Supplies & Tools for Plein Air Watercolour Painting

It's so exciting to see the days warm up. Last week my mum and I were able to take a hike on the Peace River hills, looking for spring crocuses, and this year I'm hoping to put in many more hours painting en plein air. Being outdoors, sharpening my observation skills by painting from life is something that's always on my to-do list, and with our northern weather, the window of possibility for plein air adventures is pretty short.

One of my favourite places to paint is right in my back yard!

My goal for this article is to fill it up with links to resources to help you get set up painting outdoors. Some items you can make or source yourself, while others might find their place on a wish list as painting luxuries. Feel free to comment below with your own favourite resources for painting outdoors!

I like to I keep things pretty simple when I'm painting outdoors, to just get started and then see what I need as I go along. My initial set up was a folding stool with pockets for storage, a soft-sided briefcase that I've kept my travel supplies in for almost 20 years, and a tripod with a painting board attachment. (My husband added the screw mount attachment to a painting board, it's a pretty easy DIY, check out Steve Mitchell's tutorial here.)

Last year I bought a watercolour travel easel. Watercolour easels are different from standard easels, because they need the painting surface to be almost level, while paintings on canvas are usually more vertical. I ordered a Winsor & Newton Bristol easel, but I wish I'd taken more time to research my purchase, because I always struggle to set it up correctly. Usually I put it together backwards and upside down before I get it right!

With a goal of painting from life more often this year, I took a look at my tools, and made a wish list of items I'd like to add to my painting kit. While I know I can paint with the basic tools that I have, it does feel easier when I have tools that 1. make painting more comfortable and 2. decrease distractions from my surroundings.

My painting bag: I keep this bag stocked with the necessities; my brushes in a roll-up brush holder, my paint palette (usually one of my standard Reeves palettes in a ziploc bag), paper (another Ziploc bag), a spray bottle, a couple bottles of water & water containers, a wad of paper towel, tiny containers of salt, a roll of masking tape, pencils & eraser, ruler, and a dozen or so bulldog clips. These are so handy for keeping things from blowing away in the wind as well as attaching stuff to your easel.

I'm also planning to add a viewfinder, because it can be really hard to frame a scene when you are sitting with a panorama spread before you. I could make my own, but I don't ever get around to it, so sometimes it's just easier to buy, and the plastic will be more durable than a cardboard one anyhow.

Camera: Bringing a camera means I can start my painting session with a photograph to accompany my painting, to help me remember the details when I'm back in the studio. Because the light is constantly changing, it's a good idea to take several photos through the painting session. I use a Nikon 1 J5 mirrorless camera, with a wide angle lens. I like the convenience and smaller size of this camera that gives me many of the options of a DSLR and a selection of lenses for different tasks.

Easel: I love the Advanced Series Watercolor easel from En Plein Air Pro. Everything you need to set up your painting surface and tools is included in this package, including a shelf for your palette, clips for attaching your materials and backpack for hauling the lot! According to the listing, you can order it without the tripod if you already have one, but I haven't actually seen it available in that configuration. This model comes with a palette that mounts on the tripod, for about $20 more. I'm kind of obsessed with that palette...

Because I already have an easel, what I want to do instead of buying a full easel setup, is make work what I already have. What my WN easel lacks is a place to put my materials. I need a shelf for my palette, and a place to hold my water containers and brushes. I'm looking at these:

Easel Shelf: This one (see below) should mount perfectly on my existing easel. This one has a cupholder and a different type of mount that fits tripods. Truthfully,  I could probably ask my husband to build something that would mount on my easel; the trick is tearing him away from his hot rod projects to make time for my requests!

Guerrilla Painter: Once I started looking at plein air tools, I was amazed at the options available! Maybe I need a more comfortable chair, like this Guerrilla Painter Bestbuddy, a folding, roller chair with storage space, umbrella mount and lumbar pillow! A simpler (read: cheaper) version is the ArtComber chair, which doesn't include the pillow or umbrella mount.

My husband, Wade, laughed so hard when I told him about stone bags. These are actually a photography tool, and they attach to your tripod or easel to keep it from blowing over in the wind. It does seem a little silly to buy a bag to put rocks in, but I'm going to remember to add a bag that I can put weight into for those windy days. I have some drawstring shoe bags that would work really well!

You can buy umbrellas that mount on your easel to keep the sun off, and this is a great idea if you paint outdoors often, since direct sunlight shining on your painting will not only blind you, but will also dramatically speed drying time to make your painting almost unworkable. With an umbrella mounted on your easel, you will definitely want to prevent the wind from carrying it away by adding weight.

There are also paper towel holders (again, something easy to make at home), brush holding clips, collapsible paint buckets, a host of hooks, boxes and bags (I like this one for carrying full sheets of watercolour) to get you set up with no excuses for not getting outdoors.

I think we all know that having the right supplies isn't really what makes a plein air painter. It's taking what you have, and just getting out there and doing it! So while I might not have all the tools on my wish list, my goal this season is to just GO, even if I only make it as far as the back yard.

What are your necessities for painting outdoors? Leave a comment below!

Product Links for Not all items are available from Watercolor Easels

Artist's Viewfinder

Tripod Mount for painting board assembly

Umbrella with Easel Clamp Tripod Stone Bag

Guerrilla Painter BestBuddy Chair (wow, expensive!!)

Portfolio Bag for Full Sheet Watercolor Paper

When you make a purchase using one of the links above, I receive a small commission. Thank you!