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My Plein Air Painting Setup

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.

Plein air painting setup - Sadie Valeri

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.

Plein air painting setup palette - Sadie Valeri

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.

Plein air painting setup painting box - Sadie Valeri

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

Plein air painting setup easel - Sadie Valeri

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.


I love my main tripod, but it's heavy and big, so I wanted small version for travel. I searched online and read reviews for days, and days... and days. I researched until my brain boggled. I read reviews, I read plein air blogs, and finally, I just picked one - and I love it!!

It's VERY lightweight, and I like how the legs flip up and fold over the ball head, making it easier to pack. The ball head allows me to angle my canvas panel to any tilt with an easy twist of the large dial screw. Even though it's light, the legs are sturdy. The hook at the base of the central mast is the best hook I've seen on an easel - it pulls out so I can easily hook my bag straps on it, to add weight and stability to the easel.

The Bag

I personally don't hike through the wilderness when I paint en plein air. I am more often in cities and city parks. A backpack is easier to carry for hiking in deep nature, but for walking through Paris or Florence, I wanted a more attractive cross-body strap tote. After bookmarking about 40 bags, I finally found this one:

Plein air painting setup bag - Sadie Valeri

More girly on the front... perfect for PARIS!

My favorite painting panel and wet panel carrier:

This is the painting I did a couple days ago with this setup in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco.

Plein air painting by Sadie Valeri

Plein air painting by Sadie Valeri

And finally, my palette of COLORS for painting outdoors:

Plein air painting setup paints pigments - Sadie Valeri

Quinacradone Red: Williamsburg

Indian Yellow: Williamsburg

Cadmium Yellow White: Williamsburg

Titanium White: Williamsburg

Green Gold: Williamsburg

Cobalt Green: Holbein Vernet

Ultramarine Blue: Williamsburg

Bunt Sienna: Williamsburg

In my home studio I prefer to set my white on the far left, but I have found that when outdoors the white paint can be hidden in the shadow of the lip of the palette box, so in my plein air kit I prefer setting my white between my warms and cools, closer to the middle of the palette.

I hope you have found this post useful! Please share it if you did!

UPDATE: June 2022: My Plein Air Online Course: Painting Land and Sea is Now Available

Browse my online art courses or become a member to access all the courses for an affordable monthly rate with personal instruction available.

17 commentaires

02 sept. 2023

Thank you, Sadie... I would have researched a year and a half and worn myself out!


Kelly A. Flinn
Kelly A. Flinn
24 juil. 2021

Fantastic post! Love the painting too. I really have to thank you - I've been looking for a strong tripod panel holder forever, and the metal iPad one you have is exactly it. Thank you so much


05 juil. 2021

As always you have been so generous with your experience and hard earned knowledge (thanks for battling the bugs for us!). I miss your studio in SF, and attending your in person workshops (studio, plein

air or otherwise.) Do you have any plans to offer in person instruction again? Also I just listened to your most recent interview and was comforted to learn that you found the early 90s hard in art school. I gave up on my fine art degree because I wanted to learn the craft of painting and sculpture and instead found that I was plonked in a white room where I was supposed to be inspired. I loved my hour of art history a week, b…

Sadie Valeri
Sadie Valeri
06 juil. 2021
En réponse à

Hi Laura! I miss my studio, too! No plans to teach in person as of now, but I'll definitely announce it widely when I do. I think many of us studying art in the 80's/90's art scene felt we were "bad" and "old fashioned" if we did not want to be abstract or conceptual artists. I'm glad we now have more options and more access to the kind of instruction that was hard to find back then.


04 juil. 2021

I'd never considered putting my white in the middle before! I generally set my colours for outside from dark on the left to lightest on the right. It also translates to the least chromatic colours in the background going forwards to the brightest colours in the foreground. But putting white in the middle would mean easier mixing for sky and lighter distance tints. I shall have to try this. Thank you!

Sadie Valeri
Sadie Valeri
06 juil. 2021
En réponse à

I got the idea for putting the white in the middle from Elizabeth Zanzinger, I really like it there for working en plein air.


14 oct. 2019

Great one!!! nd very ideal...I need to find these stuffs here in India or have to assemble according to whatever I will get. here...Thank You :)

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