En plein air painting tips

Once you’re ready to give plein air painting a try, what do you need to get started? First of all, understand that any medium you use in the studio can be brought into the outdoors. That includes digital, pastel, acrylic… you name it. 

Painting outside is like camping: it requires some advance preparation. In the studio, everything you need is within arm’s reach. But once outside, it’s amazing how often you realise you’ve forgotten some trifling item that brings your expedition to a screeching halt. My most common plein air screw-up is forgetting to bring a plastic grocery bag to put my dirty rags in. I can’t count the times I’ve been caught with nowhere to put my first handful of oily paper towels.

So the first thing you want to do is to assemble a plein air ‘kit’ with everything you need. It doesn’t need to be fancy, and you’ll tweak it to suit your own style of working as you go. 

One thing I do suggest is that you establish a ‘coming home’ ritual for yourself: clean your brushes and palette, replace used-up paint, restock your rubbish bags. The next time you decide to escape from the studio, you’ll be ready to go there and then.

Art materials

I have two of these rolls: one for long-handled flats and brights, and another for small watercolour rounds

I have two of these rolls: one for long-handled flats and brights, and another for small watercolour rounds

Plein air painting is suitable for any medium. Gouache paint is water soluble, dries quickly and is easy to transport, so is a good one to try. Popular brands are Holbein and Windsor & Newton. 

My preferred surfaces for plein air painting are primed masonite boards or canvas panels – they’re rugged, lightweight and easy to transport. Then include brushes and solvent, a box for carrying wet paintings and plastic grocery bags for any dirty rags. For trying out compositions, pencils and a sketchbook are also handy.

Setup essentials

French easels can accommodate large paintings, but are bulky

French easels can accommodate large paintings, but are bulky

As plein air painting grows in popularity, so do the available options, particularly regarding easels. There’s a dizzying array of choices, from the time-tested French easel, to the pochade box, to the lightweight backpacking easel. Don’t be intimidated: there’s no wrong choice and you don’t need to start with anything fancy. 

A pochade box is small box that unfolds and holds paintings and supplies. They come in a variety of sizes, and attach to a photographer’s tripod. They’re built with an optimal painting size in mind (e.g. 9x12 inches). You can work at other sizes, but at the optimal size the box doubles as a painting carrier, enabling you to carry two or three wet paintings inside the box. You can also store your paints in them.

The French easel’s great advantage is that it can accommodate large paintings. Like the pochade box, it enables you to store brushes and paints inside its sliding door. One disadvantage is that it’s relatively bulky and fiddly to set up.

There are a number of lightweight easels on the market, including the Strada Micro easel. These are great for travelling by plane or backpack. Note that they can be unstable on windy days.

If you prefer to paint sitting down, you’ll also need a lightweight chair, and you may want an umbrella to block out direct sunlight.

Carrying kit

This Kelty Redwing backpack is designed for trail hiking

This Kelty Redwing backpack is designed for trail hiking

Because not everything you want to paint is accessible by car, it’s a good idea to give some thought to carrying your gear. When you’re hiking over rough ground, weight and compactness becomes an issue. It’s harder to climb over rocks carrying plastic grocery bags than a study backpack.

A good backpack is the centre of your painting kit, where all of the odds and ends live. Look for one with a zippered back, so that it lays flat when opened; make sure it has room for everything and is comfortable. You could go for something dedicated to plein air painting, or opt for a more general trail hiking backpack.

All-weather gear

When it’s really bitter, I put hand warmers in my gloves, boots and under my hat

When it’s really bitter, I put hand warmers in my gloves, boots and under my hat

Bear in mind the camping analogy, and pack some paper towels, bug spray and sunscreen. Something else your studio has that nature doesn’t is heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer. Again, think camping. You’ll want gloves, a hat with a brim, rain gear and solid, comfortable shoes.

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