Hints 'n' Tips | Visual Arts

Setting Up Outdoor Gear: 10 things to remember when painting on location

John Hughes’ easel

One of the beauties of painting on location is the excitement of being out in nature, capturing a fleeting moment that will never come again in exactly the same way.

There are days when the light is near perfect, the air is clear with the aroma of fallen leaves and the artist savors it, in a reverie of pure enjoyment. Those are the days that memories are made of. Looking back, one can get lost in the moment, re-experiencing a dream-like time when life seemed to stand still. Of course, there are those “other days,” you know, those days when the air is not so clear, the cold is bitter, or the mosquitoes are out in droves and you can’t seem to concentrate due to all of the distractions! Sure, life isn’t perfect and there are situations like these that just have to be dealt with. Preparation is usually the key. Warm clothes, rain gear, bug dope, sunscreen and a hat are the usual remedies. The main thing, as my old painting buddy Dick Heichberger jokingly used to say, is: “Plein air painting isn’t for sissies.” “That’s right pard,” I would grunt and nod. We always had good times painting in the San Bernardino mountains! Joking or not though, you do have to have a little grit to stand out there on those “other days”. For that reason, a plein air artist needs to be prepared for any situation. While we can’t change the weather and other natural obstacles, we don’t have to make the process any harder than it already is. Through years of teaching students out in the field, I have come up with a list of dos and a few don’ts to help artists make their job easier while on location. Most of these ideas were passed down to me and only a few are mine:

1- Paint with your canvas or panel in the shade. That might mean finding a convenient tree to stand under, use of an umbrella, or hiding under the hatch of your SUV; but most often I just turn my canvas away from the sun even if it means that my subject will be behind me. The reason for this is painting in direct sunlight causes you to misjudge values and you will usually come back to the studio with a painting that is keyed too dark. Be sure and wear a hat with a good brim for this.

2-Keep your brushes, palette knives and paint scraper (when working on glass) within reach, clean and ready to go.

3-Have a can of thinner that has a lid, hanging on your easel. Be sure it is big enough to do the job. There are several good ones out there that can be purchased through companies like, Utrecht and Open Box M. Also, bring some extra thinner in a fuel can to top off your main brush cleaner. These can be purchased at any camping/hiking store.

4- Fasten your palette to your easel in some way to keep it from becoming airborne on windy days. Don’t use paper palettes outdoors; they blow around and are generally a pain to work with! A wood or glass palette work best.

5-Secure a trash bag to your set-up so that it is easily within reach: large binder clips work well here. You can even clip two of them to the bottom of the bag secured to a bungee cord to keep it from flipping up on your palette.

6- Start on a clean palette and put out enough paint to do the job: a stingy palette rarely produces art worth looking at. Also, if you are going to save paint for next time, shovel the leftovers into the corner of a sandwich bag and tie it off. Keeping those dried up piles of paint on your palette might look “artsy,” but it does nothing to improve your field work. In addition, it’s a time waster, when you are forced to scrape it off out in the field, where light is fleeting and shadows change quickly.

7- Keep your mixing area in order. “Don’t throw bad paint after good.” In other words, clean the mixing area occasionally: it’s difficult to get a good painting from a lousy looking palette. What you see is what you get!

8- Have your panel securely fastened to your easel. Even the best plein air painters aren’t jugglers and would have a hard time doing anything on a panel that kept moving!

9- Have a roll of paper towels handy. I prefer a box of tissues, a habit I formed years ago after watching my paper towel roll make it to the bottom of a large hill, marking my location from the air!

10- Lastly, don’t tackle a canvas size that is larger than you can handle in the time allotted. Most plein air artists work small enough to complete a study in an hour to two hours. Seasoned painters can and do larger pieces in the field, but most often smaller is better. I suggest starting out with sizes ranging anywhere from 6×8 to 12×16. The sheer act of covering the canvas with paint will be eliminated and you will be more likely to finish the painting in one go.


John Hughes’ halfbox easel

¬†In the end, it’s all about working smart, forming good habits and being organized. When in doubt, set up your gear at home before going out, to see what it can or can’t do in the field. You’ll be glad you did.

Check out the accompanying photos to see how I set up my plein air equipment. Everything is right there where I need it. I don’t even have to think about it most of the time unless I change boxes for one reason or another.

In a future issue I will cover the different types of boxes out there for painters, their pros and cons and where to get good quality panels and brushes. Until then, enjoy the autumn light and all it has to offer.

Categories: Hints 'n' Tips | Visual Arts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.