Packing for Plein Air

Packing for Plein Aire

As a plein aire watercolor painter, I never seemed to get the results I wanted until I modified my philosophy about why I was doing it. So, why am I painting plein aire? I wanted to be outside in the beautiful weather, I wanted to capture the light and shadows through my own eyes, and I wanted to feel the spontaneity that comes from painting in the immediacy of the moment. My focus is to gather information, make accurate sketches, and capture the impression of what I am seeing. In summary, I am getting down as much information as I can in a limited period of time with simple, portable materials.

What do I take out with me? As little as possible to get the most bang for my buck. I don’t want to carry a lot of heavy, bulky supplies. I want to walk as far as I wish to get the best view. I want a variety of materials depending on what I see and how I feel. My main requirement is that it all fit in an over-the-shoulder carry bag. Here’s the list:

Basic bag – fits comfortably over my shoulder. Mine has a zippered pocket for my keys, phone, and wallet. Durable and waterproof are a bonus.

Portable stool – I have a tripod stool that folds up and is lightweight aluminum. has lots to choose from; type in “portable camp stool”. Golf stores have them too.

9x12 or 11x14 drawing pad (nothing bigger or it’s too bulky – make sure it fits in the bag).

9x12 or 11x14 90# watercolor pad. Canson makes a nice one. You don’t need heavy paper because you’re not going to be doing any “heavy” painting. No Strathmore!

White synthetic eraser – Mars Staetler, or any brand. They’re cheap and they do a great job on any surface. They don’t leave a pink mark like Pink Pearl, and they lift more than a kneaded eraser.

Pencils – 2H for detail, and 2B to get the darks and quick information. Anything else you like, but those two will do it. Automatic pencils are great, but the lead tends to break for me (don’t know my own strength).

Pencil sharpener – A good one is the KUM Automatic LongPoint. It has two holes; one for removing the wood, and one for sharpening

Watercolor pencils – You only need 8: warm red, cool red (dark), warm yellow or ochre, lemon yellow, dark cool blue, warm blue, purple, and a dark green (but you have to promise not to use it as a green!)

A portable watercolor kit. It’s a bit pricey, but I recommend the Windsor Newton Cotman Field kit. It comes with about a dozen half pan colors, a brush, two palettes, two water containers, a sponge, a way to hold it, and all in a space of about 2x1x4”! Talk about portable! The half pans can be replaced and upgraded easily, and some of my friends pop the unwanted colors out, and then squeeze in their colors from their tube paints and let them dry for portability. The best thing about this kit is that it closes up with little mess, and great ease. This is the most portable solution, but there are many options out there. Go with what seems the most practical for you.

Brushes – a #4 round, #8 round, and a ½” flat


Odds and Ends – Salt, zoom finder, grey scale (I use a paint sample #780 F from Home Depot with 4 shades of grey on it), qtips, toothpicks, hand sanitizer, bottle of water (two, if you want to drink one!), a few paper towels – just tear them off and fold them up; you don’t need a whole roll, Kleenex, sunscreen, poncho, hat, and bug spray.