UPDATE: June 2022: My Plein Air Online Course: Painting Land and Sea is Now Available
Painting outdoors en plein air can be invigorating, inspiring, meditative... and frustrating, inhibiting, and uncomfortable! I like comfort, so I've done a lot of research to assemble a plein air kit that is lightweight, stable, and functional.
By nature I am a studio painter: I like a chair, regulated temperature, controlled lighting, access to all my materials, and most of all.... NO BUGS. But despite the discomfort (bugs) of outdoor (wind) painting (sunburn), plein air painting is exciting (bugs!) and worth the hassle (aka BUGS) so I get out there and try it 10-20 days a year. The thing is, once you start, it's addictive, and if I do it three days in a row I find the fourth day I jump out of bed excited to get out there and try another (wipeout) painting!!
So, what makes a great setup? Aside from remembering essentials like sunscreen, BUG SPRAY, layered clothing, water, an apple, and good shoes, the key to a good experience comes down to striking the perfect balance between sturdy and lightweight. So this is what I have come up with:
Pochade box vs Palette Box
Like many artists, my first attempt to paint en plein air was with a French easel: A clunky wooden easel box that holds all your tube paints, palette and canvas, with three attached legs that unfold and are secured with wingnuts and leather straps. One hike up a hill in the hot California sunshine with the heavy box bonking my legs, and then struggling to erect the box and unfold the legs, was enough for me! I'm pretty sure the word "French" in the title is the only thing that attracted me to this easel - and I have a hunch that's what attracts most painters to this easel. I'm pretty sure in the 19th century French artists hired assistants or donkeys to carry these boxes!
After that, I bought a tripod and painted with a pochade box: A palette that screws to the camera mount and has a flip-up lid to hold the canvas panel. Over the course of the next several years I bought three pochade boxes in in succession: The Guerrilla (too heavy, too deep), the Open Box M (lightweight and beautiful, but fiddly, insecure panel attachment), and the Strada (surprisingly heavy for a small mixing area, and very deep palette walls). My next choice was going to be New Wave's U.Go palette, which looks like a great design that solves a lot of those problems.... But, I decided to go in a totally different direction: Separate the palette from the canvas panel holder.
There are several options made of different materials, but I really loved the dark-stained wood design of my Open Box M. I use a wood palette in my home studio, so I was hoping to find a wooden option.
After trying a few more options, I finally settled on my favorite: The Sienna Pallete Box.
It attaches to easel with adjustable blocks that grab the two front legs. It comes with a glass palette but I easily removed the glass palette to reduce the weight (it's attached with magnets, easy to remove), and I use the wood alone for my palette. The palette area is nice and wide, without being too deep. The top flips open to create 2 trays, so there is plenty of room for brushes. When the trays are closed your paint is protected, so you can load up your palette with paint and leave the heavy tubes at home.
I love the side trays, but the first time I used the box outside a big gust of wind came and flipped one side tray closed. So I searched online (for a few hours, you are welcome!) and ordered these perfect little brass hooks and attached them to the front, to hold the trays open even in the wind. They work great! Tips: Drill little holes first to avoid cracking the wood with the screws, and note which screws have flat tops and which have round tops, it matters.
Weight: The weight of the pochade box alone, without the glass is 2 lbs 9 oz.
Canvas Panel Holder
There are a couple manufacturers that create a separate panel holder that attaches to the top of the camera tripod, but the ones I tried were 24" tall. Since I paint small 8"x10" and 9"x12" when I travel, I don't really need that height for canvases, and it was larger than what I wanted to pack.
I have not been able to find a smaller option for plein air artists, so I kept brainstorming: There MUST be a simple design for a tripod-mounted bar that can securely clamp a flat panel. A couple years ago it came to me: An iPad tablet easel clamp! The dimensions were perfect for a 9" x 12" panel, but the only clamp I found was plastic and flimsy, and wiggled when I tried to use it as a canvas panel holder. Fail!
Now that a couple years have gone by I decided to search again, and found that now are better options for tripod-mounts for tablets , and I finally discovered this sturdy iPad clamp, made of aluminum. It is tight and secure, and doesn't wiggle, success!!
The panel height is limited to 9" high with this tablet holder, so when I want to paint bigger I'll use my larger one. I love this one by Plein Air Pro. It's sturdy and functional, but for me, too long and awkward to pack for a flight.