En Plein-Air (french for “outdoors”) describes simply the activity of painting outside, in natural light.

Up until the mid-19th Century, most painting was completed indoors and in artist’s studios, until young artist’s such as Jules Bastien-Lepage began to champion the effects of painting outside in natural light.

This novel group of painters, who were influenced by plein-air style used natural light, capturing the moment through sketches, these would often stand as painting on their own or were then often used as a quick visual reference which were then built upon, increasing the detail for a finished canvas.

Sewing in the Shade | Sir John Lavery | 1884 | Private Collection | courtesy Pyms Gallery, London | NC-NoC

This influence of the plein-air style is evident in Lavery’s 1884 picture Sewing in the Shade, in this work the light reflected on the river behind and shining on the tulle of the pink dress are demonstrative of plein-air technique or style.

In Sewing in the Shade Lavery captures a personal moment between two young maids, not only recording their work activity but also what appears to be an amusing exchange, which is especially visible on the faces of the young girls.

To the viewer it is as if we are eavesdropping on a secret conversation.

Boy on a Donkey in a Snowy Landscape | Walter Osborne | c1884 | Private Collection | PD

Walter Osborne was also heavily influenced by the plein-air movement and frequently painted outdoors, as is evident in this painting, Boy on a Donkey in a Snowy Landscape.  

He captured scenes as they appeared before his eyes. In this work as the boy passes over the snow, the viewer is drawn into the cold, crisp, winter’s day, their eyes caught by the thin brush strokes detailing the young boy and his companion, and the chill almost made visible by the bare trees and white, snow filled ground.

It is evident from this painting, how the use of natural light is important in evoking the atmosphere of the scene.