Getting the Gear: What You Need to Paint en Plein Air
By Brian Sutton
Getting set up to paint outdoors can be stressful! When I was preparing for my trip to New Mexico for the 2022 Plein Air Convention and Expo I didn't know where to start. But I am here to help you! I learned at lot at the convention, and I definitely learned what not to bring and carry, what was useless, what was super helpful and when to ask for help!
The best help I got was from a video done by Eric Rhoads, the Plein Air Magazine publisher. The video link is at the end of this blog. While I don't carry near the stuff he does, his advice is sound. Tailor what you carry to the situation and travel as lightly as possible, especially if you are hiking to your painting site.
I am an oil painter, but all mediums paint outdoors en plein air, so don't fuss if you are a watercolor artist and I am talking oils. It all still applies. Each medium will have items specific to that type of painting, but you can figure it out.
So let's get right to the crux of the problem: New painters never know what to get. So here it goes...
I pride myself on never recommending products I have never used. I often tell people NOT to buy specific products I have tried and didn't like even if my store carries them. We want you to trust that we are giving you the very best advice possible, even at our own peril if we are recommending against a product we carry. I would rather eat the cost of the product than put a product in your hands that isn't what you need. It's the way store owners should be and it's the way we are. As retailers, we listen to what you are trying to accomplish and then provide trusted advice to help you get there. We've learned it's best to be frank here- many don't realize that by picking our brains and seeking our freely given wisdom, only to then head over to Amazon (or some other big volume discounter) to purchase what we have recommended, is a frustrating experience for us. Getting personalized advice from a small business owner is invaluable and well worth the bit extra you may pay compared to Amazon! And just know, we are going to give you the very best price we can on some incredible products that we carry. So first off, let's discuss quality: Don't cheat yourself of quality. Buy the best you can afford at the time. It will make your painting life easier. You paint better with better materials and your paintings will look better. You will also feel better when looking at them. The right gear and materials can truly make your painting experience so much more enjoyable. In the video link Eric will talk about how to dress and all the particulars to think about (mosquito repellant, wet weather gear, etc.) so I will concentrate on the gear Karen Saunders and I both use exclusively for Plein Air. This gear is also doubling as travel gear for us as we travel to teach classes, so if you are scheduled for a class with us you will see us bring in this equipment instead of the clunky easels we've used in the past. Let's talk traditional plein air easels first: The French Easel.
Pictured above is a full French easel by Weston. This style easel has been used for painting plein air and in the studio for a loooooong time. It's a battle tested easel, with storage, a palette, and legs so that you don't have to purchase a separate tripod. We have one and used it until May of this year when we opted for some more modern gear (discussed below). The French easel is also a very economical solution to getting outdoors as inexpensively as possible. We carry the Weston easel in our online store. The link is below.
If you choose the more modern route you'll need a tripod and pochade...
A Pochade is box that contains a palette, an easel, possibly storage depending on the model, and usually a working tray that attaches to the box to provide additional work space. My Pochade is pictured below while I was out on a painting excursion in Brandenburg, Kentucky a few weeks ago.
You should be able to clearly see my gessoed hardboard (stretched canvas is not recommended for plein air painting), my palette of paints and my side tray where my palette knife is sitting (along with a red value finder). Karen and I each use our own pochade like this one:
We both love these boxes and definitely recommend them to you. Pochade's can get pricey - as much as $600 easily, so this one has a more grounded price and does the exact same thing as the fancy $600 ones. Don't be fooled into thinking you need the super expensive one. This one's quality is a contender against those carbon fiber ones.
I know what you are thinking. You know I'll have to close up that box and put my painting away somewhere, right?
Yes, I am an oil painter so my paintings will be wet long after it's time to pack up and leave to go home. So how do I get my panels home? What if I paint more than one painting while I am out? That's where the wet panel carrier comes in. Many of you already know that I love the panelpak.com wet panel carriers, but we don't carry those despite my efforts to get Panelpak to establish wholesale selling to businesses like ours.
But the good folks at Sienna have a great solution for us for plein air sizes (8 x 10 and 9 x 12 are great sizes for plein air painting). It's a wet panel carrier that holds up to four panels at a time and keeps them separated so you don't mess them up on the way home. We use this one:
We use the 8 x 10 adapter in each of ours so we can carry two 9 x 12s and two 8 x 10s. Sometimes I carry four 9 x 12s with the adapter removed, but we enjoy the format flexibility of carrying two sizes of boards to paint on.
If you'd like to combine the wet panel box and the pochade into one system, then Sienna also makes the All-in-One pochade. Disclaimer: I have not personally used this all-in-one but since it's simply a combination of the two products I DO use, then I know it's safe to recommend this one to you.
Here's what it looks like as a combo unit:
No matter what pochade you buy, you're going to need to put it on something to keep it elevated and upright, so you'll need a sturdy tripod. I have tripods everywhere. I am a former photographer, so I have tripods for my camera and tripods for my studio lights, tripods for our video camera setup for shooting instructional videos and a couple of extra tripods lying around in case the need arises. Tripods take up a lot of space in our studio, but I couldn't part with any of them when we had our clearance sale to free up studio space for a sick relative (by the way, thank you to everyone who purchased from us to make room. It's very much appreciated and we're almost there!)
Before I digress too much further, none of those tripods except one were strong enough to support the plein air experience. So I turned to Sienna again for the solution and purchased the plein air tripod.
I put the bag for the tripod into storage and I carry the tripod in my plein air backpack like this:
More on the bag in a moment! You'll also need brushes. I use Richeson brushes exclusively for painting. Karen does, too, although she is testing out another company's brushes right now in addition to her Richeson brushes. So don't call me a liar (ha ha) if you are out painting with us and you see Karen whip out three brushes that aren't from Richeson. They were a gift from me to her after my New Mexico adventure. We are always trying new things!
Here's a set that we carry. We also sell a few dozen individual brushes from Richeson that we also use in our kits.
Buy individual brushes here:
It's probably pretty obvious that you need paint to, well, paint, so you can find all of the paints we carry at the button below this section.
A word on paints: Paints can be very expensive and new painters want to rush out to buy 20 beautiful colors, then they get to checkout and realize they have spent a thousand bucks on paints. Here's my advice: Limit your palette of colors at first. At a minimum buy the three primary colors (a red, yellow and blue) and a tube of white. You can paint any painting in the world with just the three primaries and white, so start there. That will cut your cost significantly. The challenge then is to learn to mix them! Look for color mixing classes in the future to show you how to do that.
As you gain more experience with color mixing you can add in more colors so that will spread the cost of your art habit over time so you won't feel the pinch of huge startup costs quite as badly.
My palette varies pretty widely depending on my mood of the day or if I'm trying out one of the great new Richeson colors we are carrying (Naples Yellow is my new favorite powerhouse color!) In a future blog I'll go over my more standardized palette and discuss cool vs. warm colors and what that means to your color mixing.
You will also need an oil to use as a thinner or brush cleaner. If you are going solvent free then linseed oil is your best bet:
If you aren't going solvent free, then you'll need some turpentine:
You'll also need a sealed container to carry your solvents and/or oils with you.
And don't forget a good backpack. The one we use is the one I showed you above. It's lightweight and is designed to fit the equipment we have discussed into it. You can order yours here:
The recommended painting surfaces are listed on our Plein Air Supply page located on our website. Click the button for our full range of Plein Air supplies. Pastel and watercolor artists can inquire about additional products that are available to you. We will be adding many new products as accessories for specific mediums to the pochade boxes in the coming days, so check back or inquire!
On the next blog I'll announce some preparatory classes and am looking toward putting together an outing to paint together. We hope you will join us!
Now take a look at Eric's video for a host of other things to consider on the outings.