Practical Plein Air Concept/Packing Ideas (for beginners like me )

My guess is that this has already been thoroughly covered in previous posts, but just in case there are others who don't wish to dig through the 100 plus archives on plein air painting---here we go with some ideas you are free to borrow, steal, or improve upon. 

Here are some mistakes I have already made for your benefit and mine ; )  :

Mistake#1 assuming it's too hard to pack with oils.

I paint almost exclusively with oils, but when I started plein air painting, I assumed that I needed to use acrylics since they dry so wonderfully fast.  What happened, since I'm not used to acrylics is that I ended up being frustrated with how very quickly they dried, and although I used a good brand (Golden), I am not experienced enough with that medium to keep from getting chalky colors. (highest respect to those of you who produce such rich color with acrylic, but I need to "cheat" and use oils until I'm a better painter!)

Here is how you can pack with oils and not make a palette out of your car interior: (This is for short jaunts from the car.)

--Canning jar with lid for thinner.

--Closeable container for medium.

--Easel. (folding, French, collapseable)

--Large duffle bag or canvas tote for paints, brushes, paper towels (or rags if you are a better person than I am), gloves, HAT, canvas, water and snacks

Large cardboard box to put in your car boot for your pallet and finished painting.

Mistake #2:  Not painting in the shade.

For my first outdoor painting experience, I was thrilled and elated to finally be painting and outdoors at the same time and on the same day and location as rock climbing.  My painting seemed so right.  I was sure it was my best one yet!  Then, I got home, took my painting inside and realized how very very dark it was!  Then, I realized that since I had used acrylics (again, my lack of experience, not a problem with the medium), my painting was chalky.

In the photo, you can see the tote I use, the camp chair (I had foot surgery not long before this photo, so I prefer to sit.), my french easel, which accepts a finished painting attached in place while closed. That is unnecessary when you are close to the car and are making multiple trips anyway--I usually carry the wet painting in one hand and the palette in the other.  Climbing gear optional, of course.

Mistake #3:  Forgetting about bodily needs such as water, food, safety, bathrooms or private bush (sorry, I'm a climber, so by necessity I'm not very shy about that). I once painted a river on a hot day and didn't have adequate water with me.  Although the river did have an orange cast to it, I think my thirstiness made me paint it even more gatoraid-colored.  Towards the end, I was so thirsty that I drank from the river.  

Mistake #4:  Thinking you have to drive really far to find a great inspiring view.

Have you heard the expression "Fear manufactures excuses"?  It's one of my favorite mantras for exposing the lies I tell myself.  Go ahead and tell yourself you don't have time to go driving and look for a location and so on, but the reality is that with very little effort, you can find something beautiful in your own backyard.  This will help you work out the bugs with your gear before you hit the road, too.  In addition, I have found that "paint what you know" applies.  I paint my backyard with more love and tenderness because it is my place of rest.

Mistake #5:  Chasing the Light

Ok, I still need to work on this!!!  I never realized (and I'm guessing I'm not alone in this.) How very dynamic our sun and shadows are until I tried plein air painting.  If any of you old-hands can give pointers here, please comment!  I will say it does help to take photos throughout the process both of your painting and of you subject and the area to help tweak things later in the studio.  It's disheartening to get home and see that you have 2 light sources and double shadows in your painting when you were so very sure that there was only one sun in the sky that day ; ).

Mistake # 6:  Not " Loving the one you're with. " 

Let me say first that I think the morals of that song are questionable as relating to people, BUT here is my true story about loving the LOCATION you are in.  

Once upon a time, Britt was eager on a sunny Friday to get out and paint the local biggest peak--mount Rainier.  She drove in the general direction where good views are to be found.  As she went down a dirt road, she felt God telling her that there was a wonderful painting and a person who needed it at the end of the day.  Just then, she turned a corner and saw a driveway with a stunner of a view of the mountain.  

There was a lovely meadow and sweet bushes in the foreground.  "Surely this is the location God has in mind", she thought.  She drove with joyous expectation down the long driveway to a friendly looking house with a welcome sign.  Her heart soared as she walked up to the house and rang the doorbell, sure that the person who answered would be overjoyed that an artist wanted to paint from their land! 

No answer.  It was very quiet, and it became clear to her that no one was home. " No worries", she thought there will be another great view down the road.  She left a note in the mailbox just in case, though.

Across the road was a farm with busy men and women putting up hay.  "At least someone is around" she thought.  She pulled up the long driveway and up to the lady who owned the land.  Instead of welcoming her, this lady seemed slightly annoyed and suspicious at first. Then, with a warning about busy days, dangerous machinery, and keeping  off the driveway, she reluctantly agreed for Britt to park in the shade and set up there.  Her heart sank a bit as she realized that Mt. Rainier couldn't be seen from the shade.  She told God that she was unsure about painting here.  How could a painting not carry the bad vibes of not being truly welcome?  God simply said "I know what I'm doing.  There is a person for this painting.  Set up your things."   She set up facing the farm and distant rolling hills.  Painted her usual wash on the small canvas panel, then settled in to paint the sky.  Just after about 15% of the canvas was painted sky-color, she heard a car rolling up behind her and a door opening.  "Am I really seeing what I think I'm seeing?  Are you painting this farm?  Can I buy that painting?"  The woman's voice was trembling with emotion as she fired off these questions.  At that point, Britt turned around in shock and saw a middle-aged woman with a tiny body tensed in controlled emotion walking toward her.  " You don't even know if I'm any good or if you like my style!  How can you already know you want to buy this?"

The woman waved that remark away as if it were a gnat.  "My horses are boarded here, and this place has become very special to me.  I would also like you to paint one of my horses.  I just learned that after 23 years together I may have to put her down."  Britt couldn't help but tear up as this woman was talking.  She gave her a big hug and told her about what God said to her that day on her scouting drive.

Although Britt was careful to make sure the lady didn't feel any pressure to buy the paintings, Betsy did indeed end up buying both the plein air painting and a commission of her and Star, and is planning to commission another painting of her other horse, Amigo.  Best of all, Betsy has become another Aunti to Britt who desperately needed some real family.  She did eventually hear back from the land-owners with the great view of Mount Rainier, and they gave her permission to paint there at any time, but to date she hasn't been there to do that again.  

If you don't believe in God, the moral of the story can be that painting what you or someone else loves can be even more rewarding than painting things that everyone considers a great subject matter.

If you do believe in God, than there are probably some other thoughts He is telling you from this story ; ).


Here are some pics of my set-up.  I still haven't fully figured out how to combine hiking and painting, but I have a 4 pound (2 kg) easel as well as a heavy french easel.  This is all pretty normal.  The only thing I use that I haven't seen others use is a clipboard for a palette.  On the clipboard I put transparency film over white paper.  This is my at-home easel as well. ( I don't hold mine in my hand. )  It's cheap, lasts a long time. You could put another transparency film over the top of your wet palette for transport, but because I use the box in my car boot, I don't bother.  These little palette cup pots were purchased on Amazon.  They clip on the clipboard perfectly.

 I'm not much of a linear thinker/writer, so thanks for bearing with me!  Alas, I can't post my other photos as the settings are not giving me the option from choosing photos not from a URL anymore.  

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Comment by Dorian Aronson on November 30, 2015 at 17:55

Great Blog,  I just now found!

Thank you so much......Dor :-)

Comment by Linda McNeill on May 17, 2015 at 8:21
I enjoyed your story very much, Britt. I have tried
plain-air painting with watercolour and find this enjoyable.
When I start taking another day off work, I may progress
to oil.I agree with you about choosing a subject which you love,
it makes all the difference.
Comment by Britt Greenland on December 20, 2013 at 6:07


That is an amazing sight!  It's unfortunate that it would be very difficult to paint that on scene ; ).  Also true of being in a crevasse on a glacier.  So beautiful and serene, yet so difficult to paint while hanging in a harness!  I recently lost a paintbrush down a vent in my studio!  I can't imagine how much I would violate "leave no trace" if I tried painting where I really want to paint. (although, I'm sure there are people who do it expertly) Please post that sink hole painting once it's done!

Comment by Paul Nankivell on December 19, 2013 at 20:58

Well that is certainly a story! Didnt realize one could mix rock climbing and painting :-)   Earlier this year I did a 200m free abseil into an enormous sink hole, I didnt take my camera as I wasnt sure what I was getting myself into and didnt wish to trash my Canon. I am so keen to paint the scene at the bottom looking up but need a photo! Looks like I will have to do it again....... here is a link to Flickr and an image taken by a friend.

Comment by ira custodio on October 29, 2013 at 8:53

Hello Britt, very helpful tips! im so glad you have posted it :)

Comment by Britt Greenland on October 28, 2013 at 15:52
Ian, thanks for that extra info. It sounds like a good setup for hiking. Thank also Carolyn for the tip on the paint garage.
Comment by Ann Turner on October 23, 2013 at 6:48

Hi Britt thanks for posting about Plein air worries and triumphant s. Enjoyed your story, I believe that all of us can be guided in all aspects of our lives to enrich others. We just need to learn to listen ! I have been trying to learn how to be successful with plein air. I have been frustrated but am taking Michaels advice to start small with a simple scene like a fall tree with light coming thru the branches. I painted at a Japanese friendship garden but it was a little too complicated. I seem to concentrate on trying to get the paint right and the objects so when I get home I find that I haven't payed enough attention to composition or value structure.  Lets all go out this week and try. . .try. . try !

Comment by Carolyn Brunsdon on October 22, 2013 at 7:05

Britt, I found your story absolutely delightful. God guides my brush as well, isn't it great?! I've been "getting ready" to get outside now for a while, (never painted landscape, or plein aire) so I have most of your tips in place but the clip board one is very interesting. Will be giving that a try. You didn't mention a paint carrier, so I will add the "Palette Garage" ( Stu suggested it and I now have one. I have a homemade one that works well in the studio and could outside, just a bit bulky without as much protection for the oil paints. It's going to be excellent in the field, and I'm looking forward to giving it a go, even if it is from my deck, which has some lovely rock/mountain views as it turns out.  Again great blog, really wonderful mix in your story. More?? (*smiles*)

Comment by Jon Main on October 21, 2013 at 6:43

Right! I find that Liquin drying time depends on the amount and the weather - in hot sun and thin it can dry in as little as 3 hours - but even if its 12-24 hours that's usually helpful and convenient - on th eother hand it has downside in eg paint handling and messing up brushes, I find

Comment by Britt Greenland on October 21, 2013 at 4:55

I'm glad you some of you found this helpful.  It got a bit longer than I intended as I was waiting out the fog to go plein air painting ; ).  It finally cleared up around 2 pm, so I loaded my gear, headed to the nearest park and painted 2 small paintings.  While at the park, a young lady and her 2 kids came to look.  As they walked away, one of the kids said "That lady was painting RIGHT here, Mommy.  Can I do that when we get home?"

 Jon, you summarized very well!  I agree about wasting paint.  I don't really worry about that because I paint almost every day.  I use liquin as well, but it does still take 24 hours to dry.  Do you use a faster drying one?

 If you have watched RR's "artist's success" video, you may find it helpful to discover what your constraints are for getting out there. I found that very helpful.  

You all inspire me!!!  Thank you for that!  


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