit. And includes built in features that make some aspects easier to utilize by students to learn quickly about composition.

So one of the key features of drawing from life, is the nature of sight. In most of us, it’s bifocal. And it’s deeply perception based, and expectation driven neurologically.

We often don’t think about how that shapes things like learning perspective and how to really SEE what we’re looking at in the fine grain way an artist needs to do.

Using an app or web based virtual presence, lets us not just globetrot and share economically locations to draw, but it provides an already monofocal image of the space, and that can make learning to see more detail easier for a student! Saves a bit of brain power for other things.

Autodesk Sketchbook Virtual Plein Air Painting Demo Clip.
Autodesk Sketchbook Virtual Plein Air Painting Demo Clip.

It also hase a built in adjustable frame when done with a browser window! Letting you try out croppings that otherwise you’d have to project mentally on the view. I also use the rule of thirds grid on my camera phone and check out things I think look interesting with it on for the same reason. Autodesk has a PDF tutorial to go along with this clip showing how they sugest you use their programs to do this. It can be applied to other apps too of course.

Here on this page i’m going to embed some locations I find especially interesting. Make doing both more gestural and loose quick studies, and finer studies that apply a more representational style part of your weekly study routine. Working on capturing what you see well is the first step, but once you start to get the hang of a bit of that, tweaking locations to suit your own goals in your version is a lot of fun. That can be minor edits or turning them into fantasy shots!

For some tips on great gestural Plein Air drawing with line and watercolour, check out the tip sheets and posts of the inspiring teachings of Marc Taro Holmes. He’s a great example of what you can do with a gestural line, and his guides for capturing landscapes cities and people are really quite great.

Also there’s a Facebook group of artists practicing Virtual Plein Air you can join here, great for links to lovely locations-some of those below came from there-and to see others work to learn from, and share your own.

And last, i’ve made a clip here showing how to think about utilizing compositional ideas like the Rule of Thirds, and the frame of your browser, to get more dynamic compositions out of your studies.


These are just suggestions, feel free to go exploring on your own!

More locations here…!

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