Equipment for plein air painting

plein air painting

I’ve optimized my equipment over the years and set myself up for all eventualities – of course, that doesn’t mean you have to get it all before your first painting trip!

Although I try to limit myself to the most important things, quite a bit comes together. Without the water, it weighs about 7 kilos on average – so it’s important to find a good backpack with straps that don’t cut in. Mine also has straps on the side, with which I can attach the easel and the umbrella; so I have my hands free. I added the solar panel myself. It’s super handy to be able to charge your cell phone or connect your LED light to the battery even far from the nearest outlet. (The page references in the list refer to my book, where I go into everything in much more detail).

Painting boards

There are many painting surfaces you can paint on. I personally use only painting plates or painting boards. They are not expensive, they come in all sizes, and they are easy to cut with a cutter. They are made of cardboard or MDF, laminated with different canvases (white or natural) or unlaminated without structure with a smooth surface. Almost all of these painting plates are already pre-primed ready to paint, so you can immediately start painting on them or they can also be primed as needed (also gladly colored). Since the primer of many painting plates (usually this is a kind of gesso) me personally the first paint application too much “sucked in” and I therefore need too much paint, I prime them with less absorbent painting primer: I can recommend here the oil painting primer from Gamblin. If I don’t have time to let this primer dry for 1 week, I use regular acrylic paint instead.
Do not take, especially at the beginning, too large formats: you have when plein air painting only about 1-2 hours to finish your picture. About DinA 4 is a good guide as an upper limit. This will also make it easier for you to transport the painting.

plein air painting

Easels and Pochade boxes

Here I show you different possibilities how you can furnish your “plein air studio”. If you don’t want to make any major purchases at first, it’s quite enough to find a seat somewhere, put a clipboard with your painting on your lap and hold the mixing palette in your hand. The downside is that you’ll get pretty soaked this way, you’ll never have your hands free, and you’ll also always be dependent on a place to sit. I would also strongly recommend that you paint standing up: You have a higher viewing angle and can see the shadows on the floor better.  Many motifs are also not so suitable for the frog’s-eye view that you take when sitting. Above all, however, you should paint standing up, because that’s the only way you’ll be agile enough to keep taking a few steps back. Only when you look at your painting from a distance can you better judge the big picture and compare it with what you see in front of you.

To paint standing up, you need an easel: These are available in many different variations and in all price ranges. I show you here a small selection.

When painting, it is a great ease of work to be able to attach the palette to the easel to have your hands free!

A clipboard for your picture, a palette that you hold in your hand – that’s all you need at the beginning.
Better, however, is a field easel made of aluminum or wood – when you buy it, make sure you have the option of attaching your picture at eye level.
Here I have a self-made folding pallet hooked to the front of the field easel.
This is a quite elaborately built pochade box in which I also transport all materials and also have at working height.

Mixing pallet

My mixing palette consists of a ready-bought white palette. which I primed with a neutral medium gray. This makes it easier to judge the brightness of the mixed shade.  On white, even very light tones often look too dark; on a wood palette, the warm wood tone distorts the color temperatures.

I put an additional thin plexiglass plate on top of it – this way the gray always stays gray and cleaning is also much easier.

The (reduced) color palette – which colors you really need

When you paint in the studio, you probably have a myriad of different colors to choose from. You probably don’t want to carry them all around with you when you move your studio outside. So it’s a matter of making a smart choice. In order to be able to mix as many colors as possible without any problems, I did a lot of research and trial and error, and I’ll show you the results here:

This is a classic color wheel. It shows how mixing the three primary colors yellow, red and blue with one (!) of their respective neighboring colors creates the three secondary colors: These are green, orange and violet. The secondary colors always consist of two colors. The color that does not contain a secondary color is always exactly opposite to it in the color wheel. These are the complementary colors. So these would add the missing third color – they would thus complete it. Actually, you can mix all colors with these three colors. But do you know this: You can’t get a nice violet, even though you mix blue and red? Or the green just doesn’t glow right?

How exactly the mixed secondary colors and later the mixed tertiary colors look depends on the choice of primary colors. In this color wheel, it’s easy to see that the purples didn’t turn out particularly bright. The green tones are rather yellowish, only the orange tones really shine. This has to do with the color temperature of the primary colors used here. Since they are all rather warm (i.e. a bit reddish) here, all the colors are mixed warmly as a result, which makes the warm orange tones glow.

Color wheel

Here you see another color wheel, this time with rather cool (blue cast) primary colors.  All secondary colors mixed from this are now cooler as well. This makes especially the green and violet more luminous, but the orange loses some of its luminosity.

To be able to mix all colors as brightly as possible – regardless of whether they are rather warm or cool tones – a mixture of both color circles would be the best. You can see the result of that here:
With a warm yellow and a warm red, you can mix wonderfully bright orange tones.
The cool red mixed with the redder warm blue makes beautiful violet tones.
The lemony yellow mixed with the cool blue makes the greens shine beautifully.

My choice of which colors to take outside comes from these mixing experiments. I use the three primary colors in both temperature variations. Then I use two different shades of white: zinc white and titanium white. Both whites have different properties, so both are important. I don’t use black at all, because pure it creates dead black holes on the picture, and when mixing it doesn’t really do any color any good. It makes them darker, but always dirty. That’s why instead of black, I have two very dark shades on my palette: Van Dyck Brown and Paynes Gray. I chose these two shades using the same logic as my primary colors: The brown is a warmer, more yellow-tinted tone, while the gray is blue-tinted and thus cooler. As a result, these two tones also complement each other.

In total, this brings me to ten tubes that I always have with me. (I’ve kept the color names as generic as possible so they can be applied to all brands).

  • Zinc White (neutral, semi-opaque)
  • Titanium White (cold, opaque)
  • Lemon Yellow (cold)
  • Cadmium yellow light, Naples or Indian yellow (warm)
  • Vermilion, Cadmium or Madder Red (warm)
  • Magenta or ruby red (cold)
  • Cyan or Coelin Blue (cold)
  • Ultramarine or Cobalt Blue (warm)
  • Van Dyck Brown (warm)
  • Paynes Gray (cold)

With this knowledge in mind, you can also make your own color selection from the tubes of paint you may already have. Mix all your colors together: this way you will find out which colors work for you and which do not. If you are not satisfied with your selection, change the colors very carefully and not all at once. Even the same shade just from a different brand often behaves totally differently when mixed – it’s more pigmented, for example, or has a different opacity. You’ll definitely have to experiment a bit here, but as a reward you’ll get your very own, customized color palette.

The fact that you have to mix so much may be a bit annoying at first, but you’ll quickly get to know your colors very well, and mixing with the same colors will quickly become more intuitive and easier. And it will not harm the color harmony of your picture.
Of course, it is not “forbidden” to take other colors with you: when I paint at the Atlantic Ocean, for example, I also take Prussian Blue and Sienna with me. Both colors are so prevalent there on the beach that they are a real relief.

An addition can also be a glazing tone, such as glaze red-brown, to put on the darks in the underpainting.
Currently I use the great colors from Old Holland (they are particularly highly pigmented and therefore quite expensive). For that they have the smallest, so lightest tubes available. It doesn’t have to be such expensive professional colors, but the better you get, the more you will enjoy good quality. In stores, you can often find starter packs with a fixed selection of colors. Before you buy because of the lower price, please consider what I explained above about creating your personal color palette. Just one or two “unnecessary” colors in the pack that you won’t use will negate the price advantage.

Should you paint with acrylic or gouache: Note that outside, the colors on the palette dry very quickly – sometimes even when mixing! Before you paint your first plein air motif, I strongly recommend that you test it outdoors to see what effect wind and sun have!

It’s best to ask your dealer about options such as drying retarders, water atomizers or wet palettes.

Paint palette

Staining agents (for oil paints)
There are an incredible number of painting agents: they all change the properties of oil paint. They make it dry faster or slower, dilute it, make it smoother or more pasty. Except for the oils, they are all (sometimes more, sometimes less) harmful to health and most of them smell very strong.

I use only thinner (for the very first application of paint, which thus dries quickly and is paintable, and to clean the brush during painting) and oil (very rarely and then only very little to make the paint more supple if necessary).

Nothing else.

But it smells very strong, which I find unpleasant even outside. If possible, do not use white spirit or turpentine or the like. They are very harmful to your health!

I have also tested the odorless Green for Oil thinner from Sennelier: for me personally it dries too slowly in the first paint application.

As a further painting medium I use purified linseed oil or linseed oil.