A Plein Air Set Up For Watercolor

A Well Thought Out Plein Air Painting Kit

When a watercolor painter decides to paint outside in the open air the first few times, it can be a terrible experience . . . . .Imagine all the things one must carry in order to paint!   A palette on which to mix paint, an easel to hold a board, on which there is paper fastened, brushes, plenty of water, a place to set a palette and a few tools and, yes, an umbrella, warm clothes, a hat to shield ones eyes from the sun, and just about anything else you could think of.  (Yes, I made a run on sentence on purpose . . . for effect!)   

I remember the first few times I set out to paint outside.   I had to make multiple trips from my car to get everything to the painting site.   Sheeesh!   Was this really worth all the effort?

Eventually, and over time, ease of carrying such a boat load of stuff became the priority.   I have tried nearly everything in the journey to establish myself as a habitual plein air painter.   Starting with an acute case of ignorance, I listened to the wrong advisors when I first started out.   Jeeeze!   In addition to all the stuff mentioned above I brought along TV Trays and two different kinds of stools!   It was hilarious!  I might just as well have brought a couch!

I began, somewhere back there, with a full sized french easel . . . .which is nice and stable, but heavy and awkward.   (You won't find many ladies carrying one of those around!)

Then, I went to the "back packer" half french easel.   Yep!   Still the same problems, but a step better.   I found there is no place to set things unless you reach around behind the work to do so.

Then there were various telescoping, three legged easels.   These were an improvement, but with them, there is NO place to set anything . . . .and a palette need a place to sit flat.  They work fine if you haul in a small table (like a TV tray) along with a bunch of other stuff.

Eventually I have arrived at a terrific set up.  Here it is. . . . .

It begins with an inexpensive, very light weight camera tripod.   I now use the Sunpak 6601, available from Amazon.com.   Shop for price on this, there are places that sell it for double Amazon's price!

Onto the tripod goes the Sun_Eden "Travelling Adapter."   This device is what holds the painting board and paper.  See it here.   This nicely made "clamp" is strong and lightweight and breaks down into a small 14 inch package you can easily jam into any sort of carrying gear.

That "adapter" is screwed into the quick release attachment that comes with the tripod.   It then is clipped into the tripod which makes a terrific easel.

Under the "Travelling Adapter" on the tri pod, I have found a simple, rugged shelf which merely sits on two of the tripod legs.   It is available from enpleinairpro.com.   You can see it here.  There are no parts to worry about or fancy adjustments.  It slips onto the legs and is very stable.  It has a big hole to hold a fairly good sized water cup.   It also has a number of holes into which brushes can be inserted so they don't roll off into the dirt someplace.

The shelf easily holds a full sized watercolor palette or a folding palette.   I have evolved into a plein air painting equipment junkie!   So, I recently acquired my new "Color Gizmo," as I have dubbed it.   It is a hand held palette with LOADS of mixing capability.   See it here.  Each well is big enough to absorb a 1 1/2 inch flat brush and the mixing wells are simply fabulous!

Add two small (4 oz) plastic bottles . . . .a sprayer and a dripper.   I use the latter for adding water to my large washes in the mixing wells of the palette. ( I dislike having to remix more paint midway through a wash! Having to do so outside, where the paint dries quickly, it can cause big trouble!)

I carry a quart of water in a plastic container.  That container has a loop on it which allows me to hook it to the outside of a small day sized back pack via a carabiner.  That carabiner is useful for hooking the backpack to the easel when it is set up in a windy situation.  The backpack has extra weight that can help the easel hold on in good breeze.   On the other hand, I carry a "pouch" which clips to the legs of the tripod and can be filled with rocks, sand or dirt to really weigh down the easel.   The one I use comes from Artworkessentials.com and can be seen here.  Called the "Utility / Stone Bag" it is reasonably priced and has saved my setup from blowing away more than a few times.

The last item is seemingly unimportant to the novice, but I can attest that it is enormously helpful. . . . .the plein air painting umbrella.   The one in the above picture is "okay" and is also from artworkessentials.com and can be seen here.   They have improved their clamping system from the one shown in the picture above and seems to be fairly good.   I recently bought another umbrella for my oil painting kit, "Best Brella" . . . .which has a superior clamping mechanism and really tuffs it out in a wind.  Their website and product can be seen here.  If I was able to compare the two side by each, I believe I would have opted for the "Best Brella" because it is a superior product.  These both clamp to one of the tripod legs.

You wouldn't believe the positions these umbrellas take when attached to different artists equipment!   You'll see them sticking straight out, parallel to the ground, when the sun is low.  And you will see them at all sorts of odd angles as the day's artwork progresses.

The umbrella will be of immense assistance in mixing your colors when subtlety is necessary.  Sun glare bleaches out what we see on our palette, causes our eyes to dilate down to null and reduces our proclivity to see color nuances.   In addition, the umbrella shades the work in progress.   The sun creates evil on the face of a watercolor while painting, believe me!   So, make sure that you have this piece of equipment.   If you go cheap, you will be very disappointed!

While you and your work are protected from the sun with the umbrella, you are also vulnerable to the least amount of wind, should it come up.   The umbrella, though designed to be in a wind, can act as a parachute and will carry away your gear if you don't weigh down your easel with plenty of weight. And it does happen.   Chasing a renegade easel in the wind can be very dis-heartening!  (believe me, I know!)   When painting on the edge of a cliff, overlooking the ocean it would be tragic to see your equipment sail over the edge and be lost forever!

There are a few other items, which I have found imperative  . . . .one of which is a wide brimmed hat.  Aside from UV protection, that brim shades your eyes and continues to give you the vision acuity you need to be able to truly see color subtleties.  Another is a pocket full of Kleenex (tissues).   These necessary for a variety of little chores while painting . . . .and nose blowing isn't one of them! . . . .palette cleaning and blotting paint being the chief chores.

The last and final item is a back pack.   You might find this humorous, but I brought all my paraphernalia into a shop and, with the help of a sales clerk, loaded pack after pack until we found the right pack that could accommodate everything (with room for a lunch in the pack) and was comfortable!  Once found and assured that all would indeed fit, the test was to fill the pack and walk around the store with it on.

Now, instead of needing a trailer attached to my car to get the gear to the painting site, I can literally RUN with all my gear on my back and do so in comfort.   The pack I chose was a small "day pack."   It isn't big and bulky and there is lots of room inside to add the incidental stuff, if needed.

I have yet to mention the important board and paper . . . . I use Gator Board, extremely lightweight, and stretch my paper on it the day before going out  . . . . and I carry that piece in my hand.   I have paper stretched on both sides of the board (to protect the board from warping under the pressure of shrinking cotton paper) to allow me the luxury of making more than one painting when I am out.   Generally, I paint on half sheets (15 x 22 inches) but this equipment allows me to work on full sheets, 22 x 30 inches.

If you have questions about any of this, leave them in the comments.  I promise to answer.