Plein Air Painting Equipment

0802pane_508x600Ross Merrill, the chief curator of conservation at the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, DC, wrote an article for our premiere issue of Workshop magazine on the equipment necessary for successful plein air painting. Here is an excerpt of that article, along with a sidebar on some top sources for plein air supplies.

by Ross Merrill

John Ruskin (1819–1900), the influential 19th-century art critic and artist, believed that truth was to be found in nature. He advised artists to turn to the landscape for their inspiration and thereby achieve fresher, more vibrant paintings. His point was neither lost on the French Impressionists nor the American painters who embraced the landscape as their motif. Interest in plein air (the French term for “open air”) painting spread rapidly, and in recent years it has prompted the establishment of official groups in almost every region of the United States.

Ross Merrill conducted a demo during a plein air workshop in the Bahamas.

You may logically ask, ‘Why is plein air painting becoming so popular?’ One of the many reasons is that this type of painting reconnects a person with the history of landscape painting, with the spirit and energy of nature, and with the opportunity to become completely engaged in the act of responding to a vital, yet diminishing, natural landscape.

This growing interest has resulted in an overwhelming array of supplies, books, videos, workshops, and do-it-yourself recommendations. As an experienced plein air painter and conservator, I have a number of recommendations to offer both the novice and the experienced landscape painter working in either oil or acrylic paints. Below I list a few readily available products designed specifically for outdoor painting.

The Tools of Success

Here is a basic list of some standard plein air equipment:

• collapsible easel

• lightweight paint box and tripod

• folding stool

• small clamp-on umbrella

• paints, brushes, palette knife

• solvent and painting medium

• wet-pannel carrier

• paper towel or rags

• small plastic trash bags

• bungee cords

The Pochade Box

A pochade box can either be balanced on the lap to paint seated or attached to a tripod to paint upright.

The French easel is the most common piece of equipment for plein air painting. It evolved during the 19th century and is currently built in full- and half-box sizes. An easel with folding legs and a telescopic canvas support has space for storing paints and brushes, adjusts for working in either a standing or seated position, is relatively inexpensive, and accommodates panels and canvases of various sizes. The disadvantages are the extra weight and cumbersome size, the slow and awkward set up, and the weak hinges and stops that inevitably break.

A small, portable pochade box is a viable alternative, especially for traveling artists who must store their equipment in overhead compartments, in checked luggage, or inside backpacks. There are numerous commercial pochade boxes on the market with prices ranging from about $150 for a basic wooden box, to more than $300 for a beautifully finished walnut box. Virtually all of the 19th-century American landscape painters rested paint boxes on their laps while working, but today most artists prefer to either stand or sit, and therefore they need either a folding chair and/or a tripod to mount a palette and panel support upon.

The Tripod

If you buy or make a pochade box with a tripod mount, you’ll need a sturdy tripod, which will cost anywhere from $60 to $75. There are cheaper versions available, but the plastic heads break easily, so I recommend buying a good-quality metal tripod with a metal head. A quick-release shoe is important because you will mount the shoe on your pochade box and use the quick-release feature to easily mount and remove the box. The most commonly used tripod is the Bogen Junior or its replacement, the Bogen Digi.

Wet-Panel Carrier

This wet-panel carrier was handmade by Merrill.

Although it is possible to close your French easel or pochade box with one or two wet paintings stored safely, it’s better to place the panels or canvases in a carrier specifically designed to protect a wet surface. The same companies that make pochade boxes also make wooden or cardboard carrying cases.

Painting Supports

The painting support of choice for most plein air painters is a panel with a primed-canvas face. Many companies make plein air-painting panels, but not all of them are created equal. Some have an acrylic ground (called a “multimedia” ground) on poor-quality cotton canvas mounted on paperboard or poor-quality pressed wood. There are also panels made of high-quality oil-primed linen mounted on quality hardboard or birch plywood. A list of suppliers is included at the end of this article.

Homemade Panels

An artist made his own painting surface by mounting multimedia board to Dibond aluminum panels.

The least expensive painting panel is a pressed-wood panel coated front and back with acrylic gesso. Good-quality hardboard or veneer plywood must be selected from the lumberyard, and a minimum of two coats of good-quality gesso must be applied to both the front and back of the panel. Keep in mind that wood-based panels respond to changes in moisture by shrinking or swelling, resulting in some panel warping. To minimize warping, a whiteboard may be used in place of the hardboard/plywood panel. A whiteboard is a hardboard with a tough, white coating on one side. Usually used for magic-marker writing, a hardboard can be found in better lumberyards. Mounting the canvas to the unpainted side saves the step of sealing the hardboard.

The most stable painting panel is an aluminum panel, such as Dibond (made by Alcon), that consists of a polyethylene and aluminum-skin core. Dibond does not respond to moisture or temperature changes, is exceptionally rigid, and is lighter than plywood.

Ross Merrill is the chief curator of conservation at the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, DC, a professional artist, and a member of several artists’ organizations, including the Mid-Atlantic Plein Air Painters Association. For more information on the artist, visit his website at



Mabef Italian Beech Wood Sketch Boxes
Sketch boxes crafted from oiled beech wood that feature leather handles and brass fittings. Available from local art-material retailers and online suppliers.

Open Box M
Pochade boxes in black walnut with a tripod-mounted insert that serves as a palette and panel holder. Brass partitions separate areas for storing brushes and paints. Panel-storage area is suitable for transporting dry or wet panels. Available in several sizes to accommodate 8"-x-10", 10"-x-12", and 11"-x-14" panels. For more information, visit

Guerrilla Painter Pochade Boxes
Available in three sizes: a 6"-x-8" ThumBox; a 9"-x-12" Guerrilla Box; and a 12"-x-16" Guerrilla Box. For more information, visit

Soltek Easel
Developed by artist Jim Wilcox, this portable easel is constructed of aluminum alloy and polymers so it is stable, lightweight, durable, adjustable, and compact (it folds down to 2 1/2" x 12 1/2" x 20"). It features auto-lock telescopic legs and easily converts to a laptop or tabletop easel. For more information, visit

Artwork Essentials
The makers of ezPORT painting panels also manufacture three pochade boxes. The Versa EASyL accommodates a 12"-x-16" panel, the Pro handles a 12"-x-15" panel, and the Lite easel has a 10"-x-12" palette and accommodates panels in sizes ranging from 8" x 10" to 10" x 12." For more information, visit


Art Boards Archival Art Panels
This company makes a variety of wooden panels that are mounted with either watercolor paper, acrylic-primed canvas, or printmaking paper. Rectangular, oval, and circular shaped panels are available. For more information, visit

Fredrix Archival Linen Canvas Board
Available in either Belgian linen or cotton duck. Mounted on a hardboard core and primed with acrylic-titanium gesso. Available in sizes 8" x 10," 9" x 12,"
11" x 14," 12" x 16," and 16" x 20." For more information, visit

Ampersand Art Supply
The makers of the durable Gessobord, Pastelbord, Claybord, and cradled panels. Available in a variety of surfaces and sizes. For more information, visit

ezPORT Panels
For more information, visit

Aluminum and polyethylene panels in 2-mm, 3-mm, and 4-mm sheets. For more information, visit

RayMar panels
Available in a range of sizes with either acrylic-primed canvas (smooth or
medium texture) or oil-primed Claessens linen. For more information, visit

SourceTek Panels
Claessens premium-lined oil-primed canvas on 1/8" birch plywood.
Performance Line: Acrylic-primed red lion polyflax canvas on birch plywood.
Natural Wood Line: Plain birch wood panels that can be primed for mounting paper or canvas. For more information, visit

Multimedia Art Board
For more information, call (866) 278-2731 or visit


Sun Eden
Umbrella and umbrella-mounting arm. For more information, visit

RayMar Panel Carriers
Made of corrugated plastic with a Velcro fastener. The lid folds under the carrier for easy panel insertion. Comes with a shoulder strap. Available in several sizes.
For more information, visit

Open Box M
In addition to manufacturing pochade boxes, this company has a complete range of outdoor-painting supplies and equipment, including wet-panel cases and protective travel luggage. For more information, visit

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