Earlier this month I traveled to Peru, where I trekked to majestic Machu Picchu for the first time, documenting the epic Andes landscape throughout the journey with some plein air studies.
Being new to plein air painting, I took a few months before the trip to dial in my portable painting setup, experimenting with different materials and products in order to arrive at something as travel-friendly as possible.
Not only did everything need to clear foreign and domestic customs, the intense hiking aspect of the forthcoming journey required it to be as small, lightweight, and efficient as possible. After getting the initial inspiration from my summer workshop teacher Thomas Kegler‘s novel and ingenious modifications to the traditional plein air pochade box, I searched the internet and local stores for a few more ideas and products. In the end I devised something very functional, fairly efficient, not terribly expensive (as far as high-end art and travel equipment goes), acceptably small, and certainly lightweight.
- Tripod: The most important part of a plein air easel is the tripod, and to get one that is (1) reliable, (2) sturdy, (3) small, and (4) lightweight, you have to spend some money. It’s not worth the headaches later on, out in the field, to mess around with the cheap stuff. So I read reviews online and settled on the Manfrotto Befree, which seemed to intersect all of the 4 criteria above at an optimal place. After buying the tripod, I modified it by drilling a hole through the center stem a few milimeters from the bottom, in order to be able to hang a weight (my backpack) from it while working outdoors, which is crucial for keeping the very lightweight tripod sturdy in any kind of wind. So far it’s working out great, I just wish it went just a few inches higher like their studio tripods do, but, you can’t have it all when you’re concerned about size and packing space. (Grade: A).
- Pochade Box: Ethically, I strongly dislike Walmart, but when it’s the only large store in your small Texas town, sometimes you go there for the one random thing you want that they have (and comfort yourself afterwards by remembering that the entire world is headed for doomsday anyway because of capitalist greed causing global warming, and your minuscule nonsupport of Walmart wouldn’t do shit to stop that, really). In this case, it was the unlikely and unexpected score of a lightweight, plastic, 3-part folding notebook holder thing (with perfectly placed interior velcro elastic straps?!). For around $10.00, and requiring only a few small tripod-mounting holes to be drilled into it, this was an absolute bargain. …and wait, that’s not all!! It’s perfectly sized to fit two 9 x 12 inch panels in such a way that it doubles as your take-home wet painting carrier when you’re done with your session!! Call now, and this product can be yours for only 4 easy payments of literally $2.99!! Seriously though, I’m so pumped about this thing that I want to make an infomercial about it to spread the word. (Grade: A)
- Paint Carrier: Just a small bait holder from the hunting and fishing section at…Walmart. Or probably most hardware stores. It worked well enough, but I’m still on the hunt for one of equally small size, but with an airtight seal and divided into cubes instead of just rows. The paint mixed together somewhat during transport and higher temperatures, and began to dry out as well due to airflow (a rag soaked with moisture-enhancing Clove oil placed into the container drastically delayed drying time, though). Customs/TSA ProTip: If asked to explain what your oil paint is, never say they are paint! Always refer to them as “artist colors”! “Paint” tends to get lumped in with the general category of industrial, toxic materials banned for civilian flight, and they try to take those away from you, or at least tend to give you a hard time about it. Flying with as few “artist colors” as possible, and always packing them deep in your checked baggage rather than carry-ons, will also minimize hassles. (Grade: C+)
- Umbrella: At first these seem frilly and wasteful but after a few nasty plein air session sunburns, you realize how crucial they are when you’re standing still in any kind of direct sunlight for any length of time. I’ve been happy so far with my very first umbrella purchase, the Multi Mount Collapsible Umbrella from Guerilla Painter. It packs very small, and doesn’t weigh much. I wish the fabric wasn’t black though, because that can make your workspace very dark. And I also wish the mounting clamp had more angle options but that might be wishful thinking given its price range, size and weight. (Grade: A-)
- Crucial Miscellaneous Supplies: (1) Cheap zippered cloth bags from
Walmartfor carrying whatever. (2) Tiny bungee cords from the local hardware store. I use the Cords to keep my pochade box setup sturdy and still–just hook them anywhere, to anything, for some instant tension. These things have been really handy, and surprisingly one of the most indispensable things I bought for the setup. (3) Large industrial rubber bands, also surprisingly useful, in this case for making sure the pochade box doesn’t come unlatched unexpectedly and spring open, and ditto for the paint carrier. (4) Tiny glass vial for carrying solvent. Juuust big enough to hold enough solvent to dip your brush into and sort of clean them after you’re done, until you can give them a thorough cleaning at home. Carrying solvent around really sucks, it’s the worst part of plein air oil painting for me. It’s a health and safety hazard, of course, and not healthy for the environment that you’re trying so hard to appreciate. So, “as little as possible” has been my goal ever since beginning oil painting, and certainly since starting my plein air journey. Customs/TSA ProTip: Because I am a bad person, I have forgotten about and accidentally flown with this single tiny vial containing a mere several drops of solvent, buried deep in my checked baggage, a few times before. Obviously doing this isn’t advisable, and obviously I procure solvent at my destination whenever feasible, and properly dispose of it there as well. So my tip is to scout out in advance where you can get mineral spirits at your destination, and always keep it to an absolute minimum quantity. While on the go, wrap the jar or vial thoroughly with plastic and then double-bag it with ziplocs or anything else you can think of. (Grade: A-)
- Backpack: I’ve been so happy with my Osprey Comet 30L over the past few years of heavy, rugged use. It’s comfortable, durable, has enough pockets and compartments for everything I tend to carry, and is also Camelbak compatible, which came in handy during this trip, because carrying separate water containers is a drag. I was able to stuff my 2.0 liter reservoir into my backpack along with every single other supply needed, including energy bars, and the whole pack wasn’t unbearably heavy. It was certainly doable over short periods for someone of average to slightly above average fitness range (and not to mention at an elevation of, in this case, 6000-10,000 feet).
So as for my portable painting setup criteria mentioned earlier, here’s how I rate my current setup overall:
- Functionality: A
- Efficiency: B+
- Cost: A-
- Size: A-
- Weight A-
Being new to the plein air community, I’m sure there’s further improvements to the system I can make and of course, much more experience and knowledge to be gained, but this recent journey was successful enough that I wanted to share and add to the body of helpful knowledge out there.
As for the experience and the work itself, here are some photos.
Three location shots:
Three finished studies, 9 x 12 inches each, oil on panel:
And some iPhone 5s photography shot throughout the trip, for good measure: