En Plein Air


By Laurie Paolicelli

Process of plein air painting, group class of adult talented students in the park with paints easels, and canvases during lesson of watercolour painting outdoors

The French term en plein air means “out of doors.” It refers to the practice of painting entire finished pictures in the outside world instead of in a studio. This is a style that avoids the more academic rules that might create a more sober, predetermined look. Think of Monet, Pissaro, and Renoir. Now think of Orange County, North Carolina and everyone is on the same page.

It goes without saying that the world would be a far less interesting place without the beautiful and evocative contributions of visual artists. Whether their medium is drawing, painting, sculpture, or architecture, visual artists not only enrich the human experience, but also play a part in explaining the world to us, what it looks like — and feels like — from every angle.

“Human beings are naturally drawn to vastness in scenery,” says Katie Murray, Director of the Orange County Arts Commission. The Commission produces many events each year, and this October they are bringing us the Plein Art Festival.

“Landscape art is often captured in Plein Air pieces,” says Murray. “The vastness is of the seemingly infinite sky, its depth of field. There’s a calming quality about it. Plein Air art encapsulates a moment in time memorialized by the artwork’s creator.”

Director of the Orange County Arts Commission Katie Murray with husband Steven and their dogs.

The plein air approach was pioneered by John Constable in Britain c.1813, but from about 1860 it became fundamental to impressionism. Barbizon artists like Theodore Rousseau and Charles-Francois Daubigny were proponents of this style of painting. By painting outside, these artists could, among other things, capture how the weather changes light’s appearance in an environment.

The popularity of painting en plein air increased in the 1870s with the introduction of paints in tubes (resembling modern toothpaste tubes.) Before this, painters made their own paints by grinding and mixing dry pigment powders with linseed oil, a much more laborious and messy (if colorful) process.

The Orange County Arts Commission will host the 6th Annual Paint It Orange Plein Air Paint-Out and Wet Paint Sale on October 5-7, 2022.

Participating ​artists will paint at sites of their choosing (maps are provided) throughout Orange County and will submit up to three of their favorite paintings for jurying on Friday, October 7 at the Eno Arts Mill Gallery in Hillsborough.

An awards reception and preview party will take place at 6:00 pm, followed by a reception and Wet Paint Sale at 7:00 pm, where the submitted paintings will be available for sale.

For those looking to hone their plein air technique, Juror Jeremy Sams will be hosting a workshop on Tuesday, October 4 from 9:00 am – 5:00 pm. On Wednesday, October 5th the Arts Commission will host a Harvest Moon Party at the beautiful Ramble Rill Farm. Here the painters will have an opportunity to connect and relax after a long day of painting.

For more information, contact Katie Murray, Orange County Arts Commission: kmurray@orangecountync.gov

The Wet Paint Sale offers a rare opportunity to buy original fine art, fresh off the artists’ easel (often, still wet!) More than 100 works of art at a variety of price points will be available for purchase and on display and for sale through the month of November… just in time for the holidays! Zoot alors!

All great museums have collections of plein air art, vistas that feature the French, Spanish, and Italian country sides, and many more to boot. But look around you: what do they have that Orange County doesn’t? Our farmlands, romantic silos, deep blue skies, sunflower and corn fields, old barns barely standing, cows roaming their pastures, and city life, too, students reading in the quad, playing frisbee, drinking coffee in the shade of a giant oak. So no, we don’t live in Tuscany, but then again, surrounded by so much local beauty, we don’t have to.

James Keul, “Downtown Hillsborough”.

Laurie Paolicelli is the Executive Director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.

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