Plein Air Painting on the Trail – A Gear Shakedown

Inspiration strikes everywhere on the trail – on the summit of a mountain or in the depths of a canyon, in the middle of the day or when the sun is quickly setting. A painting kit that’s light enough to carry, tough enough to endure the trail and quick enough to deploy on snack breaks or when the light is fading is essential for plein air painting on the trail! Here is my set-up:

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The pochade box. I use the Guerrilla Painter 8 x 10″ Cigar Box for 80% of my work. If I need to pack light and fast I turn to the Guerrilla Painter 5 x 7″ Pocket Box. The pochade box has is a historied piece of equipment for plein air painters, used by painters and explorers since at least the 18th century. They were originally modified cigar boxes, hence the model name for the pochade box above. My favorite artist, JMW Turner, used one! It’s a studio in one. The lid serves as your easel to hold your support. The pallet slides away to access your paints, brushes and supplies. The pocket box has a handy hole in the bottom to loop your finger through and cradle it in your arm while you paint, much like a traditional painting pallette. They can be used for all mediums from pastels to oil paints, and offers additional trays for watercolors.

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Open pochade box with closed pallette.

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Storage Under Pallette

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5 x 7″ Pocket Box in Action
Lay out your paint and prep your support before you go and all you’ve gotta do is open it up and start painting! When you’re done, simply close the box and carry your painting home. The Guerrilla Painter pochade box also offers secure wet painting storage in the lid for two or more paintings (depending on the thickness of your support and how dry your paintings are). Guerrilla Painter makes pochade boxes with fairly lightweight hardware and sturdy plywood construction that keeps things tough and carry-able. My 5 x 7″ painting set up weighs only three pounds, while the 8 x 10″ clocks in around five to six pounds depending on additional supplies.

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Closed pochade box and close-up of hinge that allows for adjustable angles of the lid.
Paints, Mediums and Brushes: I favor oil paints for their extended workability, especially in arid environments. I’ve tried extended time acrylics and they still get tacky and difficult to work with fast. However, one big drawback with oil paints is solvents – unless you use water miscible/water mixable oil paints! I favor Winsor and Newton water mixable oil paints. Almost all the benefits of oils with some chemistry magic that enables you to replace solvents with simple H20. If you’ve used conventional oils you’ll notice that the working time with water-soluble oils isn’t quite as long, which can be a benefit on the trail when carrying wet panels! Winsor & Newton also stocks two mediums I love – water-mixable linseed oil for the conventional glazing and thinning purposes and water-mixable quick-dry medium to layer under painting passes to move the drying process along.

In consideration of weight, space and time I’ve kept my brush selection to a minimum, and your style and working size will determine this. I use a synthetic flat 3/4″ brush for large passes and block-ins, a 1/2″ hog bristle brush for paint-loaded and textural work, and two small brushes in round and flat for the details. I also carry a small painting knife for mixing and painting. For very light and fast trips I use only one or two brushes, and experimenting with brush techniques helps cut down the need for a wide variety by a lot!

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Standard equipment that all needs a good cleaning!
I don’t spend a lot on my brushes. Yes, I am one of ‘those artists’ who abuse and neglect their brushes. Also, a full clean-up isn’t always possible on the trail, so buying brushes that are expensive and/or need to be babied doesn’t make monetary sense.

An artist choice in paint pallette is full of infinate possibilities and can be a whole discussion to itself! Like my brushes, I keep mine limited because of weight and space consideration. I keep go-to colors on hand that I find I use time and time again and colors that make quick work of frequent elements, like skies.

Zinc White, Burnt Umber, French Ultramarine Blue, Cerulean Blue, Yellow Ochre, Lemon Yellow, and Cadmium Red Light.

  • Burnt Umber and French Ultramarine Blue can be combined in different ratios for warmer or cooler blacks and greys.
  • Cerulean Blue and French Ultramarine Blue are easy go-tos for varying hues of blue sky backgrounds.
  • French Ultramarine blue, as a glaze, is a great quick shadow for warm canyon walls, dirt trails and trees.
  • Burnt Umber can be added or glazed over any number of colors to tone down the chroma.
  • Yellow Ochre and Lemon Yellow are two extreme ends of the warm/cool spectrum, great for mixing various hues of greens, depicting cool and warm light, and using cool and warm highlights and light to depict depth.
  • Cadmium Red Light is a bright red that can be mixed with Yellow Orchre and Lemon Yellow for red canyon walls or brilliant sunrises and sunsets. As a glaze it’s a wonderful offset to prevent greens from becoming artifically bright. Combined with cerulean or ultramarine blue, it makes for great purples in shadows, rocks or sunsets!
  • Zinc White is a conventional ‘mixing white’ as opposed to the more opaque titanium white. Nothing in nature is ever really a true white color, and if I have to choose between something I can mix or something that covers, I’ll go with the flexibility of a mixable white every time.

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Just a quick set of examples for this paint selection!
This limited pallet is surprisingly flexible and easy to work with to get a range of nature’s amazing colors and light.

Supports and How to Paint on Them: I love Guerrilla Painter’s Carton panels for two reasons: weight (notice a theme? Ounces lead to pounds and after a certain threshold, pounds lead to pain!) and color. I’ve painted on everything from gessoboard to canvas panels and I go back to these time and time again. Carton panels are cardstock treated with sizing that hold up spectacularly even to thick impasto techniques while staying lightweight. They also save some time by not having to tone the surface before I start painting. Their thinness means they are a little more delicate than traditional canvas panels, but they also look awesome in a minimalist way mounted on cradled basswood supports for hanging once you get home! Because they’re so thin they’re very flexible, and not in the fun, springy give of traditional stretched canvas. I get around this by carrying one wood panel that I clip them to.

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Plain Carton Panel at an angle to show thinness.

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5 x 7″ Painting mounted on cradled basswood
If I want to paint in portrait mode or do really gestural painting, I’ve rigged up an easel that takes the panel out of the pochade box lid. The shelf is made from lightweight tiling edging from Home Depot cut down to fit the lid and spaced to hook into the stays in the pochade box lid. I hook a mini bungee around the lid and to the mini bulldog clips on either side of the panel holding it to the wood panel I use for support. Viola – lightweight, barely takes up any room, and super functional easel option! It stores right in the pochade box with everything else. Bonus: I can paint larger by carrying the supports and accompanying wood panel in a wet panel carrier.

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Painting in DIY easel made from Tiling Ledge, Clips and Bungee.

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Tiling ledge slipped onto stays in pochade box lid.

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Tiling ledge/clip/bungee set-up on my 5 x 7″ pochade box.
Wet Panel Carrier: More than two paintings with heavy impasto work need a little extra protection on the trail. Larger supports need a way of being packed in and out too! There are many types of wet panel carriers, but they’re often heavy, bulky, wooden things or meant for stretched canvasses and carry only one or two panels. Guerrilla Painter sells a cardboard wet panel carrier called the “Handy Porter” in various sizes that’s sturdy enough with some tape reinforcement, light enough to carry strapped outside of my pack and can store four panels comfortably, more with spacers! They’re an excellent option for extended backpacking trips. Rain? Doesn’t matter with a dry bag!

Tripod: I barely use one, but it’s a nice luxury to have to paint from a standing perspective or if sitting on the ground or a rock just isn’t your thing. Guerrilla Painter sells a tripod mount that can attach to smaller pochade boxes and some models come with the tripod mount already installed. Mine is a simple, old aluminum thing that works well enough and is light enough to strap to the outside of my pack.

Miscellanious supplies – don’t skip this part!

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Business cards: I got some mini cards printed at Moo.com, and they have a sturdy little case to keep them nice and paint-free. I’ve handed out quite a few to curious hikers on the trail. Doesn’t hurt to have some.

Wet wipes: Painting can be a messy endeavor and washing your hands in the river IS NOT AN OPTION! Neither is wiping them on a tree. Or digging into trail mix with paint-smeared hands! Believe it or not I’ve seen some real violations of Leave No Trace by painters capturing the beauty of the land and it is not cool. I’ve read about artists who wipe their brushes ON ROCKS AND TREES! So uncool! Paint is just as toxic to the environment as it is to you, and wet wipes that can be packed out are your best friend. A dedicated, dampened bandanna is also a good choice for post-painting cleanup.

Rags: For brush cleaning. Paper towels suck for hiking or backpacking while plein air painting. Their cleaning to packing-out ratio is abysmal. Some cotton rags hold up well, soak up tons of paint and water, and can be dried overnight for use the next day.

Atomizer Water Spray Bottle: Creates a fine mist of water to wet down the support for that initial lean pass of paint.

Paint Brush Washer: A little one goes a long way. I use the Guerrilla Painter Mighty Mite Jr paintbrush washer. It has a grill that’s great for scrubbing off extra paint and allows the pigment particles to settle, which makes your water last longer. I was  surprised how far even muddy-looking brushwashing water can go!

Ziplock Bag and ‘Water Rag’: Just like washing your hands in the river is not an option, neither is scattering or burrying dirty paint water. It’s a contaminant that needs to be packed out, unlike dishwashing water that’s biodegradable and nontoxic. When your paintbrush washing water gets a little too muddy for cleaning, you can dump it in a quart size ziplock storage bag with a rag to soak it up until it’s ready to be thrown out. The rag can be dried and reused. Keeping the amount of water you use small helps. Honestly I’ve gone on trips where I painted every day and only had to use this technique by day three.

Multitool: My advice? Get one with a plier and tweezers, like the Gerber Dime. Not only is it an essential on the trail, but the pliers are handy when the bolts of the pochade box get loose. Tweezers are so helpful to pick out dirt, leaves and other trail debris that often find their way onto your painting, including unfortunate insects.


So concludes the end of my plein air painting gear shakedown! I use a lot of Guerrilla Painter’s supplies not because I’m being paid to, but because they simply work. Stay tuned for part two, where I cover environmentally-friendly, Leave No Trace on-trail painting practices.

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2 Comments

  1. Awesome informative post, Sam. I learned some cool tricks, and as usual, the work is stellar.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Awesome! Thank you so much Mark! ❤

      Like

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