Getting started with Plein Air Painting

Getting started

What are your objectives?

Having an idea about what you want to achieve goes a long way to helping you on the correct path. For example if you want to produce several finished works to sell then you need to have your preparation in good shape. If you are looking for a few quick preparatory studies that may go on to become studio works then you will need only a basic kit. All these approaches are valid as they fall within the concept of painting from a real and authentic subject.

This guide is for someone looking to paint
outdoors for pleasure. You would also like to complete at least one painting with a few sketches and studies for later work in the studio. Learn more about the benefits of plein air painting on my plein air page, http: //

Is it worth the trouble?Besides the pleasure elements suggested above there are significant benefits for the artist.

Besides the pleasure elements suggested above there are significant benefits for the artist.
Notes from the field become part of an ongoing experience in here each painting contributes in some way to the next. (Gavin Brooks)

  • Colors outdoors are different when photographed. Personal observation trains the artist’s eye to take note of accurate colors.
  • Picking out composition when facing the vast panorama is daunting at first. The artist quickly learns techniques to isolate strong compositions.
  • Selection of elements necessary for composition and disregarding others will develop the artist’s eye.
  • The ability to observe shadow areas filled with life rather than underexposed darks in photos is an added benefit.
  • You will learn how to simplify a scene.
  • Identify shapes and values better.
  • Learn to mix colors from a limited palette of colors.
  • You will learn all these skills under the pressure of time and the changing weather that this implies.

Basic Equipment

Essentials include:

Paint: a smaller palette makes outdoors work more intuitive than fiddling with many tube colors.

Try titanium white, cad red light, cad yellow light and ultramarine blue. Add to this alizarin and pthalo green. If you prefer the luxury of more colors then burnt sienna may make your life easier.

There is no need for more than this.

Brushes: a selection of size 6-8 of flats and filberts ivill do the trick. Keep your painting surface to approximately 20cm x 25cm. Bigger surfaces? Then a size 10 or 12 will be handy for laying in larger shapes. Bristle or finer hair is all good. Add a rigger for a few details like branches, telephone wires and such. It is also useful to draw your initial shapes if you are so inclined.

Add a palette knife that is flexible enough to paint with too.


To save space I am happy to have basic odorless white spirits. Get best quality – it does make all the difference. You may wish to add a little premixed medium like linseed oil mixed with spirits to aid with initial lay in of colors with thin layers. A ratio of fifty/fifty will be suitable. Also a medium to speed drying such a Liquin may be helpful. You can get by with just the white spirits.


These make life outdoors so much easier. A few plastic containers that have reliable screw on lids will help to hold the white spirits. A second container for any other medium will do. A plastic bag for trash is necessary. A plastic brush container will keep your brushes out of harm during transportation. No bent bristles please!A container to

A container to cany you art supplies is essential. A well designed tool box is cheaper than a fancy wooden paint box and may have more options too. Make sure the container is big enough to take you equipment. If you want your bottle of artist spirits to stand upright then make sure the box is tall enough.

Backpack: I prefer to stow all this kit into a backpack. If you prefer get one with wheels.
Figuj’e 2 Backpack can carry most itemsEasels


There are many options out there and it depends on your style of painting and how long you spend

There are many options out there and it depends on your style of painting and how long you spend plein air painting. If you intend to only paint outdoors for short periods then spending big on a French easel may not be necessary. In this case a lightweight aluminum field easel may be fine for you. I have one of these and it is great for when I have limited space for materials. It folds down to a small size and is cheap. I also have a French easel which sometimes doubles as a studio easel when I need this. The french easel can accommodate a large palette and this is handy when I need more space for mixing. On the downside it is heavy and I would not want to hike to a distant spot with this easel.

Screenshot_4Figure 3 French Easel

Another nifty7 option for quick work is a pochade box. This is a box that opens up to reveal a place for your panel and a small space below for a palette. It is small enough to perch on your lap or can fitted onto a tripod with a special adapter. I made a pochade box out of a small wooden paint box by taking out the partitions and fitting a cabinet hinge on the side. A couple of brackets hold the panel in place inside the lid while the bottom of the box acts as a palette. I can close the box leaving my paints still in the box and they will be fine until I get back to the studio and scrape them out. I enjoy the pocahde box for its convenience.


Figure 4 : Pochade Box on Tripod

Wet Panel Carrier


Figure 5 Wet Panel Carrier

The unsung hero of plein air painting. What could be worse than painting a few panels then trying to get them home without smudging or destroying the wet paint?. The panel carrier comes in various sizes. You can slot the panels in and close the box thereby making safe transport possible.
There are many types of wooden carriers, but they can be expensive. Other options include plastic and even cardboard ones that provide temporary solutions. Of course if you are handy with woodwork you can make a basic carrier. I have made a few myself that work well for temporary purposes. If you are traveling overseas for instance it would pay to get a sturdy box.

Paper Towel and Rags

Another humble hero to the oil painter. Paper towels (or loo rolls if you run out) are essential to clean off your brush in a hurry and soak up spirits to dry your brush after cleaning. A rag will help to wipe a spill or wipe your painting panel.

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