Carry on! What to Pack for Plein Air Painting

I must get a half dozen art supply catalogs each week, all offering "the best" equipment for plein air painting and myriad gadgets claiming to make the process of painting easier. From Soltek to Sourcetek, from linen to Liquin, how the heck do you know what's worth buying?


I've been plein airing for about 12 years now, and it seems like I've tried just about everything on the market. I've been teaching since 2005, giving me a chance to see hundreds of plein air set-ups that students bring to my workshops. Really good equipment that survives the rigors of plein air painting is available, but so is an awful lot of junk. In answer to several recent inquiries, here's what I recommend for painting on location.


My main credo is Less Is More! Getting rid of the excess junk makes your load lighter and you won't spend as much time rooting through your pack looking for things. Buy the best quality you can possible afford, look for sales, and don't be a sucker for unnecessary gadgets!


For my easel, I use Open Box M. It's sturdy, easy to set up, and takes the abuse I dole out on a regular basis. I have two Open Box M easels: the main one I use is the 12x16 size - the larger palette gives me more room for mixing paint. This easel is relatively heavy, so I only use it when I'm staying close to my car to paint. For longer treks, I carry the smaller and lighter 11x14 box.


I use a heavy Bogen tripod - it's very sturdy and not prone to blowing over on a windy day. I'm in the market for something a little lighter, but I have found that going too lightweight or cheap just isn't worth it and can lead to a wobbly easel that will drive you batty after fighting with it all day!


Which brush to use is more a choice of personal taste, but I strongly suggest honing down the number you take in the field. I use about 3 or 4  brushes, brights and rounds. Keep your brushes in good condition and learn just how many different marks you can make with just one brush.


Small tubes of paint are lighter and more convenient, but they're also a lot more expensive. I buy the big tubes whenever I can, use them in the studio until about half the paint is gone, then transfer them to my plein air gear. Saves money and weight!


I had always been anti-umbrella...I've just seen too many easels pick up and blow away in the slightest breeze when an umbrella is attached. But then I found the aptly-named BestBrella - it has vents to let the breezes flow through, screws together in a few seconds, adjusts in several different directions to block any angle of the sun. Now I'm a believer! I use the umbrella for shading my canvas...and for shading me in the hot California sun!


My solvent goes in a container that hangs from my easel, similar to the Holbein brushwasher. After my overly enthusiastic dogs wagged their tails and tipped over my solvent can, spilling all my turp after I had hiked a few miles into my painting spot, I decided it was prudent to carry a small metal fuel bottle (found in most camping stores) with extra turp in it.


My pack is a Kelty Rewding 3100---I've found that a true backpacking pack (as opposed to an art pack) works best because the extra padding and straps make hiking to a painting destination much more comfortable.


I paint on panels, linen mounted on Gatorfoam, made by Windriver Arts - they're lightweight and easy to pack. For storing wet paintings, I use RayMar carriers. Also lightweight, inexpensive, and nearly indestructible.


Those are the main elements of my equipment; it goes without saying that a hat, sunscreen, cell phone, extra jacket and water are all also essential to your comfort and safety while painting. I also carry a sketchbook, Sharpie marker, paper towels, trash bags, bug spray, and of course, dog biscuits for my canine painting partners.


And speaking of those canine companions, look for my blog post next month on training your dog to go plein airing with you!


22 Responses to Carry on! What to Pack for Plein Air Painting

Barbara Mitchell
Hi Kathleen, Thanks so much for this valuable information. I'm in the habit of packing WAY too much stuff and it literally stops me from going out to paint. It wears me out so it seems easier to just NOT go out. One huge thing is that I need a backpack and not the large carry bag full of "things". My large French easel breaks my back and I've finally decided that it's time to fork out the money and get a light weight easel... just looking at the Open Box M equipment looks like the thing to have. There is something that we should ALL carry with us however, when painting. I learned a valuable lesson about carrying pepper spray while out running. I was attacked by a pit bull and had it not been for the pepper spray I may have been injured badly. It works and I carry it everywhere especially when painting alone outdoors.I'm always aware where it is...I put mine where I can see it and grab it if I need to. That dog attack put the fear in me and there's always the people factor as well. Thank you again for the valuable information. This is the first time I've seen you're blog! I look forward to seeing you're dog blog so I can train my dog as well! Take care! Barbara

Marian Fortunati
Good ideas... I hadn't thought about using the big tubes that are mostly used up. Good idea.

One of these days the stars will align and I'll be able to take one of your classes.

Until then...

Thanks for your comments,! Barbara- you make a good is always an issue when painting outdoors. Pepper spray is a good idea, but I like citronella spray better--dogs hate the smell and it works great to break up dog fights or deter an oncoming attack. Plus, if the wind is blowing the wrong way when you use pepper spray, YOU can easily be the one who gets the effect of the spray instead of the dog. Believe me, it's not a pleasant experience! Marian- hope to see you in a class some time soon!

Cindy Lee Jones
Such a joy to discover your blog :-) thank you for posting info on your outdoor painting gear. I've been wanting to try plein air painting but didn't know where to begin with the set up, it'll be a new direction for me.

Thanks so much Kathleen!

Cindy from Palm Springs, CA.

joyce Snyder
Kathleen...just did read all your blogs and conclude you are not just a gifted teacher and artist but a very generous person as well. You share your knowledge without measure..such a generous spirit and one I applaud. Thank you.

Theresa Grillo Laird
Great advice! I just found you and your work is beautiful!

Kathryn Townsend
Hi Kathleen--just came across your blog postings and am really enjoying reading them!

When I was in China in 2005 I forgot my tripod head. Had my husband send it to me from the states but he sent the wrong one! So I bought a new tripod--believe it is a Japanese make -- Benro -- very light weight, carbon steel and I've been using it ever since--has a fantastic head for my 11 x 14 Open Box M. for the B Series head. It doesn't snap in, it slides in and then you tighten it. Very sturdy head. Looks like they don't made this one anymore, but there is probably something similar--it is very sturdy and lightweight. Good luck and thanks again for your blog!

Rosemary McIntosh
Hi picked you up on a Facebook on a friend's site. So glad I did.....wonderful and alive paintings....... and thankful for your advice on what supplies to carry outside. Been looking for this practical information for too long a time. Live in Jackson Hole WYO and paint Plein air when possible and needed camels to carry supplies. Will turn them back to the wild. ha! Thanks again.

Sandy Askey-Adams, PSA
Hello Kathleen:

So enjoyed this blog post. Love your dogs, and of course your paintings, But, Terrific information about "Less is More" when paintng plein air. Thank you.

Susan Williams Phillips
Thank you for this practical and complete info! Now I know I am prepared to begin Plein air painting...right after I do (at least) one of your workshops!

Joan Tharp
Thank you so much for the useful advice and the funny stories of life in the open air.

Larry Eisenman
Kathleen:While looking for umbrellas on-line, I came across your comments about what to take when plein airing. I haven't done much plein airing but I have a hard time using a back pack. I have been using a cart to which I place my french easel. I use bunjee cords for attachments. What are your thoughts about a roll around cart?

keith morgan
thanks for publishing all your blog articles. they are very helpful and stimulating. keep up your good painting and teaching. you are an inspiration.

Ann Payne Price
You are such an accomplished painter in such a short time. Such beautiful work and have just signed up for your blog. Thanks for the info re equipment for plein air. Love that you bring along your dogs.

Does your 12x16 open box fit into your kelty pack?

I don't know if my question went through...does the open box 12x16 fit in the Kelty pack?

yes it does but that pack is not being manufactured anymore.

Linda Bell
Thank you for sharing what you've learned Kathleen. I love your work. An idea on the paint is to buy empty paint tubes and fill with paint from the large tubes. And fill one or two with some nice greys from palette leftovers.

Adrian Redmond
Hey Kathleen- thank you so much for all your plein air packing recommendations. I am going to Wyoming and will be plein air painting for the first time. Your sharing of items and companies recommended made my ordering easy! I completely trust you and thank you immensely.

Adrian Redmond
PS Your artwork is amazing !!!

greg hoffmann
I am new to plein air painting and have acquired " the bug ". Your work is exceptional and I appreciate your willingness to share.
Being in the initial trial and error phase I wonder about painting mediums for oil paint.
Can you please comment on what you use for the medium? Currently I use an alkyd medium for quick drying and I am still experimenting with dry times and how to continue working the canvas. I usually complete my paintings within the 2 1/2 -3 hour time frame but often struggle with how to handle brush work over wet surfaces.
P.S. I do my initial blocking in using oils thinned with turps.
P.S. If you have a listing for people who would like to receive your updates please put me on the list.

Hi Greg- Thanks for your kind comments and welcome to the world of plein air! I don't use mediums when I paint outside and avoid them in the studio whenever possible. The fumes from mediums can be dangerous, and I don't want to use something unless I think it's absolutely essential. I thin my paint with Gamsol and leave it at that. On the rare occasions that I want my paint to dry faster outdoors (such as when I'm on a painting trip), I use Gamblin's Quick Dry White-- lighter colors usually dry the slowest, and having a white that dries faster speeds up the drying process for most of the light values in the painting. As far as painting over wet paint, it's all in the touch! Just use more paint and apply it with a very light stroke to keep it from blending and getting muddy.
Hope that helps!

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