In discussing this branch of painting with fellow artists, I find a wide range of responses. From those who look forward to getting out as much as possible, to those who fondly describe themselves as a studio painter only.
My own experience finds the act of plein air paintings as rich, and as fulfilling a painter can have. For understanding nature facts such as perspective, light and dark, tree structure, atmosphere, color, and more; there is no better way than plein air painting. The experience fills the senses in a way that’s not possible in the studio. First-hand translation on location of 3 dimensions directly onto the 2 dimensions of the canvas, forces the artist to think in ways not needed when using only a photograph. I’m not against using photographs, however, I would suggest there’s a benefit to plein air painting that artists will gain that would also be of help in painting from photos (if they choose).
For example, many artists have some difficulty painting trees as successfully as they would like. Leaving them roughly blocked in as supporting elements – rarely using them as the focal point. Many artists would benefit by just going out in their yard – picking out a tree or two and painting them as a study. Look at the structure, the color, light and dark, etc. Get as many of these elements on the canvas as possible. Notice if the sky peeks through the middle here and there – or around the edges. I had a teacher who always told his students to make sure to paint the tree as though a bird can fly through it. The “character” of the tree. Catch that, and you have it. This is a good example of how plein air painting can be far superior in the artists experiencing the true character for that which she/he is attempting to capture.
The plein air experience is a fact-gathering experience that can later be more successfully applied if the artist is to use photographs. It can also be a source of inspired and lively pictures in their own right. A plein air painting can most often be understood to be so at first glance. The artists use of light and dark, perspective, color, paint handling, etc.. when painting plein air is recognizable and distinguishes itself from studio painting of photographs. People who know art can usually readily pick it out. There is definitely a place for studio landscape painting in my opinion. However, there is also a benefit to painting plein air that can be applied to paint more successfully in the studio.
In our society over recent years, many plein air organizations have organized. The opportunity for artists to paint on location with other artists has never been greater. An artist now has a choice if they prefer to paint alone, or with others. Do a search, or get out in your yard. You’ll hear the birds, feel the air, and see the haze. The color in the tree bark will surprise you.