Have you been bitten by the plein air bug? Are you itching to go outside and paint? Not sure what equipment and supplies you need to get the job done? Well, you’re in luck. Here’s a list to get you started:
I use Gamblin Aritst Oils, almost exclusively. If you’re just starting out and want to test the waters with a lower cost, but still good paint, try Grumbacher Pretested. Don’t worry too much about the brand, though. Get what’s available that you can afford. You’ll find your favorite paint brands as you go along. Buy the small tubes for plein air painting. You’d be surprised how much paint weighs. You want your kit to be as light as possible.
A great limited palette for plein air painting, or any painting really, consists of:
Cadmium Red Medium
Ivory black (for blue)
You might recognize this as the Zorn Palette. It’s extremely versatile, lightweight, and makes for very harmonious pictures.
If you’d rather go beyond the limited palette, try a warm and cool of each primary color, a warm and cool green, plus cadmium orange and white. For example:
Cadmium Red Medium
Alizarin Crimson Permanent
Cadmium Yellow Light
There is no need for black in this palette. A great chromatic black can be made by mixing together all of the darkest colors - alizarin crimson, ultramarine blue, and sap green. Easy as that, black.
Brushes, Palette Knife, Razor Blade Scraper
Get hog bristle brushes. I like flats. The bristles are longer than brights and you can get several different types of strokes out of flats, depending on how you hold them in relation to your canvas or other support. Filberts are fine, too, if you like those better. Get a few different sizes, 6, 8 10, and 12 would be a good place to start.
Don’t forget to pack a palette knife for paint mixing or painting and a razor blade scraper to clean glass palettes.
Sketchbook, Drawing Instruments, Viewfinder
It’s a good idea to do a few thumbnail sketches and/or value plans of your scene before you start to paint. A small sketchbook will do. A viewfinder is very helpful in isolating a scene in the often overwhelming outdoors. You can buy one, make one, or just use your fingers.
Odorless Mineral Spirits and Leakproof Brush Washer
You’ll need something to wash your brushes in and to thin your paint, if necessary. I use Gamsol. It works good and doesn’t smell. Good luck on the leakproof brush washer. There are several on the market. Get one with a handle you can use to hang the washer on your easel. They all, eventually, leak. I keep mine upright in a plastic bag during transit to keep any leakage at a minimum and contained. If you’ve found an actual leakproof brush washer, let me know in the comments.
Since you’ll be painting outside where the sun is, it’s a good idea to have a paint support that the sun can’t shine through. Canvas or gessoed panels can be purchased ready-made or you can make your own. (A topic for another blog post.) You can also simply tape primed canvas or oil paper to a board and paint on that. If you get a good painting out of it, you can glue the painting down to a proper panel after it’s dried. Stretched canvas is not recommended, but there’s no rule against it. Just make sure you have something to keep the sun from shining through the back of it and you’ll be fine.
It’s also important to consider the size of your support. You won’t have much time to work on a painting en plein air before the light completely changes or goes out. The larger the canvas the longer it will take you to complete it. Common sizes for plein air painting run from 6 x 8 inches to 12 x 16 inches.
Paint Box and Easel
If you ask a dozen painters what their favorite plein air paint box and easel set up is, you’ll likely get 30 different answers. Whichever one or three you choose, you need something to hold your painting support while you paint on it and a place to lay out your paint. Here are some things to consider when shopping for yours - ease of setup, weight, durability, and price.
Here are the boxes I have and what I like and dislike about each:
Can carry paint and brushes inside
Can handle a wide variety of support sizes
No need for tripod
Difficult and awkward to set up
Need separate palette
Can carry paint and short handled brushes inside under sliding palette
Easy to set up on tripod with tripod mount
Can leave one wet painting inside for travel.
Limited to 10 inch wide supports without smaller adapter, can’t go bigger
Easy to set up on tripod with tripod mount
Never carried anything inside as I put a piece of glass in the bottom of it and often left paint piles inside
Can handle supports up to 18 inches high
Built in wet panel carrier for two panels
Fits in my backpack
SUPER easy to set up on tripod
Large paint mixing area
Fold out side shelves to hold things (brushes, etc.)
Holds up to 24 inch high supports, (can be configured upon purchase for larger or smaller options)
Palette kind of far from support
Tripod and Mount
Your tripod should be solid, not flimsy. There are good, affordable tripods on amazon.com or you can buy the ones that are sold along with the portable easels. Shop around for the best deal. I have this one.
Some artists swear by Bounty paper towels. One, I know, even has a special technique he uses that he says can ONLY be done with Bounty paper towels! I like Bounty, but I’m happy with Costco paper towels, or those blue paper shop towels are nice, too.
Use a plastic grocery bag. The handles attach nicely to your easel and they’re free. While we’re speaking of trash. Always remember, if you pack it in, pack it out. Don’t leave your trash behind and DON’T dump your dirty mineral spirits on the ground.
When painting outdoors, it’s ideal to have shade on your painting and palette. Both surfaces should be in the same light, at least. It’s not always possible to find a nice shade tree just where you want to paint or to position your easel and palette perfectly against the sun. The solution to this problem is an umbrella.
I have two different umbrellas. One, a Shadbuddy by Guerrilla Painter sticks into the ground. Which is great, if it’s a little windy. It’s no fun to have a gust of wind blow your umbrella away and it’s really awful if the umbrella is attached to your easel and the whole thing files down the river like it’s Mary Poppins or something. The Shadebuddy won’t work, though, if the ground is hard or it’s concrete. The other umbrella I have is the Best Brella and it attaches to my tripod or anything else I want to attach it to for that matter. It’s very lightweight and is adjustable to almost any angle. I’m pretty much in love with my Best Brella. Actually, I love both of my umbrellas.
When shopping for an umbrella, get white, silver, or black. A colored umbrella will ruin your ability to correctly judge the paint colors on your palette.
Wet Panel Carrier
A wet panel carrier will protect your completed painting, your clothes, and your vehicle on the way home from painting out. These can be purchased or improvised. There are several types and sizes from which to choose. Or, just lay your painting inside a cardboard box and set it in a safe place in your vehicle where it won’t get bumped for the ride home.
Cell Phone, Business Cards
A phone is useful for taking photos of your scene, your painting buddies, and can save you, if you get lost. It can also serve as a black mirror for judging values in your scene and your painting. Google “Claude Glass” for more information on black mirrors.
If you sell your paintings, it’s nice to have business cards to hand out to people interested in your work.
Food, Water, Sunscreen, Hat, Non-slip Shoes
Self-explanatory, but be very mindful of the need for water here in the desert. Don’t leave home without it.
Bug Diversion Supplies and Snake Gaiters
And, whether you’re going to eat anything or not, you might want to bring something to feed the ants. This is my own trick and probably comes from being a mom. If I don’t want somebody to do a particular thing, but they insist on doing it anyway, instead of stomping, burning, drowning, or deserting them, I find a diversion will sometimes do the trick. Now, calm down. These “somebodies” I’m talking about are ants and I haven’t stomped, burned, or drowned any of them since I was about eight years old. Nowadays, if ants think I taste good, I just give them something better to eat - far away from me. They like bread, candy, chips, and stuff like that. So, I just put little bits of it outside of my immediate painting area. They find it and leave me alone. Sometimes, I have to make a trail to get them started in the right direction.
For some bugs, you need bug spray, I guess. I don’t like bug spray. So, I don’t use it. If it works for you, put it in your kit.
If you’re painting in the desert, especially, amongst the rocks and brush, protect yourself with some snake gaiters. They protect your calves, shins, and sometimes your upper foot, depending on the design, from snake bites. The peace of mind alone, make them well worth the money.
Backpack or Cart
Most everything on this list should fit in a backpack. Measure your stuff and get a backpack that’ll hold it. I usually put everything in my backpack, except my umbrella or my tripod which I carry in one hand. I can’t zip the top of the backpack completely closed, because some things are too long to fit completely inside the backpack. That’s ok, though. I just let them stick out. It works out fine.
Now, I know a lot of people can’t or won’t carry backpacks. I spent a lot of time in the army carrying stuff around on my back. I’m used to it. It’s so much easier than dragging rickety carts through the desert or finding a very nice, dumb person to carry my stuff around for me. My philosophy is if you can’t carry it, you probably don’t need it. But, that’s just me. Not everyone can carry things, for whatever reason, and they need a cart. If this is you, try to get a cart with big wheels to make it easier to roll over rocks and things. Costco sells a nice folding wagon with big wheels. Just remember, you don’t need to take the kitchen sink out with you to plein air paint. Just take exactly what you need and nothing more. Leave all of the “just in case I might need it” stuff at home. You won’t need it. It’s just distracting and it’s heavy. Do a Marie Kondo on your plein air stuff. You’ll be glad you did.
Directions to the Paint Out
If you’re going to an organized paint out, make sure you have the directions, money for park entrance fees, gate codes, permits, etc.
I hope this list helps. Here’s a summary. If I’ve forgotten anything, please, let me know in the comments.
Plein Air Painting Supply List
Razor Blade Scraper
Tripod and Mount
Odorless Mineral Spirits
Leakproof brush washer
Wet Panel Carrier
Bug Diversion Kit and/or Bug Spray
Backpack or Cart
Directions, gate codes, entrance fees, etc.
Image: Jane Barton painting at Veterans Oasis Park in Chandler, AZ
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Article written by Kimberly Scott