Plein Air Gets Popular
by Kari Anderson
While it’s not a new concept, painting outdoors or “in the open air,” as en plein air is literally translated, is having a resurgence among hobbyists, professionals, and academicians alike. “There is a massive plein air movement in America,” says Eric Rhoads, publisher of Plein Air Magazine, a new niche publication introduced in July 2004. “Tens of thousands of artists are now painting on location, and hundreds of plein air clubs are being established worldwide.”
The current affinity for plein air is deeply rooted in the history of art. “Plein air is a significant part of the roots of all painting,” says Eric. “Almost all early academic training required painters to paint from life, to go on location in order to capture true form, color and light. Plein air has been taking place for centuries, thought it was not called that until the impressionist movement. Plein air was often the root of studio paintings; studies were done on location and then painted larger in the studio.”
The baby boomer effect
Eric believes this type artwork will continue to become more popular as baby boomers reach their next stage of life. “Plein air painting is perfect for the soon-to-retire baby boomers who are looking for more meaning in their lives, wanting to return to the arts, wanting to be outdoors but can no longer climb mountains and wanting to create meaningful friendships and be a part of something, such as plein air clubs,” adds Eric.
Carl Judson of the Guerrilla Painter, a maker of pochade boxes and plein air supplies, agrees. “This category has been driven a lot by demographics,” he notes. “Baby boomers are at a point in their lives where they want to do something that’s more contemplative, and they have the disposable time and the disposable income to do it.”
Because his typical customers are hobby artists in their 50s and 60s, Carl suggests taking into account issues such as arthritis, loss of strength, and general aches and pains of aging when choosing products an older artist would use. “Knobs are harder to tighten when you’re older,” he states. “An aging customer also needs something light. If an artist has to lug heavy supplies around, just the process of going out to paint will become a deterrent. Also, if setup is too complicated, and the hobbyist only uses the equipment occasionally, he may forget exactly how to do it from one time to the next, thereby adding to the frustration. Aging baby boomers are either going to get equipment that’s appropriate for their stage in life, or they’ll quit the hobby altogether. Plein air supplies don’t have to be fancy, but they should be well-thought-out, simple and a pleasure to use.”
Cross-merchandising is key
Carl suggests grouping plein air supplies together for in-store displays. This allows a customer to easily find an appropriate box and the right size products to fit inside. For example, pochade boxes can be displayed next to smaller tubes of paint, shorter brushes, lidded palettes, and leak-proof containers.
“Cross-merchandising these products is a good way to recruit new people to the art because it’s less intimidating for them, and it makes it easier for them to put together their own plein air kits.
Carl says attitudes toward this sort of work have shifted greatly in the past two decades. “When my colleagues and I were doing outdoor painting 20 years ago, we didn’t even know the term ‘plein air.’ It was an oddball thing to be doing in the ’80s. Now it’s caught on and it’s rapidly growing. Plein air painting is a good way to get outside, get some exercise, and see the world in a different way.”
How to choose the right stuff
Lloyd Griffin of Houtz & Barwick, a manufacturer of aluminum artist furniture, says that helping customers find the right plein air products means first understanding how they intend to use their materials. “There are three categories of plein air artists,” he explains. “First is the artist who hikes out into the field to do their work. This person needs a backpack that can carry a stool, a water bottle and all their supplies. Because the environment is more rugged, durability of products is a big factor for this artist. Second is the plein air artist who paints in her backyard or in the city park. She can pull all her supplies in a handcart and therefore might choose a slightly larger stool with a back on it. Third is the artist who will be displaying, or selling, his work in public at an open-air show. Everybody has his own idea of what plein air painting means. It’s very individualized, so it’s important to find out what the customer intends to do with his equipment.”
Other factors include price and frequency of use. “A customer has to consider how many times he’ll use his plein air equipment. Does he just have to get along for a week, or will he be using it for years?” asks Lloyd.
The size of the artist is a delicate issue that may also need consideration. “People are getting larger these days, so we have to make wider seats than normal,” he explains. “We have a standard-sized stool and also one that is 4 to 6 inches wider. Most of our equipment can hold 250 pounds, but we do have items that can withstand up to 400 pounds.”
Packing plein air equipment requires a similar mindset as packing for a camping trip. In fact, Lloyd says that many plein air products originated in the hunting industry. “A lot of the stools we sell used to only be available in olive drab green. Then our art supply retailers encouraged us to offer these products in the aluminum style instead, and we listened.”
An artist turns manufacturer
Lori Putnam is a plein air artist who needed a better way to transport her wet paintings. When she couldn’t find anything, she decided to create it herself. “Whenever I would travel, I felt so limited as to the size of work I could do and the mediums I could use because there was no good way to get a large, wet painting back to the house. I wanted something that would allow me to paint on a larger scale; it’s a myth that everybody who paints en plein air paints small. I also wanted something that could be checked as luggage and would be lightweight.”
Eventually she and her husband came up with the Plein Air Porter, a 3-pound piece of luggage that can accommodate paintings up to 20 by 24 inches. When other artists told her they needed a carrier for their smaller studies, she developed the Handy Porter. “It’s practically disposable because it’s dirt-cheap. It’s cardboard and Styrofoam, and we’ve been sellin’ the dickens out of those,” says the Nashville artist.
Lori is excited about the renewal of interest that plein air painting is getting. “When you’re painting en plein air, you learn so much more about the values that can’t be captured by taking a picture of something and painting it in the studio. And, there are lots of companies making supplies for plein air painters now. The market is just getting ready to explode.”
Less is more
Paring down one’s equipment is a must when packing for a day of painting outdoors, says Lori. “An artist can’t take every color and every brush,” she says. “You really only need three tubes of paint and white. The necessity of packing light forces an artist to brush up on her color-mixing skills. You learn that you really don’t need to take along 36 tubes of paint.”
To draw customers to the art of plein air, Lori suggests keeping information sheets available near the plein air supplies. “It’s intimidating for people to ask; often they feel they should know what plein air is, but they don’t,” she continues. “The information sheets don’t have to be extensive; they can simply contain a paragraph and a few bullet points explaining what plein air painting is. A person who might be curious will be more likely to take a sheet of paper than spend $29.95 on a book to find out.”
How to sell plein air
Bruce Baker, general manager of Plaza Artist Materials & Picture Framing in Nashville, Tennessee, says he keeps his most innovative plein air products right near the front door of his store nearly all year long. His French-box and backpack easels go alongside the regular easels, but Bruce makes sure there are always two of each style on display: one is open, and one is folded up. This allows customers to see what the portable easels look like both in use and put away without tearing apart his displays.
Bruce says the winter months are the only time when his sales in this category slow down. “Plein air sales really take off in springtime, and the category is also big at Christmas,” he says. “Some plein air products, while they may be very innovative and well-designed, are priced so high that many artists don’t want to spend the money, especially if they’re only doing plein air as a hobby. Instead, it’s their loved ones buying these items as Christmas presents. At Christmas, saving money isn’t the most important thing; instead gift givers want to ‘wow’ the people they’re buying for.”
Some of the products he carries for plein air artists have been surprise hits. “The Canvas Schlepper from Fresh Art Products is basically a chunk of plastic with a handle on it,” he says. “When my buyers first brought this in, I thought, ‘Bad mistake, guys.’ Then when we ran out, I had throngs of people beating me up because we didn’t have it in stock. It’s a great item for add-on sales because it goes beyond plein air painting to anyone who wants to transport wet canvases.”
Be choosy…and know what you’re doing
Mike Hill, owner of the store Purveyors of Art & Design Materials in Boone, North Carolina, recommends sticking with plein air products that are reasonably priced, work well and are sturdy. “I really think many of the items brought to market specifically for this niche are overpriced and clumsy in their functionality, but there are a few items that are very well-thought-out and constructed in a way that you can just tell an artist had a hand in the design process,” says Mike.
He also cautions other retailers to learn how to set up their folding accessories before showing them to customers. “It’s a bit counterproductive for sales when you, your customer, and/or your staff members can’t fold the items up and pack them away in the manner intended,” he adds.
Overall, he says, look for folding or travel versions of everything. “Mostly it’s just like packing for vacation,” he concludes. “You have to figure out how to fit everything in and make sure you get there without forgetting your toothbrush and underwear.”
In each issue of Art Materials Retailer, Associate Editor Kari Anderson reports on trends within specific product categories. Look for the discussion on watercolors in our next issue.