How are the Urban Sketchers and Plein Air Painting movements related?
As an artist with a hand in both and with our upcoming combined show, the Urban Sketchers Chicago Holiday Showcase, with Featured Guests, Plein Air Painters of Chicago 11/21-12/13/2015, let’s examine similarities and differences.
Technology had something to do with the formation of both. Plein Air means "in the open air" or simply, “outdoors.” The technological advance of paint in tubes allowed artists in the mid 1800s to explore nature and capture the effects of sunlight in the moment. Urban Sketchers is about drawing on location, in a supportive, global community. The internet was key to its formation and is integral to the global sharing aspect.
|Plein Air: Elephant Vigil at Showmen's Rest, A Plein Air painting in a limited palette of Richeson casein|
Both groups create images on location, in the moment.
With some exceptions, the size of our drawings and paintings tend to be small, for reasons of both portability and time.
We travel with our materials. Watermedia (watercolor, gouache, and casein) and digital tools are used in either. Of all of these, watercolor is the most popular crossover medium in my experience.
We’re both interested in capturing the Truth of a place and time, exploring the world around us.
|Fountain of the Muses, Rio De Janeiro, in Winsor & Newton watercolor|
There are exceptions to all of these items, however, in general, the differences tend to be about time and materials. Plein Air Painting tends to take much more time per image and is painted with paint or pastels. Urban Sketches can be created in much less time and may use any material.
Urban Sketches tend to be even smaller than a typical plein air painting. When you consider that an Urban Sketch might be drawn on a pocket-sized sketchbook while waiting in line, as opposed to being created on an easel set up for several hours, you can understand why.
Urban Sketches, without question, can also be drawn indoors. Cafes, museums, and concert venues are all typical Urban Sketchers venues. Exceptions prove how similar these efforts are. In both Plein Air Painting and Urban Sketchers, the world is our studio.
Based in its journalistic roots, Urban Sketchers aims to tell the story of our surroundings. Urban Sketches are far more likely to contain text within the work than in a Plein Air painting.
The story of a Plein Air painting can be much less literally narrative. For instance, the story could be about what the sunlight is doing during your painting or how intensely blue that boat is.
Plein Air is almost always done on an easel. Urban Sketching sometimes is, but often isn’t, for mobility and quickness.
While Plein Air paintings are made with paint or pastels, Urban Sketchers draw with any kind of media and wildly individual styles. Plein Air styles, while they can be quite varied, aren’t as divergent as the Urban Sketchers styles can be, in my opinion.
Urban Sketchers tends to be more casual, mobile, and quick. Urban Sketchers’ subjects are more likely to have a person or an action as the subject. In contrast, plein air paintings often take much more time to complete and are more likely to contain natural environmental or architectural subjects.
Plein Air painters are more likely to edit an environment for aesthetic purposes. A tree might move or wires might be omitted without feeling that the truth of the place had been compromised in plein air.
|Lindberg Park, painted in Winsor & Newton watercolor on location. Are these Plein Air or Urban Sketches? Yes!|
In conclusion, I think that some of the differences are superficial, while others are very strong. Which you are doing at a given time may have more to do with your equipment and intention than anything else. There are definitely times when the lines are blurred. To be clear, I don't make a value judgement between the two and there's no reason you can't do each in the same day.
For artists that like to experiment, I encourage you to try both!
You can see more of my work, Urban Sketches and Plein Air Paintings here:
What do you think? In what other ways are Urban Sketchers and Plein Air Painting similar or different?