Painting outside can do great things for your technique, as well as being enjoyable but you need to choose what to include in your plein air set up. We’ve put together two recommended lists one for oil painters who want to work sitting down and the other for those wanting to work standing up, along with explanations of why you’d choose each item.
What Items to Use for Plein Air and Why:
Choosing a pochade or French box easel plein air set up
When choosing your plein air set up the first thing to consider is whether you want to paint standing up or sitting down. If you want to stand up it’s worth going for a French Style Box Easel or a field easel with a pochade box. These are adjustable easels that mean you can make sure your canvas is at the right height and level on uneven ground.
If you want to sit down either on a bench, or using a wall or tree to support your back a lap or table pochade box that has an in-built easel is worth considering.
Both options have space to transport your painting materials and a place to put your surface while working on it outside.
Another key thing is to consider is what surface you want to use. Whether its a stretched canvas or a panel, you’ll need to think about how to take the wet ones home. Panels are less bulky but having multiple wet ones can be tricky to transport. Similarly, with stretched canvases, you’ll need to make sure they’re safe from denting and from rubbing against each other.
Our diagrams below show two setups one for standing and oil painting and one for sitting down. Both are designed to be comprehensive lists while keeping weight and excess materials to a minimum. It’s easy to add to a plein air set up so starting off with fewer materials and then adding your personal essentials once you know how much you are prepared to carry is a good idea.
Pochade Painting Box Plein Air Set Up:
- 1. Primed Panel
- 2. Palette
- 3. Selection of Small Oil Paint Tubes
- 4. Brush Case & Brush Set
- 5. View Finder
- 6. Sketching Set
- 7. Rags
- 8. Oil Painting Medium
- 9. Artist Double Dipper with Lids
- 10. Brush Washer
- 11. Wet Panel Carrying Box
- 12. Solvent
- 13. Fast Drying Medium
- 14. S Hooks
- 15. Small Sketchbook
- 16. Masking Tape
- 17. Tote Bag
French Box Easel Plein Air Set Up:
- 1. Umbrella
- 2. Umbrella Clamp
- 3. Stretched Canvas
- 4. French Box Easel
- 5. Brush Set
- 6. Brush Case
- 7. Artist Double Dipper with Lids
- 8. Palette
- 9. Selection of Small Oil Paint Tubes
- 10. Oil Painting Medium
- 11. Small Sketching Kit
- 12. S Hooks
- 13. Rags
- 14. Brush Washer
- 15. Plein Air Backpack
What Items to Use for Plein Air and Why:
Oil Painting Materials and Tools for Plein Air
Selection of Small Tube Oil Paints
When you have to carry all your paints it’s worth selecting small tubes so you have access to the greatest range of colours for their weight, consider 40ml or smaller — this post has suggestions of which to choose.
You want to be able to mix the broadest range with as few a tubes as possible so selecting a warm and cold of each primary and a white would be a natural option.
I selected my colour choices from our 40ml professional oil paint tubes as they’re compact and have a high pigment load meaning they last a long time and consistently produce strong colours.
After the basic colours, I think it’s worth adding a few that I’m particularly attached to and know I’ll use.
My additional colours are:
I love the soft blue-greys you can get when using small amounts of this in sky mixes – it was and is a very popular mix for St Ives painters.
This gives more heat when mixing brown shades than the traditional addition of Burnt Umber but you then have to find an alternative to make blacks, rather than the typical ultramarine/ burnt umber mix.
Loved by the Impressionists, this is my cheat green. It’s gorgeous when used alone and easily adjusted to create more nuanced colours. It also produces a lovely black when mixed with magenta solving the addition of burnt sienna rather than burnt umber.
It’s worth considering making up some of your regularly used mixes, such as a sky colour that you always create, and filling an empty tube with it to bring with you. You can read more about filling your own tubes here.
A Succinct Set of Brushes
Select a small range of brushes that suit your style and mark making. I go for a mix of flats, filberts and rounds so I have a good variety of options. Our Jackson’s Hog set of 7 comes with a mixture of these in different sizes and the hair is durable while having a great balance of stiffness and spring.
Bear in mind if you might paint quicker plein air than in the studio so think about whether you’d like a different stiffness or brush than you’d normally use.
You can view all our brush sets suitable for oil painting here.
While I left it out of set ups, it’s a good idea to bring along at least one palette knife for mixing colours. This is because they’re easy to wipe clean quickly and you can keep your brushes just for painting. Our rubber handled palette knives are comfortable to hold and have a short crank on them.
A brush case may seem like an extra, however, I think protecting your brushes while moving about is a sensible idea.
The hardback case I used with the french box easel can be set up to make it easier to grab brushes and keep wet ones out of your way. It will fit in a box easel or pochade box but takes up some room, luckily it’s hardback so perfectly safe to throw it in a bag.
The canvas brush roll takes up barely any room (useful for a pochard set up) and has a traditional feel. It is slightly shorter in length though, meaning you might need to check the length of your brushes.
Brush Washer / Solvent Pot
Bring something to clean your brushes in. You can use a jam jar with a secure lid as a solvent pot, or a lighter weight version that can actually hang within easy reach is our brush washer. It also has a perforated floor that sediment sinks through leaving you with cleaner solvent for longer.
As both options are airtight, you can fill them up with the right amount of solvent before you head out and bring your dirty solvent back with you.
Most solvents are available in 60ml bottles that can be fitted into some pochade boxes and are fairly light.
You could also use a bigger bottle or can of solvent and pre-fill up a dipper or small airtight pot.
Oil Painting Medium
Similarly to small solvent jars, mediums are also available in 60mls. Using a fast drying medium can be really helpful when trying to get a painting done quickly so is a good option for painting plein air.
If you’d prefer a different option, you can view our other oil mediums here.
Artist Double Dipper with Lids
Artist dippers with lids are useful for pre-decanting mediums and solvents into before you go as well as clipping onto your palette for ease of use while painting.
You could also use individual dippers if you only wanted to decant one solvent or medium, you can view all our options here.
Rags are essential for cleaning brushes, wiping up mess and for adjusting work.
Painter’s Tape / Masking Tape
Painters tape or masking tape is invaluable in a plein air set up for both creating straight lines or masking off areas while painting, and for being used to tape down canvases or panels in windy conditions, as well as to attach things more securely.
For both set ups shown, I would use the inbuilt palettes that come with the pochade box and the french style box easel but many artists prefer tear off palettes as they avoid the hassle of a wet palette and you can dispose of them as soon as you’re finished with them.
You can view the range of tear-off palettes we have available here.
Canvas, Panels and Boards for Plein Air
Primed Panel or Board
Ready primed panels are a good stiff substrate for painting plein air. Compatible with both a pochade set up and a french box easel, you can take several with you without them taking up much room.
I’d recommend our handmade linen panels.
The wet panel carrier mentioned later can carry between two and four panels sized 9in x 12in and 8in x 10in.
Small to medium sized stretched canvases can easily be used outdoors and our French box easel can be adjusted for canvases between heights of 8.8 cm and 87.2 cm. If you’re using a pochade box be sure to check you’re canvas will fit.
Think about how you’ll get the wet ones back, lots of canvas carriers require you to have pairs of equally sized canvases for them to work properly, and most canvas carriers take up to 70cm canvases.
Often working smaller and quickly can be fun while outside, so a small scale could be good option.
You can view all our ready primed stretched canvases that are 70 cm or smaller here.
Portable Studio Equipment for Plein Air
French Style Box Easel
A French box easel is a neat tool that can be adjusted on uneven ground, allows you to work with canvases with a height anywhere between 8.8cm or 87 cm and has an inbuilt drawer that can be used as table while working, as well as easily holding all your materials.
All of them fold up, clips, a handle and shoulder strap to make them easy to take with you, wherever you go.
Pochade Painting Box
As mentioned earlier a table or lap pochard box is useful if you want to paint sitting down while out and about, often they have a bottom drawer which you can slide out. This creates a place for you to put all your materials and transport them, while the top acts as a wet panel carrier, a palette and an easel all in one.
Nearly all pochade boxes will have shoulder straps and handles to make them easy to carry about.
The Jackson’s Pochade painting box can carry two wet panels that are 10 x 14in.
Having a good number of hooks in your kit means you can adjust your set up to your surroundings whether it’s keeping your rag nearby or hanging your solvent at the right height.
Umbrella and Clamp
An umbrella ( and a clamp to attach it) helps with changing light by keeping the glare of the sun off the work. This means you can set up somewhere where otherwise it’d be hard to gauge colour tone.
Small Sketching Kit for Working out Compositions
Having a sketchbook to work out a composition quickly before starting work can save you time in the long run. A hardback one will travel better and a small one will neatly fit in your box.
Having a range of hardnesses of pencils for doing compositional sketches and a sharpener will allow you to capture tone quickly. (Without a rubber sometimes you become less precious and quicker as these sketches are just to lead into painting.)
Derwent Sketching Pencil Tin Set of 6
This is a succinct range of pencils, with a sharpener included, that’s in a metal tin making it perfect to take round with you.
An alternative to a full pencil set pencils could be a graphite stick for doing simple sketches, it is easy to transport but can make a bag, box or your hands a little mucky.
Viewfinder / View catcher
A viewfinder can help you with quickly working out a composition, your values and true colours, making it useful when working fast.
A good tote bag is useful to carry extra boxes, paint tubes or other essentials.
Plein Air Backpack
A bag or backpack with support is important for you to carry non-painting essentials with you such as water, food, sunscreen, extra clothes and anything else you need. It can also be used to weight down your easel and make it sturdier.
The Richeson plein air backpack we offer has room in it for a pochade box, a wet panel carrier and loads of room for anything else you could possibly bring with you.
Canvas & Panel Carriers
Canvas carriers are smart ways of getting wet canvases home. It’s worth checking how many canvases one takes and whether they need to be the same size or different sizes (often you need pairs of canvases).
Most take canvases up to a height of 70 cm and with a depth of up to 2.5 cm.
In the picture above I used separating clips to keep two canvases apart but then but them in a bag to make them easier to carry.
Wet Panel Carrying Box
Having an extra box to take multiple wet panels back with you is incredibly useful, allowing you to make the most amount of work possible.
The Richeson wet panel box has room for four 9in x 12in, 1/8in thick panels back to back, or two 1/4in panels. It also has an adapter to let you carry two 8in x 10in, 1/8in panels back to back or one 1/4in panel.
The Jullian Canvas Carrier for 4 canvases or 8 panels lets you carry a variety of wet substrates.
These are practical objects that along with water may make a plein air trip more enjoyable and easier.
Canvas offcuts for swatches (if you’ll be working on the piece in the studio late)