One common question I'm consistently asked is what do I need for plein air painting? Well, in this post I'm going to share my favorite supplies for Plein Air painting that I never leave home without.
What is plein air painting?
Plein air painting, also known as outdoor painting or open-air painting, is a technique that involves creating artworks in the natural environment. The term "plein air" is derived from the French expression meaning "in the open air." Unlike studio painting, plein air painting allows artists to immerse themselves in the scenery, capturing the true essence of their surroundings through direct observation. This technique not only celebrates the beauty of nature but also provides a unique opportunity to portray the ever-changing light, colors, and atmospheric conditions. Plein air painting requires artists to quickly adapt to their environment, capturing the fleeting moments and subtle nuances that make each artwork a one-of-a-kind masterpiece. Whether it's the majestic landscapes or bustling cityscapes, plein air painting preserves the authenticity and spontaneity of the artistic process.
What equipment do I need for plein air?
Whether you love getting out in the wilderness or capturing the big city, here is a list of essential tools for getting started with plein air painting:
#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.
#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.
#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.
#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!
#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.
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.
#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.
#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.
#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.
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 on what you need for plein air to get started. Painting en plein air has 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.