The Power of Plein Air: The Benefits of Doing Art in Nature

Imagine Art Summer Camp students paint during the Into Nature Jr. Plein Air Competition at the OSilas Labyrinth at White Bear Center for the Arts on July 25, 2023.

Seeing sunbeams after the long dreary winter days, have you been finding your home or studio lacking in inspiration? You might want to try art en plein air.

En plein air is a French expression, meaning simply, “in the open air.” As with most things when said in French, it gains a romantic quality. But it’s not just the language that makes it such a charming practice.

Traditionally, the most frequent practitioners of plein air are landscape painters who leave the studio to come face to face with their subject: the land before them. “Plein air painting is basically working from life,” says landscape painter Dan Mondloch. Alternatively, artists painting in the studio often work from a photograph which flattens sunlit areas into white, and pushes shadows to black. “When you’re in the landscape you can see the color in the shadows and notice subtle variations that might otherwise go unmissed,” Dan says.

More than just a practice that refines painting technique, spending time in nature increases feelings of happiness and well being, and even has cognitive benefits. Breathing in fresh air, basking in natural sunlight, or feeling rain on your skin can have rejuvenating qualities.

Michele Combs, this year’s judge of WBCA’s annual Into Nature Plein Air Competition, says, “I love painting by water or a beautiful garden because they soothe the soul and lift my spirit.” It also stimulates the oh-so-sought-after flow state. Michele states, “I go into a zone and become very engaged in the process of painting. It’s a heightened sense of awareness yet relaxation. I feel it takes one away from issues and problems of everyday life and reduces stress.”

While indoor painting is often more convenient and comfortable, outdoor painting can be more social and less isolating than being in a studio. “My painting has given me new connections with like-minded people,” Michele says. Stepping outside, you put yourself in the position to experience connection not only with nature, but with other people. Michele can tell countless stories of random acts of kindness. From a stranger finding a four-leaf clover to put on her easel for luck during a competition to generous people bringing her sweet treats after watching her paint for several hours.

Regardless of your medium, plein air is a practice all artists, or people, should consider to reap its benefits. Take writing for example; so much of writing is setting the scene and staging sensory details. How much more naturally would that come to us if we were in the setting itself?

That is something writer Amber Guetebier is experimenting with in her plein air writing sessions through WBCA called, Outside Writers League (OWL). She claims that being outdoors helps writers capture the sensory details of their surroundings. “The way the air feels on your skin, the mixed sounds of daily life, like birds and boats and laughter, the smell of grass.” Amber says. “All of those things can become more present when you’re outside.” 

While Amber acknowledges that being outside has its obvious health benefits, to her, the intention of OWL is to create visibility and connection for writers in the community. “Writing tends to be a very solitary undertaking, so finding others to commiserate with, especially in a beautiful setting, can keep a wayward writer going for weeks.”

Whether it’s hiking the Great Smoky Mountains as Dan does to paint, or gathering at the local park as Amber will with her students, the process of engaging with the natural world is exactly the kinesthetic and whole body experience we need.

“Getting outside in the sunshine and fresh air, being active and spending time in nature, they are all good for the soul,” Dan says. “Once I get outside and start painting, I immediately remember, this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”