Matt Smith on the Synergy Between Plein Air and Studio Painting

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It’s spring, and for most landscape painters that means plein air painting season. While flipping through an old issue of Plein Air magazine from January 2005, I came across an article by Matt Smith, a leading plein air painter and teaching artist. His words echoed my own beliefs that plein air painting and studio painting were different expressions of the same art form, yet each worked to support the other. Reprinted here is Matt’s story, which reveals how the synergy between the studio and plein air two has helped him become a better painter. See more of Matt’s work at his website: mattsmithstudio.com

"Antons' World" by Matt Smith

Matt Smith, “Anton’s World”, oil, 8 x 10 inches.

by Matt Smith
excerpted from the article in the January 2005 issue of Plein Air magazine

Today, plein air painting has become very popular, even though it has been practiced for hundreds of years. It has been exciting to observe its recent growth in popularity, and the increase in related painting events attests to this popularity. There have been pluses and minuses associated with plein air painting. One plus is the attention it has brought to art in general while often serving as a platform to raise funds for preservation or environmentally sensitive landscapes. One drawback is the misconception of people who see plein air as simply a style of painting, rather than a necessary means to improving the result. For example, the plein air paintings of Carl Rungius are loose and impressionistic, while those of William R. Leigh are highly rendered and more academic in nature. However, both artists’ field paintings display a spirit and the expressive quality of works created from direct observation.

In an effort to supplement my formal art education, which led to a BFA degree in painting from Arizona State University, I began searching for artists whose work I admired, and I contacted them for critique and advice. The two common offerings of advice were to focus on the fundamentals and to paint from life.

Obviously, painting the landscape from life meant going out into the field to work. At first, I was lost, because I no longer had the control that comes from working in a studio environment. However, my desire to improve and be close to my subject kept me returning to the field. I stuck with it and spent the next few years working almost exclusively outdoors. This laid the foundation that guides my work to this day.

"Eagle Bend" by Matt Smith

Matt Smith, Eagle Bend, oil, 20 x 24 inches.

My travels and expeditions into the field, along with the changes and excitement that came with them, lured me out of the studio. It had gotten to the point where I did not want to turn back to the studio. At the same time, I knew I would have to return in order to inject my philosophies and artistic vision into my paintings. In other words, the studio was an environment to develop this artistic vision, while working en plein air helped inject the spirit and presence of the subject into my work.

As time progressed, I began to paint subjects of increasing complexity. I started to realize the importance of studio time as a factor in improving my field work — just as my plein air paintings are intended to improve my indoor work. Simply put, I learned that the two are synergistic. For me, one cannot exist without the other.

My time in the controlled environment — my studio — allowed me to develop paintings over days and weeks, rather than an hour or two, as is the case in the field. I was able to focus on academics: the basics of drawing, value, design and color. When I returned to the field, I experienced a renewed confidence and a realization of the importance of balance between field and studio.

Over time, the long inside hours helped me develop a more unique and personalized artistic direction, i.e., style and philosophy. This is not to suggest that artistic development does not occur outdoors. It does. However, when time to produce a painting is restricted by conditions such as moving light, one tends to respond on a more emotional basis, rather than an intellectual one. My experience is that working in the studio brings about the latter. Surely, this is not the same for all artists, but it is my experience that there is an absolute and delicate balance between the two.

One major difference between these environments is that I always work alone in the studio, while I tend to paint with fellow artists when in the field. Working with others provides a forum for the free exchange of ideas and frank on-the-spot critiques, which directly influence the improvement of my work. One of my philosophical fundamentals is that improvement is a lifelong process, so I accept critiques as a given in the achievement of continuous growth.

Increased interest in plein air has reached the point where it does not seem to matter whether a piece is good or not. It seems to matter whether it was painted en plein air, as opposed to in the studio. It is as though the process has become more important than the painting itself. We all have to clarify this misapprehension. Whether a painting has been created on location or in the studio, a good painting is good painting.

Additional Resources


Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice
Chapter 3: Indoor and Outdoor Studios

On Location with Stasinos and Albala: Same Subject, Different Visions

“The Approach” – Five Essential Steps to Plein Air Painting

Ways of Interpreting Color: In the Studio vs. Plein Air

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About Author

Mitchell Albala is the author of Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice (Watson-Guptill, 2009). A best-seller with over 35,000 copies in print, it has been called the "new classic of landscape." A respected teaching artist for more than 25 years, Mitchell currently teaches at Gage Academy of Art in Seattle, Pacific Northwest Art School, Winslow Art Center, and Arte Umbria in Italy. He has also lectured at the Seattle Art Museum and written for International Artist and Artists & Illustrators magazines.

6 Comments

  1. I like the last comment from Matt that says it doesn’t matter where the work is done; what matters in the end is the quality. Plein air does not provide an excuse for bad work. That said, the fast and loose process outdoors, combined with the fast decisions results in dynamic results, versus the overworked studio work I tend to do. So, I can see the value of outdoor painting, and then keeping that style or technique in mind when working in the studio. Thanks for sharing this article.

  2. Ida M. Glazier on

    I was so glad to read these words. I began plein air painting for many reasons and experienced a strange feeling of not wanting to return to do work indoors. And I hated using photos! I totally agree with what is written here by Matt Smith. Fundamentals are key and learning to draw and all that it requires is important, But plein-air is the most rewarding, most fun, most interesting problems to solve, and most pleasurable as you begin to learn. I am so glad to be doing this, and reading these things. Thanks.

  3. This is so valuable — both the plan and the advice: “I began searching for artists whose work I admired, and I contacted them for critique and advice. The two common offerings of advice were to focus on the fundamentals and to paint from life.”

  4. I agree ….. painting from life is a critical skill to nurture, and being outside you have free “life” subjects to paint. While, as painters, most agree a good painting is a good painting, one has to acknowledge the contribution of, what I’ll name, “process artists”, because I believe their boldness and courage inspires those of us overly focused on rendering to let loose and respond with emotion as well. There is probably an opportunity for balance, as Smith suggests. What I do in the field ALWAYS encourages me back to the fundamentals!

  5. As a former educator, and now a full-time artist, I appreciate Matt Smith’s assertion that improvement (both personally and artistically) is a life-long process. That is what is, to me, so intriguing about the arts, as with the study of mathematics, or science, that there is no end to what we can learn. And we can learn in the studio as well as in the field, where the two venues for learning complement one another. Thank you, Matt, your work and your words are inspiring…