Plein Air 102
I just returned from teaching a landscape workshop in Provence, and am now in Maine for a two week solo painting trip, so I have plein air on my mind.
It's a good time to continue the discussion begun a few weeks back on things to think about when painting outdoors, such as the practical matter of equipment.
Here in Maine, the back of my Toyota (parked on the street in Camden while I write this from a bar while imbibing a bottle of Belfast Brewery Lobster Ale) is jammed with easels, canvasses, panels, umbrellas, tripods--and a tool caddy filled with paint, brushes, medium and solvent.
In contrast to this rolling caravan of art supplies, when I flew to France in June for my workshop, efficiency and economy of means in packing were of the essence.
Although it is possible to paint sitting on the ground or in your lap, I recommend standing at an easel.
Painting with your whole arm rather than just your hand will result in more gestural, fluid brushwork, and standing allows you to move back from your painting to see the entire composition, rather than being overly focused on details.
Painting supports are another very personal choice. I need them to be rigid, lightweight, and of the same high quality as I use for my studio painting. I like Arches blocks for watercolors, and linen panels (Artboard or Raymar) packed in wooden or cardboard carriers for oils.
I ordered 24" x 24" stretched canvasses, larger than my usual outdoor painting size, from Twin Brooks Stretchers in Lincolnville, ME for this trip.
To accommodate that bigger support, I'll be using my half French easel and a large wooden palette (it attaches to the open drawer with a bolted spring) that my teacher Israel Hershberg showed me how to make way back in art school.
But whether I'm throwing anything I could possibly need for plein air in the trunk of my car, or carrying the barest minimum of painting equipment in a backpack, my basic checklist is the same: easel, supports, paints, and brushes.
These are the standard tools for all landscape painters--who, like fly fisherman, long-distance hikers, or nature photographers, are enthusiastic and idiosyncratic consumers of the expensive tools of their trade.
Plein air painters develop individual equipment "kits" through training and trial and error. The important thing is to find a system that works well for you, then use it consistently enough that setting up becomes second-nature.
What I look for in an easel is portability and stability. It's unpleasant to cart a heavy easel up and down terrain while searching for a good motif, but it's torture to be concentrating on a painting and have a light-weight but flimsy easel collapse.
Wooden half french easels are heavier than metal or plastic tripods, but they stand their ground resolutely, and I like them for watercolors and larger canvases.
For smaller oil panels I prefer a pochade box, which is compact and also has the advantage of having a built-in palette. A hanging weighted bag will prevent your easel from doing somersaults in the breeze, and a clamping umbrella will allow you, on a sunny day, to set up anywhere you most want to paint, rather than just in shady corners.
To complete my oil painting kit, I carry in a backpack if I'm walking, or a caddy if driving:
--about ten brushes of various sizes in a brush holder
--tubes of paint in split primaries (2 reds, 2 blues and 2 yellows, plus white)
--odorless mineral spirits in a leak-proof solvent jar and small bottle of medium
--palette cup and palette knife
--rags, paper towels, vinyl gloves and plastic bags
--sketchbook and pens for compositional studies
I'm full of admiration for those rare painters who haul huge canvases outside to study the landscape on a grand scale. Just the logistics of setting up the necessary equipment seems daunting, never mind orchestrating a six foot wide plein air composition.
I'm also in awe of John Singer Sargent's plein air painting. This most gestural of watercolorists, contrary to my advice, worked at least in later years sitting down. As you can see from this vintage photo, he did agree with me about the utility of umbrellas, and the usefulness of trussing with rope when painting in a stiff breeze.
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