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Artists painted oil sketches in the open air, on paper or small panels at least as early as the 17th century. By the late 18th century, the practice was widespread across Europe, but the undisputed centre was Italy, renowned for the quality of its light, its scenery, and its ancient ruins. Many artists congregated in Rome, from where they would set out for the Roman Campagna and picturesque sites such as Tivoli.

By the 1830s painters were exploiting the scenic possibilities of their own countries. By this period the sketching tradition in the open air had developed into "finished' naturalistic landscape painting, executed both out of doors and in the studio. Mountains, trees and waterfalls were considered legitimate subjects in their own right.