Painting the Landscape En Plein Air
En Plein Air is a French phrase meaning “in the open air” and it refers to creating art on location. The roots of painting from life are found in 19th-century Europe. Englishman John
Constable believed the artist should forget about formulas and trust his own vision in finding truth in nature. To find that truth, he made sketches outdoors, then
elaborated on them in the studio. In the 1800’s the artists known as Impressionists were the first ones to go outside of their studios to investigate the effects of sunlight on
Painting outdoors requires special equipment. Below is some basic information about plein air equipment and some suggestions about what to purchase. However, you can spend a lot of money or very little. I have seen my students make a prochade box (portable paint box) out of a cigar box that the student sits on his/her lap!
Tools for painting En Plein Air
Here is a basic list of some standard plein air equipment:
• collapsible easel or lightweight paint box (prochade box) and tripod - if purchasing a French Easel, be sure to purchase a half easel.
• A pochade box is a compact, portable painting studio in a small box. "Pochade" is a French word meaning "quick (color) sketch".
Traditional pochade boxes were characterized by three simple elements: A hinged lid which functions as an easel and wet painting carrier, a palette which slides out to one side, and the lower portion of the box which contains paints and brushes, etc. These ingenious, old-fashioned devices were used extensively by 18th and 19th century landscape painters, but had become nearly extinct until the mid 1980s. Traditional pochade boxes came in many shapes and sizes and were used for oils, pastels and watercolors
• folding stool (if you want to sit while you paint)
• small clamp-on umbrella (to keep the sun off of your palette and you)
• paints, brushes, palette knife
• solvent and painting medium
• wet-pannel carrier (see below)
• paper towel or rags
• small plastic trash bags
• bungee cords
The Pochade Box￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼
A pochade box can either be balanced on the lap to paint seated or attached to a tripod to paint upright. The French easel is the most common piece of equipment for plein air painting. It evolved during the 19th century and is currently built in full- and half-box sizes. An easel with folding legs and a telescopic canvas support has space for storing paints and brushes, adjusts for working in either a standing or seated position, is relatively inexpensive, and accommodates panels and canvases of various sizes. The disadvantages are the extra weight and cumbersome size, the slow and awkward set up, and the weak hinges and stops that inevitably break. A lot of beginners get "French easels" and "pochade boxes" confused with one another. A french easel is designed to be a true, portable studio, capable of being used to create finished paintings. They are generally bigger,heavier and are designed to stand on their own with extendable legs.
A paintbox is essential. There are many different types but if you are just starting out, you may want to use something you already have. If not, you can get ready made prochade boxes for outdoor painting. These can be an all-in-one configuration such as a small French easel or a prochade box that attaches to a tripod. If you don't already have a French easel, I would suggest a prochade box and tripod arrangement because it sets up very quickly. You will also find that some prochade boxes will only accommodate a particular size panel (example 9" x 12"). Others can vary depending on what you purchase. You will also need a way of carrying your gear. I would suggest a large backpack or a trolly to pull your equipment. An inexpensive roller suitcase can substitute for expensive alternatives. A small, portable pochade box is a viable alternative, especially for traveling artists who must store their equipment in overhead compartments, in checked luggage, or inside backpacks. There are numerous commercial pochade boxes on the market with prices ranging from about $150 for a basic wooden box, to more than $300 for a beautifully finished walnut box. Virtually all of the 19th-century American landscape painters rested paint boxes on their laps while working, but today most artists prefer to either stand or sit, and therefore they need either a folding chair and/or a tripod to mount a palette and panel support upon.
If you buy or make a pochade box with a tripod mount, you’ll need a sturdy tripod, which will cost anywhere from $60 to $75. There are cheaper versions available, but the plastic heads break easily, so I recommend buying a good-quality metal tripod with a metal head. A quick-release shoe is important because you will mount the shoe on your pochade box and use the quick-release feature to easily mount and remove the box.
Although it is possible to close your French easel or pochade box with one or two wet paintings stored safely, it’s better to place the panels or canvases in a carrier specifically designed to protect a wet surface. The same companies that make pochade boxes also make wooden, plastic or cardboard carrying cases.
The painting support of choice for most plein air painters is a panel with a primed-canvas face. Many companies make plein air-painting panels, but not all of them are created equal. If you are new to plein air painting, I would suggest inexpensive panels that can be bought at local paint stores. If you are handy, you can also make your own panels of whatever size you want by cutting the sizes from masonite board or hard board. This is a much less expensive option but I would also suggest that you use traditional sizes until you are at the place where you are making your "masterpieces" because framing odd sizes can be very expensive. If you choose to make your own, remember you must gesso the surface.