Clearing The (FRESH) Air

09/14/2021
by Tina Manzer

Artists who record what they see outside often post on Instagram using #pleinair, #urbansketch and #urbansketching. But are those categories interchangeable? Is the phrase “urban sketching” accurate when the art is really “plein air”? A debate among artists has ensued.

A few years ago, the team at Pentalic – makers of the sketchpads and journals used by plein air artists and urban sketchers alike – rendered its verdict in the matter. Its case was presented on pentalic.com/blog/, complete with supporting arguments and information on the history, nuances and “rules” of each creating-art-outside practice. 

Since then, the popularity of documenting outside scenes with art has grown. New categories, including travel sketching, have joined the lexicon. Today, the points made by Pentalic may be more important than ever to stores that sell supplies to outdoor artists. Here is the case they presented.

Plein air painting is the oldest form of outdoor art.

The French en plein air means “in the open air.” Historically, plein air artists would paint an outdoor subject while sitting in front of said subject, observing a natural scene and painting it in real time. The French Impressionists, who focused on depicting the natural light in their paintings, brought plein air painting to the fore in the 19th century.  

Landscape painting had been around for centuries by the time plein air, as a term, arrived on the scene in the mid-1800s. Thanks to the invention then of paint tubes and box easels, artists had the freedom to take up their materials and leave their studios behind.  

Plein air is a method of painting, while “urban sketching” describes a movement.

In 2007, more than 150 years after portraitist John Goffe Rand patented his paint tubes, Seattle journalist and illustrator Gabriel Campanario launched the urban sketching movement. The online storytelling forum he created encouraged sketch artists to draw the places they visited on location, rather than drawing the scenes from photographs.

Following the examples Campanario set, the nonprofit organization Urban Sketchers was founded. Its mission is to foster an online community that spreads the “artistic, storytelling and educational value of on-location drawing” on an international level. 

Urban sketchers have representation in many cities around the world. They connect with each other through a network of blogs hosted by urbansketchers.org, and social media pages hosted by local urban sketching groups. According to urbansketchers.org, they have a unilateral manifesto for conducting their art that includes these eight rules.

1. We draw on location, indoors or out, capturing what we see from direct  observation.

2. Our drawings tell the story of our surroundings, the places we live and where we travel.

3. Our drawings are a record of time and place.

4. We are truthful to the scenes we witness.

5. We use any kind of media and cherish our individual styles.

6. We support each other and draw together.

7. We share our drawings online.

8. We show the world, one drawing at a time.

Urban sketchers are like plein air painters in these ways

Both take their materials with them to create outdoors, on location, in real time. Since their canvases have to be portable, both produce relatively small-scale art.

While both types of artists are interested in capturing the truth of how a place appears – they don’t add anything to the painting that would compromise the truth of the depiction – plein air painters will sometimes omit certain features of a scene (power lines, trash) for aesthetic purposes.

Where they differ          

According to the manifesto, an urban sketcher’s work tells a story of the place they painted. That’s where the movement’s journalistic roots come into play. An urban sketch will often include written text about the atmosphere of the location and pertinent details.  

Also among the differences is the amount of time it takes to complete a plein air piece with all its details, versus the time needed to create an urban sketch in its typical casual, loose style. 

In terms of materials, most plein air painters use paints and pastels. Urban sketchers use any and all materials to capture their outdoor subjects.

Not all urban sketching involves outdoor scenes. A city park may be the subject of an urban sketch, but the interiors of cafes, museums, malls, restaurants and concert venues are also acceptable.

Travel sketching

“Travel sketching, an ancestor of sorts to Instagram, has changed the way I observe the world,” wrote Ivan Chow, author of Travel Sketching: Drawing Insights from Istanbul. The 2020 book includes his personal experiences on a stay in and around Istanbul and the sketches it inspired. “What I have learned and enjoyed from the practice of travel sketching has enriched my travel experiences, as well as deepened my appreciation of different cultures and peoples,” he said in OutdoorPainter, where he offered tips and advice for travel sketching. 

Travel sketchers, like urban sketchers, often include text in their work to report on their experience with the location.  

Unique to travel sketching is the artist’s freedom to use photos as reference. In other words, they don’t have to be at a location to paint it. The Urban Sketcher’s Manifesto clearly states that urban sketchers draw on location from observation. Drawing from photographs is not permitted. 

So, if a travel sketch is painted using a photograph the artist took on location, it is neither a plein air painting nor urban sketch. But if a travel sketch was created on location, without referencing a photograph, it is also considered a plein air painting.

Ultimately, the goal of all three styles of artists is the same: to go outside their studios and document their unique world as truthfully as they see it.


To see the work of Pentalic artists, follow pentalicart and pentalic365 on Instagram and Facebook.  

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