A Beginners Guide to Plein Air Painting - What Do I Need?

One common question I'm consistently asked is what do I need for plein air painting?  As you probably already know, plein air painting is the practice of painting outdoors and on location. Typically artists try to finish their painting in one session over the course of a few hours. It's a great way to get outside and soak in what mother nature has to offer, while also taking in the joys of painting. Not only does painting outdoors allow you to connect to nature, it keeps you in the moment and challenges you because it forces you to work quickly and make on the spot decisions when it comes to things like composition and color.

the supplies you need for painting en plein air

In this post I'm going to share my favorite supplies for Plein Air painting that I never leave home without.

    the supplies you need for painting en plein air

    #1 - Plein Air Box

    I've been using my 8x10" Guerrilla Pochade box since 2010 and my favorite things about it is how durable and portable it is. Whether I'm on a road trip or when I'm hiking in the backcountry, it packs easily, doesn't take up too much room, and stores all the supplies I need safely and conveniently in one place. The 8x10" is a happy medium for me, but there is a smaller version and a larger version

    guerrilla pochade plein air boxes for painting outdoors

     #2 - Mini Palette cups for your mediums

    These little leak-proof clip on cups are made of stainless steel, safely store your painting mediums, and conveniently clip onto the sliding palette in your pochade box. 

    mini palette cups for plein air painting

    #3 - Mini Brush washer

    This is the most travel-friendly brush washer I've seen out there and it works like a charm. It's designed specifically for painting in the outdoors. It's also lightweight, leak and shatter proof. The stainless steel insert is removable for easy cleaning.

    mini brush washer for plein air painting

    #4 - Brush holder for your tripod

    This is a useful tool I recently acquired because I was so tired of having my brushes rolling in paint or falling onto the ground since I don't have any kind of additional surface to place things on. Save yourself the trouble and grab one of these, it will attach to almost anywhere!

    brush grip for plein air painting


    #5 - Tripod

    Speaking of tripods, the Guerrilla pochade boxes have a universal tripod mount so it'll attach to virtually any tripod out there. I like this tripod specifically because it's made of carbon fiber which keeps things light for packing and yet is sturdy. From my experiences, painting with your pochade box in your lap isn't always the best and painting on a table can be limiting because I can adjust the height to be higher or lower with a tripod and it can easily fit into tight spaces and be level on uneven ground. 

     tripods for painting en plein air

    #6 - My favorite paintbrush specifically for Plein Air

    It's a short handle, but I like that for the portability. This little brush does a beautiful job creating small, yet expressive brushwork. I love it for blocking in and adding the final touches. It has a thin knife-like edge with an angled cut to it and it is the only one I need in the field for 8x10" paintings or smaller.

     Raphael precision brush for plein air painting

    #7 - Gessobord 

    Using Gessobord is a good option for plein air painting since it comes primed and ready to paint. It does have a fine tooth finish, which means it's a pretty smooth surface. If you prefer more texture, you can use a smooth hardbord and apply a layer of gesso or white acrylic paint or use premade canvas panels. Some people make their own canvas panels, you can read more about that here. Regardless of what your preference is, any flat panel with a hard backing is the way to go. I usually flip back and forth between making my own canvas panels and smooth hardbord, it just depends if I'm in a rush or not. 

    types of surfaces for plein air painting

    #8 - Palette Knife

    For me, using a palette knife is essential for mixing colors and color matching. It's hard on your brushes bristles to mix paints well and a convenient tool for picking up medium out of the mini cups and spreading it onto the palette board. I like using this one for mixing colors on my palette and this one for detail work on the canvas.

     palette knife for plein air painting angled palette knife for plein air painting

    #9 - Camera

    Even though most artists try to finish their plein air painting in one session, sometimes it doesn't always work out. Having the ability to capture reference photos of the environment, light, and composition in the manner you want to express on canvas is helpful should you need to continue your painting the next day. There have been times where I start late in the day and sunset has completely altered the landscape or out of nowhere, clouds roll in and cover my subject matter. To me, there is absolutely nothing wrong with taking what you've started with outdoors and bringing it back to the studio to finish there using your reference photos to guide you.

    This point and shoot camera is my favorite for taking reference photos. It is compact, yet really powerful for a point and shoot. The auto mode for beginners is one of the best I've ever tried for landscape photography. I find myself using it more often than my DSLR camera out of convenience. If you don't have a budget for a camera, your phone camera is more than capable to capture the moment. 

    canon g7x mark iii for taking reference photos

    Canon G7X Mark III

    Painting En Plein Air can be challenging, but you might be surprised at how much it helps you with your overall painting skills without even realizing it. I hope this list helps you make a decision and how you should get started and remember that it is a steep learning curve, but the key is to enjoy the process along the way.

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     I'm Chuck Black, landscape and wildlife artist based in Southwest Montana.

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