My Plein Air Painting Setup

Plein air set up with umbrella, tripod, and palette.
My set up for painting outdoors.

Painting outdoors comes with a whole host of unique challenges. Wind, sun, bugs, hot, cold, rain, snow. Seems like insanity but I’m hooked. What could be better than combining my incurable wanderlust with art?! Not many things give me so much satisfaction. Everyone who attempts this madness seems to come up with what works for them. Pictured above is my current setup for oils. I like to hike in quite a ways to paint away from people looking over my shoulder. So I was really trying to go compact and lightweight. I have a Kelty backpack that fits everything and a lunch, and not much more. So much for compact. If I really need compact and ultralight I use watercolors. Problem solved!

Anyway, let’s run through this setup for painting outdoors with oils that I’ve put together! I have a sturdy tripod to begin with. I could go lighter but I sacrificed carrying a little extra weight in my backpack for something that doesn’t blow over every time I step away. I tried a couple of umbrella options that were cheap in an attempt to keep my costs down. Just save yourself the headache and get an actual plein air umbrella that works for your setup. This one is a Best Brella and I’m super happy with it. For the actual easel, I opted for the LederEasel because I like to stretch my own canvases rather than pay a small fortune in artist panels. It’s adjustable to accommodate different sizes and depths if I splurge on Raymar panels. It also has bars below that attach to the legs of the tripod that I hang paper towels and a bag for garbage. I started out bringing my handheld palette and used those bars as a place to set it down. That did not last long. I needed more flat space to hold brushes, palette cups, lids, tubes of paint, and other random things. Sprawling my art supplies all over the ground is not conducive to my creativity. So I just got this Sienna Palette Box. Super handy but again I’ve added more weight to my pack in order to save my sanity.

But here’s the thing:

If you don’t eliminate some of the frustrating aspects of painting outdoors, you are less and less inclined to do it. Make it easy on yourself by investing in equipment that makes it do-able for you.

What I like about this set up is that it’s super adjustable for whatever the situation calls for. This will probably evolve over time but it is working for me for now. It’s not all that quick to set up compared to a French easel that has everything all in one box. But I think the time I spend setting up gives me time to observe the scene, slow my pace down, and get into a painting frame of mind.

I hope this is helpful to see another option for plein air painting equipment. #findmeoutside

Plein Air in MN State Parks

Earlier this year I was intreged by a website I stubbled across called Paint the Parks. The premise is an opportunity for artists to paint the National Parks with a message of nature preservation for future generations. Inspired but limited ability to participate on such a large scale, I decided to do something similar close to home. I am fortunate to live on the south end of Lake Carlos located on the edge of Alexandria, MN. A 7 minute drive gets me to the north end of Lake Carlos and Lake Carlos State Park. Can’t really get much more convenient!

The park has a fantastic trail system and unlimited inspiration. Sandy beach on Lake Carlos, wetlands with smaller ponds and lakes, deciduous forests of oak, maple, and aspen intersperced with open prairie. If you can’t find something inspirational here to paint, I just don’t know what to tell you. My goal is to spend the summer plein air painting Lake Carlos State Park and do my best to capture how lovely west central Minnesota is. And then next summer, I’ll pick a couple more state parks to travel to, and the next a few more. Maybe one day I’ll have painted all of them! It’s a lofty but worthwhile goal to celebrate the intersection of art and Minnesota’s beautiful park system. I hope to do it justice.

No Better Time To Start

I honestly planned on starting all of this much earlier, but being bogged down mentally with the implecations of Covid19 and having 2 kids to get through distance learning, it just didn’t happen. But yesterday was my day. I didn’t get out nearly as early as I would have liked either but nothing about plein air painting is ever perfect and for someone like me, I can use a little grace in the need to for perfection.

Beautiful weather. 78 Degrees and sunny, but windy so I opted for watercolors rather than my oils. I arrived at the park about 4:30pm, hosed myself down with bug spray, and wandered around for awhile remembering how much I enjoy being in the woods alone and going at my own pace following whatever trail strikes my fancy. I love hiking with my kids, but it always feels like a race to get nowhere.

Eventually I settled on a wetland overlook with an easy place to set my stuff down since I didn’t have an easel or portable camp table along. I quickly fell into the rhythm of painting outside again. Watercolor dries fast, especially in the wind and sun, so my little 5 x7 didn’t take long to come together. I lingered longer than I needed to watching the dragonflies zoom around and trying to catch a glimpse of a vole running back and forth under the grass. Redwing black birds had an ongoing conversation I couldn’t follow. I was glad to be there and pausing with purpose.

Photo of wetlands at Lake Carlos State Park and plein air watercolor painting.
Plein air watercolor at Lake Carlos State Park.