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The difference between Plein Air Painting and Urban Sketching?

During the warmer weather, you will find me out and about with my watercolours in a variety of locations creating art. It is always so refreshing to be creative outside the studio!  I talk a lot about Urban Sketching and Plein Air Painting and teach both to students.

But what exactly is the difference between Plein Air Painting and Urban Sketching?

Both practices are loved by artists worldwide. They are both are done outdoors and both use a variety of media including Watercolour. But each have some unique factors and characteristics.

Plein Air Painting

Plein air painting has a long history and emphasizes the more painterly aspects of creating art outdoors. Plein Air pieces are often more intensive works of art created over a few hours. Often artists will use an easel, good quality supplies and a more expansive, yet portable set-up to create works of art while in nature. While work is often less “polished” than studio pieces, it generally has a “finished” quality to it and painters often sell and present these works.

Traditional Plein Air painting and instruction focusses on composition, light and expression and often follows closely in the traditions of artists like the Impressionists and the Canadian Group of Seven. There is an emphasis on capturing beautiful nature scenes but it can also be done in more urban settings like streets and parks. 


Urban Sketching

Urban sketching is like Plein Air Painting's modern, less formal cousin. It is an organized online “movement” (complete with a manifesto) that started in 2007 and remains a non profit organization and a global community today. Their motto is “We show the world, one drawing at a time.”

Anyone, anywhere can participate in the movement and be inspired to sketch their surroundings! 

Urban sketching has a more journalistic quality and Urban Sketches tend to be quick but 'fiery' sketches capturing the vivacity of the world around them.  Urban sketchers often use sketchbooks and a variety of modern, portable media (including watercolour). 

Urban Sketching emphasizes capturing your surroundings as they are, both outdoors and indoors and encourages artists to share their work online or in the Urban Sketching community.  There are many groups and local chapters that sketch and share together.

Urban sketching tends to capture public city and townscapes more than expansive nature scenes. But is not limited to them. Urban sketchers often sketch in coffee shops, museums or anywhere they live and travel.


Which one is for you?

There are a lot of similarities between the two and overlapping characteristics. Keep in mind you can absolutely do both! I tend to bring my urban sketching kit everywhere in my purse so I never miss an opportunity to paint. But tend to plan "plein air" sessions when I have some serious time to dedicate to creating. 

Make your own rules and remember to create as often as you can - indoors and out!


1 comment

  • Hi Candice. Great work… I would love to do the Plein Air or Urban Sketching, both appeal to me…I have a Plein Air easel and sketchbooks too. I have been too nervous to try it… you have inspired me to get out there and just do it!!! Thank you !

    Juliane vonWesterholt

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