If anyone reading this blog is curious on how to start plein air painting and/or painting with a knife, I thought I’d share some tips I’ve gathered since I took it up. If you’ve never attempted plein air painting, I hope these entries will give you information and inspiration to start. If you have done plein air painting, I welcome any comments or feedback on your experience that you’d like to share. The tips will concentrate with painting in oil or acrylic paints.

Since they’ll be your most expensive investment, I’ll start with easels. When going out to paint outside, you want to use an easel that’s easy to carry, easy to set up, and, most importantly, easy to take down. You never know if Mother Nature will force you to stop painting and head quickly for shelter. Your easel should be sturdy. It should be able to easily accommodate your favorite sizes of panels or canvases that you like to work with. It should have an area to accommodate a palette with paint. It should be easily adjustable so your painting surface stays level and easy to reach, whether you like to stand or sit while you paint.

Perhaps the easiest type of easel to find in an art supply store is the French easel. They’re like mini wooden suitcases with legs. They can sometimes allow the artist to transport one or two wet canvases when you’re done. The main area often has room to carry your paints, knives, and other materials. The outside section has handles that allow you to carry it like a suitcase, and sometimes come with straps that allow you to wear it like a backpack.

Hard at work on painting, using my bulky French easel. Photo taken by artist Sharon Ross Cullen.

The biggest disadvantage, however, of the French easel is its weight. Mine weighs around 13 lbs. when it’s empty and a lot more when I fill it with supplies, which makes it difficult to carry for a long distance. When I’m in the mood to hike a mile or more for a beautiful location, I find it an unpleasant experience to lug this wooden thing. It’s also not that quick and easy to set up or take down.

You can get a cheap version for a little less than $100 on sale.  I’ve read many accounts of how the cheap versions break down easily. They say, if you’re going the French Easel route to make sure you get a Jullian brand. They’ll cost a lot more, but may break less often.

That may be so, but I bought the Dick Blick version on sale, and it hasn’t broken for me yet, aside from a screw— and that was just an easy replacement at my local hardware store. In fact, I bought a dozen spare screws and wingnuts for them, and keep them in the easel’s main compartment just in case. Because of its reasonable price, it was my first plein air easel for 3 or so years. After painting alongside plein air painting veterans, I noticed they used lighter, more professional setups.

A lot of those artists swear by their Soltek. It looks like a lighter, smaller aluminum version of a French easel. It has the legs attached to a small compartment. The compartment is where you store your palette and paints. You carry most of your supplies in a separate bag. It’s seems quick and easy to set up and take down, but I’ve read reviews of how the legs can sometimes give trouble if you get sand or dirt in them. I’ve never worked with one, so I have no strong opinion on it either way.

Most artists like to use a pochade box that affixes to a tripod. I’ve read terrific things about Open M, Alla Prima, and Strada versions of poached boxes. Guerilla Boxes look sturdy, but they also look too heavy. The pochade box usually has a metal plate on the bottom that clamps easily onto a typical photographer’s tripod. The inside of the box carries the paints and supplies, and/or a palette on the bottom for mixing your paint.

My lightweight, easy to use EasyL Pro pochade box with tripod ready for me to paint on it on a beautiful winter day at the tip of the MIssion Peninsula, MI.

The one I settled on was the EasyL Pro. It’s very lightweight, reasonably priced and even comes with a tripod, which attached to the metal plate installed onto the pochade itself. The EasyL Pro allows me to carry two 11” x 14” wet panels on its side. It doesn’t have as much room as my French easel for supplies, but it’s so lightweight, I don’t mind carrying the rest of what I need in a backback. The bottom wood surface in the inside can be used for a palette, or you can glue a piece of glass inside of it with caulk. I use a separate board for my palette. The only criticism I have is that the tripod that came with the pochade box is too large to fit in my backpack. I’m thinking of buying a good tripod in the future that folds down small enough for the backpack.

There are many other brands of plein air easels and pochade boxes, and I highly recommend you search reviews about the different types. Figure what’s most important to you in terms of features. If you don’t like to paint large, don’t buy the largest version out there. There are lots of great pochades that can fit, along with your paints and supplies, in a basic backback. Talk about easy to transport! (I can’t emphasize enough the importance of packing as light as you can.)

If you’re ready to commit to plein air painting, buy the best you can afford. If you’re wary of the investment because you’re not sure plein air painting will be your thing, some artists have built their own painting systems with wooden cigar boxes or even pizza boxes. With YouTube and Google, there’s no excuse on obtaining a good easel that works for your needs or budget.

If you have any questions or comments, please let me know in the comments section and I’ll address them in a future blog. Next time, I talk about painting surfaces.