Plein Air Painting Setups

Plein Air Painting Setups

Like painting, less is more when picking your gear

There I was, huffing a couple reusable canvas grocery bags full of art stuff, a collapsible camp chair, and a 6' collapsible home-fabricated-hand-me-down aluminum easel from a million years ago with some old codger's name Dymo labeled across the front. It resembed extra-large pickup sticks, and it became the winner of equipment failure for the day.

Dymo label

Shortly into my hike to find a good spot to post up and paint, I came to realize I was more pack mule and aluminum parts juggler than plein air artist. It didn't help that the pandemic had me in the worst physical shape of my life.

Huffing this load of stuff around a field trying to not drop anything, my fingers aching from hauling the heavy canvas grocery bags while scouting a place to paint from, I arrived at the thought that 'there must be a better way'. I was red-faced, out of breath and I dropped it all. I really wanted to dropkick the easel, but, I still needed it to be functional.

This was my first plein air painting experience. Its likely if you've gathered up enough gumption to paint outside, you've had this moment and come to the realization that you need to figure out how to make all of this more comfortable and lightweight. If you're thinking of plein air painting, I'm hoping you'll be able to learn from my first experience, and how to get out there and paint with ease.

Millenial Elder Disease

Like a lot of "millenial elders" my age, I'm a do-it-yourselfer. A serial googler. A McGuyver-inspired fixer of broken things turned McGruber, and super-thrifter. I think we naturally default to the notion that all the answers are out there because, a lot of stuff is a quick query away. But no amount of googling could have prepared me for my first experience plein air painting.

 Living in the Land of "Gear" aka "The GoreTex Vortex" aka Oregon

Capitalism + Outdoor Passion = GoreTex Vortex

Before I go into this, I don't want to come off like this is some sort of article touting the features of certain products as if they are gospel. I can't stand that. I like quality functional stuff, great deals, clever solutions, homemade stuff or whatever gets you out there. There are so many options out there - more than I've been able to try myself. This is what I've found works for me, and I'm still learning!

I grew up in an outdoor adventure paradise. I'm that kid who got outdoors on the good graces of Goodwill, ski swaps and hand-me-downs from a family of cousins older than me. Even if I froze, got soaked, had equipment failures that could be fixed with duct tape and bailing wire, it was more important to be out there than not being able to participate.

So, I did what I know how to do, thrift. And thrift I did. I ended up finding a really cool vintage pochade for $11 at Goodwill. Come to find out, its made in Russia of all places, and comes with aluminum legs attached. Plein Air Painting in Southern OregonIt was pretty cool to start, but I quickly found out I was missing some crucial pieces to hold my work in a windstorm. I still have this setup, and it works great for gouache, but I wanted something a little bit more compact for days when oil was my medium of choice.

"I couldn't wait to make my setup like a swiss army knife of portable art studios"

At this point in my life, growing up in Oregon, I didn't completly understand outdoorsy peers who collected the finest outdoor gear until now. When I invested in my first new plein air pochade box, I completely understood the intersection of capitalism and outdoor passion. It was like Christmas in July, and it was damn inspiring. I couldn't wait to get my oily fingerprints all over that thing. I couldn't wait to make my setup like a swiss army knife of portable art studios.

The Pochade Box - the Box that Transports Your Messy Paint Palette

This is the thing that holds your palette and maybe your painting (depending on type), where you can slather and mix pigments while you paint. It needs to be able to connect to a tripod or easel. I really wanted to invest in a Strada setup - they are really lightweight and efficient pochade boxes.

My plein air painting setup, with the Sienna Medium Pochade

However, they were a bit out of my price range, and I ended up getting a Sienna medium plein air pochade box. It's heavier than the Strada, but it is sturdy and a nice, portable size. One of the selling points for me was a removable glass palette insert that can be easily removed and deep cleaned.

The Sienna pochade came with a standard tripod chuck, so it fit with a collapsible aluminum tripod I already had. It sits nicely and securely on top of the tripod. 

A Designated Art Backpack

The second time I ever bought a new backpack in my life - first was for college, second was for plein air painting. This thing will get paint on it, its kind of inevitable. Surrender it to art, donate it to the cause of your happiness. Abandon the idea this thing will remain unmarked. Shockingly, this was also the second time I went into an R.E.I. store - and I live in Oregon. 

Osprey Daylight Plus Backpack for Plein Air Painting

I ended up getting an Osprey Daylight backpack, because I tend to be a packrat. Give me a vessel, and it will become an abyss of mysterious artifacts and knick-knacks, snacks, loose change and store receipts. So, I opted for the smaller size to force myself not to pack it too heavy. Its a tight fit for the Sienna medium pochade in the main cargo hold. It has tons of little hidey-holes and compartments, sturdy zippers and seams.

Hot tip: a crappy zipper failure can really ruin your day. Always carry a little bit of duct tape wrapped around a pencil and a few safety pins just in case of equipment failure. This is something the gear gods of Oregon have taught me. 

A Comfy Place to Park Your Butt

Like most average Americans, I'm currently, really out of shape. I'm working on it, but, standing in one place for too long makes me want to take five, and kick back. A couple friends introduced me to the newest iteration of the collapsible camp chair. Whoever engineered this style of chair is a genius - these little chairs are comfortable, lightweight, and collapse down into a small, portable bag. I've seen knock-offs now, but these are a nice to have when you're out in the field. 

Safety! Save Some Room for Bear Spray

Painting in the Oregon outback can be a bit - dangerous. I don't like to go out alone for a number of reasons. I've lived in the moutains of rural southern Oregon and have seen too much at this point I guess. Too much wildlife, too many high-speed police persuits that end up in foot races, too many people just up and disappear out here. I do carry a small marine air horn and bear spray wherever I go, and I always try to paint out with other friendly humans.

Ultimately, the more comfortable you are with your setup, the more you can focus on making beautiful art in the moment, and less on feeling like a pack mule.

What are some things that you've learned along the way with your plein air setup? Are there new things out there that are really cool? I'd love to know! Leave your thoughts in the comments below :)

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1 comment

Very cool!!

Robin Young

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