How to Channel Your Inner Monet and Host a “Plein Air” Painting Party

High Museum of Art
Sep 25 · 4 min read

Find out why the Impressionists loved painting outdoors, and get tips on how to try this pandemic-approved pastime.

By Eva Berlin, Digital Content Specialist, High Museum of Art

Impressionist landscape painting by Monet showing charming houses along a country road.
Impressionist landscape painting by Monet showing charming houses along a country road.
Claude Monet (French, 1840–1926), Maisons au bord de la route, 1885

Whether you’re in the rolling hills of Southern France or the wooded backyards of Georgia, when depicting a landscape, there’s nothing quite like painting en plein air — or outside “in the open air.”

Plein air painting gained traction in the mid-1800s as artists of the Barbizon school in France began sketching outdoors to better capture natural light. By the late 1800s, a younger generation of French painters, the Impressionists, took the technique a step further by starting and finishing paintings entirely outdoors. Although painting outdoors was hardly invented in the 1800s, this direct observation of nature was made easier by recent innovations in synthetic pigments that could be packaged in tubes. This along with the creation of portable easels and canvases opened up a world of convenient outdoor painting.

Wooden paint box and palette from the 1890s.
Wooden paint box and palette from the 1890s.
Collapsible wooden stool from the 1800s.
Collapsible wooden stool from the 1800s.
Weathered tin tube of vermillion oil paint from the 1890s.
Weathered tin tube of vermillion oil paint from the 1890s.
Previously, artists had to grind raw materials and create pigments — an involved process better suited to a studio. With the creation of synthetic pigments and ready-made tubes of paint in the 1800s, portable paints became a viable option. Paint box, palette, stool, and paint tube that belonged to William Trost Richards, ca. 1890s, Chrysler Museum of Art.

Impressionist painters are known for expressing the atmosphere of a scene through natural light and dazzling colors — painting en plein air was crucial to capturing that fleeting ambiance. In these works by Claude Monet and Alfred Sisley, the atmosphere is palpable as the sun’s shifting light creates a vivid chromatic display.

Impressionist landscape painting by Sisley showing an autumn morning on an orchard.
Impressionist landscape painting by Sisley showing an autumn morning on an orchard.
Impressionist landscape painting by Monet showing a large building obscured by colorful fog.
Impressionist landscape painting by Monet showing a large building obscured by colorful fog.
Alfred Sisley (French, 1839–1899), The “Trou d’Enfer” Farm, Autumn Morning, 1874; Claude Monet (French, 1840–1926), Houses of Parliament in the Fog, 1903

For the Impressionists, natural lighting was essential. Forms glow as surrounding light seeps around the edges, permeating everything, dissolving solid landforms and massive stone cathedrals into expressions of light and mood.

Impressionist landscape painting by Sisley showing a charming thatch-roofed building in the French countryside.
Impressionist landscape painting by Sisley showing a charming thatch-roofed building in the French countryside.
Alfred Sisley (French, 1839–1899), Chaumière en Normandie, 1894

Host a “Plein Air” Painting Party

As late summer’s beauty leads into fall’s golden hues, it’s a great time to get outside, soak up some sun, and paint. It’s also a perfect way to enjoy time with friends or loved ones while safely distanced in the fresh air.

Woman painting a forest scene outdoors in a lush green setting by a creek.
Woman painting a forest scene outdoors in a lush green setting by a creek.
Charcuterie board picnic with french bread, tomatoes, and cured meats.
Charcuterie board picnic with french bread, tomatoes, and cured meats.
Photo credit: Sharon Santoni, My French Country Home.

What You’ll Need

  • Beautiful outdoor location and somewhere to sit (for example, a public park, a river shore, a mountainous setting, or even your backyard)
  • Portable easel, drawing board, or something to bear down on
  • Sketchbook (If you’re using watercolors, choose watercolor paper. If you’re using dry drawing utensils, a regular sketchbook will do!)
  • Watercolor palette, paintbrushes, container of water, and a paper towel. Or, if you’d rather not fuss with water, bring simple drawing utensils like colored pencils or pastels. Watercolor pencils are a happy in-between as they can be used dry or with water.

Up the Fun

  • Pack a picnic and drinks (charcuterie and wine, anyone?)
  • Light a citronella candle to banish bugs (if allowed)
  • Play music on a portable speaker

Looking for more experience drawing from observation?
Join us outside on the High’s Orkin Terrace for Drawing from Experience (designed for adults) or Family Art Escapes (designed for children ages six through twelve years with their caregivers).

To see the Impressionist works featured in this post, visit the High’s European art galleries and the Shaheen Collection of French Works.

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Stories from the High Museum of Art in Atlanta

High Museum of Art

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The High is Atlanta’s art museum, bringing creativity to your everyday. Our collections, exhibitions, and programs are always here for you.

High Museum of Art

Stories from the High Museum of Art in Atlanta

High Museum of Art

Written by

The High is Atlanta’s art museum, bringing creativity to your everyday. Our collections, exhibitions, and programs are always here for you.

High Museum of Art

Stories from the High Museum of Art in Atlanta

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