The concept of plein air painting was launched by French Impressionists in the 1870s. Twin inventions made plein air work possible. Premixed oil pigment became available in tubes for the first time, and the pochade, a portable box easel that folds to the size of a briefcase, was created.
The list of original plein air painters reads like a who's who of great 19th- and early 20th-century European painters: Degas, Manet, Monet, Gauguin, Pissarro, Van Gogh, Renoir, and Cassatt.
In America, plein air work blossomed in response to the Industrial Age. American Impressionists like Winslow plein air Homer, Childe Hassam, and Edward Redfield developed a distinctly American style of plein air painting that remained popular until the late 1920s, when modernism came into vogue.
California led the country's early 20th-century plein air movement and also its revival in the late 1990s. In fact, the Laguna Beach Plein Air Festival, which began in 1996, was the first juried festival in the United States.
Today, there are dozens of plein air festivals around the country. Over the past 10 years, an increasing number of plein air festivals have cropped up around the country. They give artists a chance to paint the vast tapestry of landscape that is America. Here are a few of the best plein air festivals in the nation:
- Sedona, Arizona, is hosting its sixth annual plein air festival October 23-30, 2010. At sunrise and sunset, the area's iconic sandstone rock formations glow with vibrant orange and robust red, lending inspiration to plein air painters. Rugged Oak Creek Canyon, with its bubbling river and skull-size stones, also makes for an irresistible tableau. Temperatures at this time of year hover around 75-77 degrees, making it ideal for outdoor work. See www.sedonapleinairfestival.com.
- The fertile land of Sonoma County, California, plays host to its plein air festival, which will take place May 23-28, 2011. Located 45 minutes north of San Francisco, this is wine country, complete with pretty vineyards, charming coastal towns, lush farmland with grazing sheep and cows, green hills studded with ancient oaks, and compelling architecture, including Spanish missions and Jack London's home. See www.sonomapleinair.com.
- The Laguna Beach Plein Air Invitational, now in its 12th year, is one of the most popular plein air festivals in America. October 10-17, 2010, 50 juried artists will descend on this coastal town in Southern California. Distinguished by seven miles of beachfront, a rambling village with charming shops, galleries and restaurants, and dramatic coastal bluffs, Laguna Beach has been a magnet for artists since the early 20th-century. See www.lpapa.org.
- The Telluride Plein Air celebration, which will run from the end of June until July 4, will celebrate its eighth year in 2011. Artists flock to this Western town to capture the 19th-century architecture that sits in the shadow of the majestic Rocky Mountains, the fields of wildflowers that surround the town, and the vast open skies that are quintessential Colorado. The Quick Draw, a 90-minute competition, draws a big crowd to Main Street. See www.telluridepleinair.org.
- Although the Carmel Arts Festival features sculpture, live music, and children's art, the focus is largely on plein air work. May 12-15, 2011, the festival along the Monterey Peninsula will celebrate its 18h year. Artists are drawn to the magnificent landscape along the coast to Big Sur. Victorian houses, lonesome cypress trees perched on cliffs, vintage lighthouses, historic monasteries, and active wharves lure the best artists in the country to this festival. See www.carmelartfestival.org.
- Door County, Wisconsin -- often referred to as the Cape Cod of the Midwest thanks to its 300 miles of shoreline -- is a natural location for a plein air festival. The third week of July 2011 will mark this area's fifth annual plein air competition. Here, the waterfront, combined with pretty stands of trees, including an abundance of cherry and peach orchards, sparks the artistic imagination. The event features an unusual sunrise plein air competition in the early morning at Rowley's Bay. See www.doorcountypleinair.com.
- Wayne, Pennsylvania, hosts its own plein air festival every year during the third week in May. Located along the Main Line of Philadelphia, artists not only tap into the 1880 architecture of downtown Wayne but also of the nearby city (Philadelphia is just 18 miles away). This is horse country, and artists often paint along the roads that span outward toward rolling green fields and horse barns. A bonus: Valley Forge is a few miles down the road, prompting many artists to paint the timeless scenery that was the backdrop to key battles of the Revolutionary War. See www.waynepleinair.com.