The Artworks In Progress Plein Air Guide

         The Artworks In Progress Sessions Studio & Gallery organizes Plein Air (outdoor) painting sessions in and around the town of Locke on a regular schedule. Our current plein air painting schedule, fees and contact information are found on our website ( Please call ahead to make a reservation. Artists of all levels of experience are welcome to join the group on any of our regular ‘paint-outs.’ Please bring your paints and join us. We hope you will become a regular.

Mary, 12, draws famous "Al the Wops" in detail.

         If you are new to the ‘plein air’ scene, you are in for a wonderful experience. The following may help you make the most of your painting adventure.


         Every artist will quickly find the equipment that works best for them. Many have even ‘invented’ their own little gadgets to make painting in the wonderful outdoors easier. If you are new to plein air painting, this list of ‘essentials’ will get you started. You will quickly add and modify it as you gain a little experience.

         An essential tool for plotting out thumbnail compositions for your painting as well as for practicing the perspective lines and other details before roughing them onto your canvas or watercolor paper.

Painting Surface
         There are many schools of thought and preferences vary by artist on the choice of 2-D materials. Most oil painters use pre-stretched canvases, canvas board or tempered and primed wood panels. Watercolorists use paper blocks (nice, but expensive). A good quality watercolor paper, soaked, then gum paper-taped to a wood panel and allowed to shrink to size to prevent wrinkling as you paint it, is another way to go, and it's less costly.


Oil Painters
         A simple “A” Frame Easel will work fine and may be the best choice for the first few trips. They are usually very inexpensive, have adjustable legs for uneven ground, and collapse into an easy to carry bundle. Some even have carrying cases with shoulder straps. The price range is from $25 to $60.

         The French Easel is an absolutely ingenious example of functional design, and it is the essential piece of gear for plein air painting in oil. It collapses into a briefcase sized box for easy carrying. It will serve as your easel, of course, but it will also carry your brushes, palette, tubes of paint, screwdriver, pliers, and, on the way back, carry your wet canvas. There are several types, but they generally fall into either full or half box varieties. It’s a matter of personal preference. The full box will carry more supplies, the half box is lighter and a little easier to lug around. Around $75 to $150.

         Pochade Boxes and variations on the theme are very popular with plein air painters of all mediums. They are made expressly for outdoor painting and are small, lightweight and self contained. These function somewhat like a French easel but are made to hold and carry small to medium sized canvas panels or illustration board rather than stretched canvas. They are more expensive than the average French Easel when the required camera tripod is added. The cost is from $200 to $400 complete.

Water Media and Pastel
         Water media painters especially can do without an easel, using a watercolor block, pad, or sketch board held on the lap or propped on a rock. There are also a variety of collapsible lightweight metal easels made with the watercolor painter in mind.

All Mediums
         It’s not necessary to spend a lot of money to get started. A Camera Tripod can do double duty as an easel by clamping or otherwise securing a drawing board to it. A drawing board intended to hold a sketch pad with clamps will work for every medium. The clamps will even hold a stretched canvas. The whole thing can then be propped up on a chair or rock.

         Most plein air oil painters find a covered palette of some type useful. This allows the colors to be squeezed out before heading into the field and makes carrying the palette less messy after the day of painting. (Masterson makes one that works well.) Actually, the wooden palette that came with your French Easel will work fine, and it can be prepared ahead of time and stored wet in the easel if you are careful.

Containers for Turps and Medium
         There are special spill proof containers available, but it’s not necessary to spend a lot of money, at least in the beginning. Glass containers and jars work, but they are risky for obvious reasons and probably should be a last resort. Palette cups with caps are good solutions, and carrying a small can of turp and a 1 lb coffee can will work for brush cleaning. A funnel will allow the used turps to be poured back into the original can for traveling.

         Water media painters can simply use a canteen and small coffee can or a plastic bottle with lid.

Paper Towels or Rags
         A roll of paper towels will be invaluable for clean-up, brush wipes and accidents. Be sure to also bring a bag for disposal. Plastic grocery bags work well.

         You will be outside for several hours at a time. The weather can change; the cool morning can turn into a hot afternoon. Layered clothing is a good choice.

         A cap is important. The classic Vincent Van Gogh straw hat is perfect, but anything with a brim will protect you from hours in the sun. Even a baseball cap is better than nothing.


         Finding the shade of an old oak tree is ideal, but unfortunately not always possible. An umbrella can be nice to have on those hot sunny days. There are special umbrellas made for plein air painting that clamp directly to your French Easel.

         Many plein air painters use a camera to capture the scene they are about to paint. Back in the studio, the photos serve as a reference to finish the painting or to begin a new work based on the plein air painting.

Insect Repellent and Sun Block
         Ok, so not everything about painting outside is wonderful.

Baby Wipes
         Great little items for cleaning oil paint off hands, clothing and car seats.

         Always bring water. Coffee or other refreshments are welcome, too. If you plan to be in the field long enough to complete a painting, bring along a sandwich or snack.

Chair or Stool
         Standing for several hours can be tough on the legs. Collapsible, lightweight chairs and stools can be found at department and outdoor stores.


         In addition to the right equipment, there are a few ‘tips’ that will make your outdoor group painting experience the best it can be.

         Be aware of where you set up. A spot in the shade right now might be in the blazing sun in an hour. Try to figure out how the sun will move as you are setting up.

         Be comfortable. The view from the edge of the cliff might be spectacular, but can you hang on for three hours? Find a spot that will not test your physical stamina.

         Respect private property. It’s Murphy’s Law that the best view of a subject is always just on the other side of the fence, but resist the urge to climb over.

         Never leave behind evidence of your visit. Take everything out that you took in: oily paper towels, coffee cups, and your purse.

         Bring your own equipment. We all run out of the one color we need just when we need it the most. When that happens, friends in the group are always there to help, but don’t expect others to supply you with the basic equipment necessary for plein air painting.

         Our gatherings are not for the purpose of individual instruction unless specifically noted on the schedule. All members of the group are there to enjoy painting outside. Of course, a natural part of that is sharing the experience, the successes, and more often than we like to admit, the failures we encounter along the way. Often at the end of the day, some of the group will line up the day’s efforts and engage in informal ‘critiques’ of each others work. Painting with the group is almost always a learning experience which is one of the strong attractions of painting with other artists. However, unless the paint-out is scheduled as a workshop or class, no instruction or guidance should be expected from the group leader or organizer.

         Remember that you will only have a couple of hours. Plan your painting accordingly. Pick a subject that can be rendered in that time. Even if your subject is simple, a large canvas may be a challenge to complete. Working a little smaller is probably a good idea for the less experienced painter. Any size up to 16” x 20” should be ok.

© Artworks In Progress