Checking Your Plein Air Painting Checklist

7 Oct 2013

Painting en plein air - Mike
My friend Mike and I gear up before spending a Saturday morning painting.
A beautiful afternoon, some free time in the fresh air, a stunning location...I can’t wait for the weather to get just a touch clearer so I can get out and paint again. And as we look to the future, I’m thrilled to be writing all of you at Artist Daily as a regular blogger on the life of a plein-air artist. I hope we can share our triumphs and ordeals, as well as our journeys through the land and through our hearts and minds, as we start into another season of painting. I’ve already got my first three spots picked out. How about you?

Of course, nothing can spoil a plein-air painting session faster than discovering I’ve left some important piece of gear behind. I should know--I’ve done it a million times. I’ve worked through an entire box of Kleenex because I forgot to bring paper towels, and ruined a perfectly good cloth grocery bag because I left my disposable trash bags behind. I once had to use a Sunday paper wrapped in a plastic bag as a sub for a palette!  After many years of relying on odd bits I find in my car to substitute for the art gear I should have brought along, I’ve finally made a habit of taking stock of my “mobile studio” about once a month in order to stay ready for action.

First, I take a little inventory of the stuff I store in my French easel, and make a shopping list of what I need to complete the plein-air ensemble. Palette? Check. Good handful of clean brushes, plus my trusty palette knife? Check. Paint and medium? Check, check.

When it comes to confirming I have the right colors of oil paint, it doesn’t take much. I don’t like to carry a lot of heavy gear, so I use a limited palette when en plein air: Cad Yellow (warm), Cad Lemon (cool), Cad Red (warm), Alizarin Crimson (cool), Ultramarine Blue (just the one blue, which I think is pretty neutral), and White. I also carry along Quinacridone Magenta because I love to paint spring-flowering Midwestern trees, like redbuds and dogwoods, and other flowers the color of which can only be mixed with Quin Magenta. I’ve found I can recreate almost every color in nature with this palette. Not only is it easier to carry fewer paint tubes, it also guarantees harmonious color.

Then I check the goodie bag filled with all the extras. In a canvas tote, I carry: canvases in several sizes and shapes, sketchbook, mechanical pencils, cropping tool, sun visor, sunscreen, umbrella, paper towels, trash bags, water bottles, and my beloved waxed paper. Waxed paper?! I’ll tell you all about that in a future post.

And at the end of each outdoor painting season (I’m not one of those hardcore painters who roughs it in the snow), I like to clean up my battered old French easel before packing it away for the winter. I confess I’m a pretty messy painter, and I do a lot of palette knife work, so my easel gets pretty caked up with paint over time. So, I get in there with some turp and some tools and scrape that off. While I’m at it, I put a dab of oil on the screws and joints, and make sure the whole thing is in good working order before storing.

So, what’s in your mobile studio? And pastelists and watercolorists, what’s on your checklist? I’d love to hear your best tips for keeping your painting gear at the ready.

Related Posts
+ Add a comment


KatPaints wrote
on 2 Feb 2011 4:37 PM

I have a half box french easel that holds the paints and brushes wrapped in a rag. My palette is in one of those resealable boxes which I lay across the open drawer of the easel. ( I don't like the folded palette it comes with, I use it to keep the box closed and prevent the  paints from falling out.)  I use a bungee cord to hold my paper towel roll and hook the ends onto the poles above the box. Everything is stored in a large tote bag along with and spirits, medium, umbrella... The panels are in one of those raymar box holders. It's also a good idea to bring a water bottle, bug spray, and sunscreen.

I find that my gorilla umbrella which folds up small, to be useless connecting to the wooden legs of my easel. I think I'd rather have the gorilla set up that uses a long pole that can be pushed into the ground. It's extra to carry, but works well.

KatPaints wrote
on 2 Feb 2011 6:06 PM

Also, my $20 half box easel has served me well, but I will likely get a Soltek easel soon. Check out utube to see how it works.

Campbell909 wrote
on 27 Feb 2011 12:16 PM

As a beginning watercolorists who just experienced her first plein air exposure in unseasonably cold, wet February in our ordinarily sunny Southern California... I have some additional ideas.

     I carry most of my supplies in a lightweight "messenger" type bag with a Harley Davidson logo on the side (one of my dollar store finds). I have a light weight chair that I can throw over my shoulder, as well. A $20 aluminum camping table rounds out the basics and my hands are still free.

     A lightweight beach umbrella can provide  shade where none exists; a poncho can quickly cover everything should you desire to wait for surprise precipitation to abate and large plastic garbage bags can be stuffed with everything you need to keep dry while packing out quickly.

     Bug spray for they flying kind... loosely packed cotton will keep gnats out of your ears and a (dollar store) 5' X 7' tarp can deter some of the crawly critters.

     Being a camper, I usually travel with duct tape, matches and camping knife because ya just never know.

    ... and a caution, Do Not take your sable brushes en plein air unless you like replacing them often. According to those in the know, moths especially like to lay eggs there and the resulting larvae will destroy the bristles.

artscoop wrote
on 12 Oct 2013 8:07 AM

Hey Jennifer

Very exciting to see your comments. Do you have a favorite location?

on 12 Oct 2013 12:05 PM

First, I'm curious how if you wrote your article on 10/07/13, how is it your first "comment" is dated 02/02/11?  Just wondering...  anyway, here's some of what I take plein air painting (I do oil, watercolor, watercolor sketchbook and pastel at various times):

-An umbrella (freestanding Wondershade.  I LOVE it!  It shades the art AND me.)

-A chair (I usually stand with oil, but sit doing the others)

-An easel (with oil and pastel)

-A small lightweight folding plastic table (for watercolor and sketchbook).  I normally hold the sketchbook or block of watercolor paper and use the table for the palette, water and brushes.

-A ground--canvas or paper.

-Paint or pastels.  Oil paint contained in an Artbin box to prevent the tubes from getting smooshed or leaking onto everything else.  Pastels in the boxes they came in.  I have a full set of NuPastels which is great for the basecoat, and a smaller landscape set of Unison's for the finish.

-Palette.  For oil I use a heavy glass palette in an airtight plastic palette box.  For watercolor, all the paint is in a Piggyback Palatte from Cheap Joe's.  It holds a LOT of colors...

-Brushes.  For oil, I keep them in an ArtBin brush box so they don't get smooshed brush tips.  For watercolor I've got a Prestige brush holder that can stand up (great for classroom use).  Waterbrushes for the sketchbook in a zip-loc baggie so they don't leak and a small water bottle to refill them.

-Paper towels.  I tend to fold up a stack of them so I don't have to deal with an entire roll and keep them in a zip-loc bag and/or in my apron pocket.  I don't use zillions of them, so this works for me.

Baby wipes.  Essential for oil and pastel!  I got a little plastic refillable port-a-pack.

-Turpenoid in a metal carrier for oil or water in a peanut butter jar for watercolor.

-A separate bag for each medium.  A messenger bag for the sketchbook and shoulder bags for the oil and watercolor supplies.

-A wide-brimmed hat

-A bottle of water (and if it's cold a thermos of hot tea!)

-A granola bar

-Bug spray


I look like a pack mule, but the groups I go out with generally stay fairly close to the parking lot.  I usually just take the sketcbook, a 3-legged portable stool and the umbrella if I have to hike any appreciable distance.


P.S.  I want a Soltek too!