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Organizing Your Plein Air Gear


Simplifying the Process
Organizing your gear to make the most of your time in the field

Painting on location is a demanding activity that requires lots of concentration, forcing the artist to devote maximum intellectual resources to the task. For this reason, it makes sense that he or she eliminates any unnecessary distractions that can be controlled easily.

Besides all of the weather-related problems like heat, cold and unrelenting bugs, one of the main distractions out in the field is being disorganized. I often tell my students that, “Organizing your painting gear is half the battle.” Think about how much working time you actually have to tackle a plein air landscape — typically one and a half to two hours due to changing shadows. That doesn’t give you much time to fiddle around searching for tools. How much time do you think you waste just doing things like bending down to grab a brush, finding a roll of paper towels or searching for your paint thinner? It’s easy to see that some of your time would be much better spent thinking about the subject and engaging in the process of painting rather than spinning your wheels on cumbersome, time-consuming activities.

So what are you going to do about it? It may be high time to conduct a re- assessment of your procedures and plan accordingly. Where to start? Well, one thing is for sure, the field is no place to organize your gear and working methods. I’ve heard musicians say, “Never practice on stage” and the same is true when facing a blank canvas out in nature; that’s when you need to swing into action. May I suggest that you devote one evening in your studio or living room to a major reorganization of your gear and working method? This is really not as painful as it may sound and the time invested will surely pay big returns when the art spirit hits out in the rhubarb.

I remember an incident last March, when I was headed up Big Cottonwood Canyon, bringing dessert to a bunch of scouts on a snow camp. As I was driving, I noticed a spot on Cottonwood Creek that had just the right look to make a great study. Since I had my painting gear in the car, I quickly pulled over to the side of the road and executed a quick little painting on the spot before the light had a chance to change and the effect was lost. This would not have been possible had I not wrestled with the important procedural problems long before that moment arrived. And the scouts might not have gotten their dessert.

If you are ready to make the organizational plunge, the best way to start is to set up your equipment exactly the way you do out in nature as a dress rehearsal just like an actor would prepare for a part in a movie or play. The most important thing to be aware of is the accessibility of your tools. Try answering these questions:

  • How easy is it for you to get to your brushes, paper towels, paint thinner, medium, colors, palette knives and trash bag.
  • Whether you are sitting or standing, is your panel at a good level for your eyes? Is your panel securely attached to the easel so that it doesn’t move in the wind or when applying paint.
  • If using a stretched canvas, how are you going to keep the sun from shining through the back and creating an annoying glow on the work? (That is one of the reasons why most plein air painters opt for a solid panel.)

Other concerns in the field might be obstacles in the way that might impede the brush from making an expressive stroke? I have seen some outdoor painting set-ups that look good, but are designed in such a way that the artist has to contort their arm to get to the bottom of the painting support or even to mix colors on the palette. Ease of movement saves on a lot of frustration when working in the field!

When taken as a whole, these problems become major stumbling blocks in creating works of art and are sure to spell disaster if not dealt with before the big moment arrives. You can easily cut off a half hour or more by having things organized in a workable format that doesn’t change each time you paint. Just remember that however you set up your gear, try to keep your hands free so that you can grab your tools without the need to search or bend down. Also remember to keep your palette and canvas secure so you can concentrate on the important elements of the process like, drawing, color, value, edges and brushwork!

In each of the accompanying photos I’ve given examples of how I organize my outdoor gear.

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UTAH’S ART MAGAZINE SINCE 2001, 15 Bytes is published by Artists of Utah, a 501 (c) 3 non-profit organization headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah.

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