Surfaces to paint on
There are as many different surfaces to paint on as there are different factors for you to consider when choosing a surface. For me it comes down to how it feels while I lay the brush on to the surface when applying paint.
My preferred surface is oil-primed linen mounted to hardboard. I like the slickness of oil priming, and linen has just enough fine detail that you’re not slipping around with it.
Please refer to this chart to see the pros and cons of using each surface:
Much like surfaces, there are so many different paints to use and everyone likes different paints for various reasons. As of this writing, I have been using Lukas 1862 Oils almost exclusively in my plein air setup. I enjoy the balance between the firmness of the paint and the oiliness.
I would recommend almost every professional paint supplier’s oil paints. Gamblin gets high marks, as does Utrecht. I might stay away from the low-end stuff like Georgian oil colors because of their lack of pigment load. I would probably stay away at first from the high-end paints such as Old Holland because you will be going through a lot of paint, and you can’t be worrying about the cost while painting outdoors.
I like to arrange my palette in a rainbow with my white in the center, and relative warms to the left and cools to the right, with browns to the right of the cools.
(Stay away from paint that has zinc if you want your paintings to last, it becomes brittle quickly)
Left of White:
Cobalt Violet Hue
Right of White:
Manganese Blue Hue
Green Gold (M. Graham company)
Aside from the easel, brushes might be the most personal of all the different tools a plein air painter uses, so aside from what I recommend here, you should try and find the brushes that work best for you. This is simply a starting point.
I recommend a large flat bristle brush, such as Trekell’s 400F #10 brush or bigger. This will be the best way to fill in large areas with color. I would also recommend a large filbert like Trekell’s 400MKF #8 for a mix of large coverage and some general medium shapes. I also recommend two medium flat brushes, two medium filberts, and two of each flat and filbert brushes. Rounds are optional; I don’t use them a lot, but a soft round brush is good for signing your painting.
You can start with all hog bristle brushes, and they will serve you well. As you learn to paint more, you can venture into all the various brush hair types. Mongoose-hair brushes are softer than hog bristle but they can hold their shapes well. The way the hairs splay can make interesting marks that can be useful for foliage. There are softer and softer brushes that you can try as well, but I don’t use them in the field too much other than very sparingly if I need to do soft blends.
There are a lot of different plein air easels on the market. I can’t say that I’ve personally tried them all, but I have seen most of them out in the field and talked with my peers about what they like and don’t like about them. I will break them down into the main styles instead and talk about the pro’s and con’s, and whether or not I recommend them.
Pros: It’s an all-in-one option. You can theoretically fit everything inside the box compartment, which could be customized with separators inside of the box.
Cons: If you do put everything inside the box, it can get heavy. They are unwieldy. Most of them only have a small hand-strap to carry them with. If you decide to hike with one, good luck carrying that thing around. The set-up and take-down is cumbersome and takes a lot of time. So many small parts that can easily fall off and be lost. Not always very sturdy; every French easel I’ve ever tried has a wobble to it, which worsens over time and use. When time is of the essence, you don’t want to struggle with the setup of your easel.
Would I recommend? NO. Too many drawbacks, and the positives can be either replicated or replaced with other options.
Tripod Field Easel
Pros: Can be lightweight depending on its construction, and easy to set up. The Gloucester easel is built to handle large works outdoors without toppling over or losing the canvas. Can handle many sizes.
Cons: They do have a large footprint, meaning that you need a lot of space to spread the legs out in order to set the easel up. The Beauport, the most popular Gloucester-style easel, takes some modification to be effective.
Would I recommend? Yes, depending on your needs. It’s not the most versatile so I wouldn’t make it my only easel. It can be one of the best options for handling large works outdoors.
Guerilla Pochade box
Pros: Very sturdy. Usually pretty portable. You can carry most of your tools and your painting inside the box itself.
Cons: You need an extra separate tripod to mount it to. Once you do, it’s very top-heavy. So you need a sturdy tripod, which will weigh you down. You are VERY limited in the sizes you can use with the box, which is a consequence of the way it holds panels. Also, in order to add more space to keep things at the ready, you have to buy a bunch of expensive add-ons. Also, the box design makes it hard to paint in certain areas of your canvas.
Would I recommend? Absolutely NOT. This is in fact one of the worst options out there. It’s limited in ability, and way heavier than it should be. I would stay far away.
Open Box M
Pros: Easily portable, relatively lightweight, palette near the painting while in use, durable, suitable for a wide variety of different sizes.
Cons: Needs an additional tripod with a sturdy ball head, somewhat expensive.
Would I recommend? Yes. This is one of the most popular options out there for good reason. Very few complaints I’ve ever heard from this setup.
Pros: An improvement on the french easel style. Has all the pro’s of a french easel but less of the drawbacks.
Cons: I’ve heard of the legs wearing out and not staying in place after a while. Doesn’t happen with every one, but I’ve heard it happen enough to be a little weary. I’ve heard they are expensive as well.
Would I recommend? Yes, if the other options don’t appeal enough to you.
Pros: Very durable, not a lot of moving parts to wear out, and can fit a decent amount of different panel sizes.
Cons: They are fairly expensive. Even the least expensive option on their website comes out to $245 and that’s not including the tripod you will need, or any accessories. Being metal, they are on the heavy side compared to other boxes. The lip on the box might get in the way of reaching certain areas on the palette.
Would I recommend? Yes. They are very well-constructed and will last a long time. Good one to start with if you go with the Micro.
Pros: Lightweight, very versatile in the sizes they can carry. Very popular for DIY projects. Many different manufacturers to choose from. The wet painting can be carried while secured to the post, as I often have before.
Cons: Needs a sturdy tripod for the post not to wobble. The connection of the post to the tripod is the weak point of the setup. The clamshell setup of the palette needs to be bungeed in the wind, or else it will tend to close up on you. Like many of the other options, you need a panel carrier to carry your wet paintings completely securely.
Would I recommend? Yes. This is my preferred setup for plein air painting. I like having the option for any size of panel, depending on the size of the post. I also like having the palette low and close to my lap while I paint.
Other relevant materials
The real options here are odorless minerals spirits(OMS) or turpentine. Some people love turpentine but I personally can’t really deal with it; I find the smell entirely too strong. You may hear any type of solvent referred to as “turp” or “turps” even if they are referring to OMS. My personal favorite is Gamsol, which is a type of OMS. It is the least toxic and most odor-free. Although any solvent should be used in moderation and with good ventilation. Fortunately, working outdoors mitigates this issue to a high degree.
I keep it in a double-cup palette cup on my easel box along with my medium.
Oil paints can be supplemented with a variety of mediums to customize the feel of the paint while you’re working and to affect the finish of the paint after it dries. I use a few different mediums in order to make my paint flow easier across my canvas.
The most basic one is linseed oil. It’s the most popular oil that pigments are mixed into in order to create oil paint. It’s a perfectly fine medium to use but it’s pretty basic. Most companies make modified versions of linseed oil, such as stand oil, sun-thickened, etc. There are so many different mediums so I’ll just talk about the mediums I prefer to use.
I like to use M. Graham’s walnut alkyd, or Natural Pigments’ pale drying oil. The walnut alkyd dries very glossy and speeds up drying time by a significant amount. Most paintings will be at least tacky in a day. The pale drying oil’s effect is much less significant, but it has a longer working time before the paint starts to settle up. Alkyd is a great medium for working in environments where drying time is very slow due to the cold or lack of sun.
A palette knife is a wonderfully versatile tool. You can use it to clean your palette, mix piles of paint, gather and move paint on the palette, apply paint to the canvas in a unique way, and scrape paint off from your canvas. There are even more uses for them but you can discover them for yourself.
I like having a long spade and a shorter spade in my plein air kit. There are a number of different sizes and shapes for them, so take a look at them and see if there are some you prefer to try. I like the spades because they are the most versatile in my view, but I also like the angled trowel shapes.
I use a glass scraper that you can get from any hardware store to keep my palette clean after I’m done painting. It holds a razor blade you can replace if it gets dull or gunked up. They are super cheap if you lose it, too.
Squeegee tools, straight-edge
I sometimes use silicone scrapers for all sorts of unique effects while painting. These are totally optional but they add an extra effect to your arsenal. They are also excellent for erasing paint off of your canvas, if you either make a mistake or are employing a lift-off technique.
You’ll need some sort of material to clean your brushes off with while painting. Most things will work in a pinch, but having quality materials at the ready will make cleaning your brushes so much easier. It’s really important to have a clean brush when you want one.
I mainly use old cotton t-shirts, shop towels, or Viva paper cloth towels. I cut up old t-shirts to about 8-inch squares so that I can grab and hold them easily. They last a really long time before I have to throw them away, but they do get stiff and crusty after drying. I then dispose of them properly.
I like a paper towel that is sturdy enough to handle solvents and oil, so that’s why I like those blue shop towels you can get at hardware stores. They are meant to handle messes in garages so they are a great option for oil painters.
Viva paper towels are also good because they are thicker and behave more like cloth than your average paper towel roll. A roll can last a long time too. Aside from recycling your old undershirts, they are probably the most economical option for cleaning your brushes while out in the field.
A carrying bag
An often overlooked consideration is the actual method in how you will carry your supplies into the field. A backpack is by far the most popular method, but there are many other ways. If you go the most popular route, make sure to invest in a bag that can not only carry everything you need, but is ergonomically comfortable and sturdy.
Tactical bags can work well because they have so many different compartments that you can organize your supplies inside of, and they are built to last in strenuous conditions. Bags meant for backpacking are also great because they are meant to carry things efficiently over long periods of time in a lightweight manner.
Whichever you choose, consider its ability to hold your box, brushes, tripod, towels/rags, and any other tools you might need. It’s tough to know if you order it online, so perhaps try finding something in-person so you get a good idea if it can handle your needs or not.