Get Organized

Setting up Plein Air Gear for Success

One thing that keeps coming up over and over in the painting classes I teach is how to set up your plein air gear. Let’s face it, plein air painting has its challenges, which range from heat, cold, bugs, rain, snow to curious onlookers. Couple that with clouds that come and go, creating changing shadows, and you have a situation that is challenging under the best of conditions. My question is, why make the job any harder than it already is? There are things we can’t control, like the afore-mentioned ones, and there are other things that are well within our grasp to control. So, with that in mind, think about organizing your stuff!

The first thing to consider, even before you get to the actual painting gear, is what you are wearing. The old saying, “dress for success,” is certainly true here. Dressing for the weather is a must, if you are going to be comfortable enough to produce a competent painting on location. In winter this might mean boots and long-johns, along with all the other clothing items. Dressing in layers is usually the smart move, since weather conditions can and will change even in the time it takes to paint your subject. Along with clothing, items like sunscreen and bug dope are a must. Out of all the painting challenges I have faced over the years, the one that was the most serious was the mosquitoes and no-seeums up in Alaska. I remember being so miserable on a couple of those paintings that I couldn’t even think straight, let alone get anything meaningful down on canvas. When all else fails, a head net might be just the thing to get you through the day.

After personal comfort, the next issue to get control of is how you set up your gear. As I teach in my classes and workshops, this seems to be the one area that gives students the most difficulty. Why this is, I have not figured out yet, but the following is a sampling of situations that have occurred over the years (although comical in nature, they point out some of the major pitfalls in setting up):

  • Arriving at student #1′s easel. Teacher : “Where are your paper towels?” Student: “Oh, they are in my trunk, I’ll be right back.”
  • Student #2 -Teacher: “Where is your trash bag?” Student: “I don’t have it, do you want me to get one?”
  • Student #3: Teacher: “Do you have any brushes that have bristles still attached?” Student: “Why, what’s wrong with these?”
  • Student #4. Teacher: “You don’t have any colors out on your palette.” Student: “Which ones do you want me to get?” Teacher: “Well, I was thinking we might be able to mix something with red, yellow and blue plus white.”
  • Student #5. Teacher: “Where is your paint thinner”. Student: “Well, I don’t have any, do you want me to see if I can borrow some?”

You get the idea, my point is simply, let’s make life a little simpler out there. No one, not even a seasoned pro could paint a study given these self-imposed limitations. On top of that, how is the teacher supposed to help anyone in those situations?

So what is the answer? Organize your gear, everything you need to do the job has to be systematically laid out in front of you so that you know where it is, and it’s easily accessible. The more you have to fiddle around trying to locate needed tools, the less effective and slower you will be painting your picture. The actual task of completing a study in an hour or two is challenging enough without adding fuel to the fire!

I would suggest setting up your gear at home and making an honest assessment of where you stand in relation to readiness for the outdoors. Also, I suggest working with tissues rather than paper towels — they don’t roll down mountains and there is not as much waste. A metal can for paint thinner is superior to a glass jar that is sure to break. Having an extra fuel container full of thinner will come in handy as you get low. A good sturdy easel is a must; practice setting it up indoors before trying it outside. Buy the best brushes you can afford, you don’t need a lot of them, but they should be in good shape. Securing your palette to your easel in some fashion will spare you major headaches when the wind kicks up.

Preparation is key, use your time wisely and your success rate in the field will improve. Until next time…

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