plein air paint kit

It took me many months of experimentation to settle on a field kit for painting outdoors and to take with me on vacation. Equipment choices are highly personal, and every painter has his or her unique outdoor working style and equipment requirements. I'll describe my choices to suggest the issues you may want to consider in making a kit of your own.

Design follows function: the first step is to identify your functional requirements. I wanted a kit that would pack snugly in a small size (backpacks are too big and jumble up like a purse), be light enough to carry in one hand, unpack and pack up quickly, hold all the supplies I need (including paper and even water), and be durable enough to withstand the rigors of air travel and outdoor hiking.

Paint Kit. The bag I chose is a coarse black canvas Panodia tote bag, flat and rectangular in the same dimensions as a laptop computer bag (roughly 14x12x4" when packed), available from Pearl Paint and other art retailers. The bag contains two compartments: a large main compartment that opens with a single zipper along the top (handle) side, and a second black plastic coated compartment along the side that opens as a flap zippered along three edges; stitched inside the flap are several narrow pockets for pencils or pens.

the complete field kit (unpacked)

In the main compartment I carry three or four 9"x12" watercolor blocks (the picture shows Arches rough, Winsor & Newton cold pressed, Winsor & Newton hot pressed), a paint mixing card, a color xerox of the artist's color wheel and artist's value wheel, a large viewfinder cut from a 9"x12" piece of foamcore board, and a simple white canvas brush roll, which absorbs any excess water in the brushes and bundles them firmly without pinching the tuft hairs (as with the bamboo roll carriers).

My field brush selection has shrunk over time, as field painting normally doesn't provide the time or inspiration for fussy brushstroke distinctions. Large contrasts are the key. I carry a range of 5 sable rounds (#4 to #12 in even sizes), 4 natural hair flats (1/4", 1/2", 3/4", 1"), a set of acrylic aquarelles (1/4", 1/2", 3/4") for aggressive brushwork, a rigger, a sable fan (for drybrush grass or earth textures), and an ox bristle brush (for loosening or lifting the pan pigments).

This may seem like more brushes than necessary (and for any single painting it is), but I find I have use for them all, depending on subject or style. I don't carry my best brushes in the field kit, as working with dry pan paints will wear out brushes pretty fast (the cakes act as tiny grindstones, especially the cobalt, viridian, and yellow iron oxide paints), and there is always a chance that the kit will be lost or stolen. (Unfortunately my bag, closed up, is indistinguishable from a laptop computer bag.)

Field Paint Box. After much trial and error, the paint box I settled on is the enameled metal (aluminum) folding dry pan palette cranked out somewhere by some unsung art materials sheet metal shop and sold by Rembrandt, Schmincke, Maimeri, Lukas, Blockx and Winsor & Newton (in the UK) as watercolor half or whole pan field sets.

The plein air tradition remains strong in Europe, so pan sets and metal folding palettes, which can be somewhat hard to find in the USA, are readily available through European retailers. The empty boxes are available for about $30 from Ken Bromley art supplies — look for Lightweight Metal Tin Watercolour Boxes in the Palettes section under Accessories at their online store; they also sell boxes that hold 6, 12 or 24 whole pans. Kremer Pigments in New York City sells empty metal boxes that hold 6, 12 or 24 whole pans, listed in Kremer Watercolour under Ready-Made Colours. The Rembrandt web site describes empty metal palettes in various sizes and you can email them to find out how to purchase one. Or you can buy a Schmincke, Lukas or Rembrandt watercolor sets (metal boxes prepackaged with half pan paints) and as you deplete them replace the half pans with whole pans.

Although the commercial boxes are designed to accommodate 6, 12, 18 or 24 whole pan paints (or double that number of half pan paints; the sets may be listed either way), I discovered that these paint boxes will snugly hold 8, 14, 21 or 28 Winsor & Newton whole pan paints, or the empty plastic pans sold by a few art retailers (including Kremer Pigments). (The pans from other manufacturers, including Schmincke and Rembrandt, are slightly too large.) Whole and half pans can easily be mixed in this kind of kit.

The box exterior is usually painted black, with three rows of spring metal clasps to grip whole or half pan paints. There are 4 large mixing wells on the inside of the opened lid, and a flat mixing panel hinged on the opposite side with 10 small mixing bays. The paint clasps are riveted to a metal tray that lifts out of the case, if necessary, to reveal more enameled mixing areas in the bottom of the box. You can't stomp on or drive over this kind of box, but I find that it is plenty tough enough for packing, light in weight, cleans up very well, firmly grips the pans (I hate loose pans), yet pans are easy to replace or change.

Avoid the plastic field kits, for example the miniaturized 12 color watercolor field box set from Winsor & Newton. This costs around $80 and, oops!, will warp or melt if left in the car during a hot summer day. (And I mean left in the glove compartment, not on the dashboard or seat.)

Several of my British readers have lustily recommended the super heavy brass handmade metal palettes by Craig Young. These are used exclusively and recommended by Charles Reid, and while they are pricey (up to US$420 for a 20 pan box), they appear to be sturdily made, based on traditional field box designs, enameled in exterior designer colors (racing green, dark blue, maroon and black) and interior white, and can be built to accommodate either left or right handed painters. You can contact Craig by email or by post at 23 Friars Garden, Ludlow, Shropshire UK SY8 1RX; at this writing he was running a several month backlog of orders. Winsor & Newton markets a similarly heavy enamel paint box, but I found that I didn't want or need the extra weight ... and the mechanism for holding the pans in place (a detached metal strip used as a wedge) is ineffectual and inconvenient — the strip partially covers the pan, making it harder to get the brush into the paint.

Paint Selection & Palette Design. Which brings us to paint selection. I either buy the Winsor & Newton whole pans from Ken Bromley or Jackson's Art Supplies (both in London), which seem to be the only online retailers who carry the complete whole pan range, or I make the pans myself by squeezing tube paints into empty plastic whole pans available from most art retailers, or as the W&N whole pans get depleted. This is more cost effective, and lets me use any brands of paints I want.

I also want to give special mention to the whole pan watercolors formulated by Kremer Pigments, which includes 47 traditional and modern pigments and 17 pearlescent colors formulated in a very pure gum and glycerin vehicle, without fillers or brighteners.

I have tried painting in the field with small (6 oz.) paint tubes and an Eldajon palette, which I also used to carry in my field bag, but I found the paints were messier to clean up and, if left on the palette between painting trips, dried to a hard plug that was no different from the dry pans. The tube paints are prompt to get started, though, which is a plus in unfavorable (hot, cold, crowded, precarious, uncomfortable) painting locations, make it easier to get a dense, rich color mixture, and are less wearing on brushes. You may find it makes sense to pack tubes of the few paint colors you use most often or as dense mixtures, and squeeze these out onto a palette mixing area.

Field painting is an encounter with the unexpected, so I use a broad, "colorist" palette design, shown in the palette scheme below.

my 21 paint field palette scheme

I indulge in a large (21 pan) selection of colors because this allows me a wider range of paint handling attributes (texture, transparency, staining). I also discovered that working with a more limited number of paints tends to consume time in paint mixing and water in brush rinsing in situations where both are precious resources.



This scheme translates into the paint selection shown at right. The layout follows the counterclockwise hue progression around the hue circle, with saturated pigments in two rows and the earth pigments in the third:

(left column) (1) cadmium yellow pale (PY35), (2) isoindolinone yellow (PY110), (3) cadmium orange (PO20), (4) cadmium red deep (PR108), (5) perylene maroon (PR179), (6) quinacridone magenta (PR122), (7) dioxazine violet (PV23);

(middle column) (8) green gold (PY129), chromium oxide green (), (10) phthalocyanine green BS (PG7), (11) cobalt turquoise (PG50), (12) cerulean blue (PB35), (13) phthalocyanine blue GS (PB15), (14) ultramarine blue (PB29);

(right column) (15) raw sienna (PBr7), (16) quinacridone gold (PO49), (17) burnt sienna (PBr7), (18) venetian red (PR101), (19) burnt umber (PBr7), (20) perylene black (PBk31), (21) ivory black (PBk7).

As explained below, I carry several paints in reserve to swap into the palette for specific painting problems.

Because it's unreliable to pick good mixing complements by color alone, I've matched each "cool" paint to two or more neutralizing or near neutralizing warm paints, which usually include an earth color and a saturated warm hue, and I commit to memory these color mixing relationships.

field pan mixing complements
(8) ultramarine blue — (15) raw umber, (17) *gold ochre, (18) *burnt sienna, (20) *burnt umber
(9) cobalt blue — (16) raw umber, (17) *gold ochre, (18) *burnt sienna, (20) *burnt umber
(10) phthalo blue GS — (3) *cadmium scarlet or *cadmium orange, (17) gold ochre, (19) venetian red, (20) *burnt umber
(alternate 10) prussian blue — (3) *cadmium scarlet or *cadmium orange, (18) burnt sienna, (19) venetian red
(11) cobalt turquoise — (3) *cadmium scarlet, (4) cadmium red deep, (5) perylene maroon, (19) *venetian red
(alternate 11) cerulean blue — (3) *cadmium scarlet or *cadmium orange, (19) venetian red
(12) phthalo green BS — (4) *cadmium red deep, (5) perylene maroon, (6) *quinacridone magenta
(13) perylene black — (7) manganese violet, cobalt violet deep or *dioxazine violet
(14) chromium oxide green — (7) dioxazine violet, cobalt violet deep or *manganese violet
(alternate 14) sap green hue — (7) dioxazine violet, *cobalt violet deep
* = near mixing complement

As these combinations provide both perfect grays and green, violet or warm near neutrals, and provide various contrasts in mixed texture and behavior wet in wet, I can quickly choose among a very wide range of near neutral mixtures by thinking in terms of these warm/cool pairings.

Accessories. The paint box packs inside a 7"x10" white metal butcher's tray, with some NY MOMA unpainted cedar #2 pencils, compressed charcoal pencils and carbon pencils, a palette knife, and a synthetic Pack Towl (I also carry a few regular paper towels, folded to fit), a 3"x6" flat tupperware container with lid, and an Altoids metal mint tin.

The Altoids tin is exactly large enough to hold 14 additional whole pan paints in two layers. I swap these in or out of the habitual palette for special painting subjects. These include benzimidazolone yellow (PY151), chrome titanate ochre (PBr24), cadmium orange (PO20), quinacridone violet (PV19), cobalt violet deep (PV14), manganese violet (PV16), indanthrone blue (PB60), prussian blue (PB27), cerulean blue (PB35), cobalt turquoise (PB36), phthalocyanine green YS (PG36), sap green hue (N/A), sepia hue (N/A) and indigo hue (N/A). Again, this is the "just in case" part of the kit.

One caution: don't store your paint kit in the trunk of your car for a prolonged period, especially during summer. I've found that the cobalt paints (cobalt blue, cerulean blue, cobalt turquoise and cobalt green) and most of the iron oxide ("earth") paints (especially venetian red, burnt umber and sepia hue) do not hold up well under prolonged exposure to heat — the pan paints become cracked and crumbly, and the color loses chroma.

The Tupperware container carries a pencil sharpener, a couple of small sponges, a clear plastic water spray bottle, a stainless steel penknife (for cutting papers from the blocks), a large eraser, a razor blade (for lifting and editing), and a bar of vegetable brush soap (usually not used in the field, but later in my room).

The butcher's tray can be used for mixing paints, but more often I use it as a clean surface where I can place tools and wet brushes in the field. It also helps to protect the paint kit and mint box during travel by holding them in place.

The main compartment can also hold a sketchbook to make thumbnail sketches, though I prefer to sketch directly on the block, working out the basic approach through outlining the main color areas and to define lines that separate complex detail or high contrast edges.

I don't work from an easel, and I don't understand why other watercolor painters do. I have a sturdy, convenient Stanrite aluminum tripod that works perfectly with watercolor blocks or papers prestretched or clipped to boards, and always can be set to level on rough ground; but it's just more stuff to pack on a plane trip or haul into the field, so I only use it when painting near my car.

I usually work without a chair at remote locations (unless painting at a cafe or hotel veranda). Work posture is very much an individual preference. Whenever possible I work standing, and set the block and all other equipment on a flat rock or low wall in front of me. If I must work seated, I sit on a blanket or jacket on the ground with the block resting on my knees or between my folded legs. If painting near my car, I use a small folding canvas beach chair, the low to the ground kind, that fits nicely in the trunk.

Water containers are the only missing element. In a pinch, I can fit into the kit a small plastic water bottle, about the same shape and size as a hip flask, which is just enough water for one painting. (This was a freebee from Cheap Joe's.) During travel I don't usually lack for containers: a nearby restaurant will usually lend me a coffee mug or small bowl, the convenience store sells paper bowls and plastic cups, and the hotel room is stocked with water glasses.

Painting near my car, I carry a clear plastic jar or glass dish in the trunk for use as water containers. In remote locatons, the easiest solution I've found is to carry in a six pack of those small (0.5 liter) water bottles, the kind that are made of the crackly thin crystal plastic (the colored plastic ones don't let you see the color of the water). To make a water container, I pour out some of the water and cut off the top 1/3 of the bottle with my knife. When finished, the emptied bottles crush down to a light, packable clump I can carry out in the bag.

Occasionally there is a stream or outdoor faucet nearby that makes the water unnecessary to carry ... but I don't ever use ocean water, as it is always dirty, mildy corrosive, and can damage the metal ferrule and tuft glue in the brushes, or the metal hinges and joints of the metal watercolor box.

My remedy for disturbing light is a wide brimmed felt fedora or straw hat (the kind that gardeners wear), or a nearby tree or structure. No umbrellas, please: extra clutter, extra weight, extra inconvenience, and too easily airborne in the wind.

my 21 whole pan field paint box (freshly cleaned)