Meet the 'Plein Air' artist you’ll see on the streets of Manchester come rain or shine

Plein air is not difficult to translate: Outdoors. Open air.

By Richard Morris | Last updated 27 July 2022

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I bumped into Adam Ralston in St. Peter’s Square – in the rain. As he says himself, Plein air painters are both rare and conspicuous. And sometimes misunderstood.

When I visited him in his studio a few days later he was telling me about standing in London recently in his paint spattered favourite coat, with his bag planted firmly on the ground next to him.

Just surveying the scene that he was assessing for subject matter. A guy walking past took £1.50 in change out of his pocket and handed it to him before walking on. “Mind you, I just took the money,” Adam relates with a grin.

John Constable pioneered the Plein air technique in the early 19th century, rather than traditional studio painting. But from the late 19th century Plein air became fundamental to impressionism. Of course Adam’s paintings are very impressionistic, capturing light, movement and atmosphere instinctively with overlaid brush strokes.

He attended Blackpool Art College from 1988 to 1990 and has always painted in one guise or another. Although over the years he has worked in factories, as a self-employed gardener – and painted murals at Legoland and Blackpool Pleasure Beach.

But around five years ago Adam completed a one-day a week, twelve-week course with artist Norman Long, who, he says, he looks up to and admires. That course brought him to Pleinair painting and in those five short years Adam has become recognised for his work, exhibiting with – amongst many others – the Royal Institute of Oil Painters and the Royal Society of British Artists.

I learn with every painting I do,” Adam says, “although I’m not saying that I get better every time. I find that I’ll work for a couple of hours, maybe longer, before a painting comes together in the last hour. If not it doesn’t usually work to go back another day. I’ve tried it and the light is never the same.”

As for comments he gets in his conspicuous profession, people ask why is he painting when it’s raining. Reflections of course. The same as when he’s painting in hot temperatures. The light of course. And whilst in St. Peter’s Square, in the same rainy spot for three and a half hours, he was contacted by one intrigued Metrolink driver who had passed Adam’s solitary figure back and forth several times.

Although Adam has also painted with a group known as The Northern Boys (more than a nod to The Glasgow Boys of the late 19th and early 20th centuries) in, for example, Venice and London. “We don’t all line up in a row, we find our own spots and then meet back at a Travelodge later.”

A ‘Paint Out’ is planned in Piccadilly Gardens on Saturday 13th April, when The Northern Boys will meet up, welcome anybody who wants to participate and give them the opportunity to discuss their work. So on that day, beware of easels on the streets of our city.

The Paint Out is to accompany an exhibition, which will run at Contemporary Six on Princess Street, opening on Saturday 6th April.

“Many artists paint from photographs,” Adam says, “but you can see a lot more in real life. The Metrolink tram only stopped for thirty seconds, but another one came along straight after.”

That, of course, leads to the impressionism and freshness of Adam’s work. So it really doesn’t matter how wet and busy it might be in Manchester on April 13th. It’s about capturing an impression.


The Northern Boys
An Exhibition Celebrating Plein Air Painting

Venue: Contemporary Six
Dates: Saturday 6th – Sunday 21st April

More Info


Contemporary Six, 37 Princess St, Manchester, M2 4FN