Jessica Lanan
Tools for Plein Air

The term “plein air” basically means “outdoor.” I have seen this term used on packages of eggs in France in the same way that we might see “free range” used in the U.S., so perhaps a translation of "plein air artist" could be "a "free range artist": like the chickens, we're tired of being cooped up in the studio and are ready to head out into the great outdoors.

I've been painting and sketching outside for many years; a travel sketchbook is how I began to do watercolor in the first place.I was hesitant at first to draw and paint in front of people, but I seem to care less and less as the years go by. (Plus, I've discovered that hardly anyone is paying attention.) With the right mindset, interacting with the community through art can be the best part of the experience.

In case you're interested in doing more plein air painting or sketching yourself, I've compiled a list of the materials and equipment that I use most often. This list is by no means official and is likely to change at a moment's notice, but I hope it will help you find a starting point for your artistic adventures.

My Everyday Sketch Kit

  • Bag. mine is homemade, but any old bag would do.
  • Sketchbook. I use a 5x8" Pentalic or Moleskine etc.
  • Watercolor brush pens (so I don't need a cup of water)
  • Mini watercolor palette. Just a few colors will do. I only use nontoxic pigments for plein air sketching and painting.
  • Various pens, pencils and erasers. Mechanical when I want to avoid shavings.
  • Rag. A scrap of bandanna is a good size.
  • A white candle for masking and adding texture.

My Watercolor Plein Air Kit

  • Backpack that can fit the stuff. I use an old military one because it's very wide.
  • Some kind of easel. I have one from here.
  • Lightweight tripod.
  • This bag which folds flat and can be filled with water.
  • Watercolor palette set up with pigments.
  • Water. (Sounds obvious, but don't forget it!)
  • Paper. A block or a few sheets in a stiff cardboard folder.
  • Masking tape, clips or another solution to hold the paper to the easel.
  • Brushes: one large, one small. A rigger and flat if I'm being fancy.
  • Various pens, pencils and an eraser.
  • Rag (always always!)

  • Bonus Items:

  • A tube of white gouache if you're into that sort of thing.
  • A small spray bottle.
  • Umbrella with clamp to attach to tripod. (Great for dappled light. Bad for wind.)
  • Folding stool, if you don't want to stand or sit on random objects.
  • I found these brush protectors that keep larger sables safe.
  • Snacks. (Bonus? Or essential? Depends on who you ask.)
  • Hat. Sunglasses. Sunscreen. (My ancestors came from Ireland.)

My Oil Plein Air Kit

  • Backpack (same one as for watercolor.)
  • Easel. I have one of these.
  • Tripod.
  • Painting surface: canvas, board etc.
  • Oil paint. Don't forget the white!
  • Solvent in a leak-proof container. LEAK-PROOF.
  • Brushes and palette knife
  • Paper towels or rags + ziploc bag for the used ones.
  • Solution for transporting wet paintings.
  • Umbrella with clamp.
  • Nitrile gloves and apron and/or clothes I don't mind wrecking.
Sketching in Yellowstone National Park. (In retrospect, sitting on the ground was a mistake because TICKS! AAUGH!)

I prefer the lightest, simplest kit that I can get away with. Often I can sit on a rock, find a spot in the shade where I don't need the umbrella, or balance my sketchbook on my knee and make do without an easel. I've managed in many environments: amongst cows at the stock show, at the airport with children crawling on me, crouched under trees hiding from the rain, etc., so please don't fret if you can't find or afford all the items. Plein air is about observing the world and having memorable experiences, not buying a bunch of stuff to recreate an eleaborate studio outside.

Happy sketching, chickens!

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