What’s In Your Plein Air Field Kit?

My fully loaded watercolor field kit

This post is in response to Judith, over at Artistcoveries – specifically to address some of her questions in “Not Plein Air”. The photo above is my current plein air field kit, and it’s filled with everything that I need for watercolor painting, pencil drawing, and ink sketching in the great outdoors. It’s the result of over 40-years of evolution on my part, as I began trying my hand at plein air watercolor painting during my high school days in the late-1970s. Please note: this entire kit changes over time… the kit of today is not what I used in my youth, nor is it the same kit I used as recently as five years ago – it’s constantly being updated.

My plein air carryall first started out as an enormous backpack that I took with me everywhere, but that quickly got old, so I began to seek out smaller and more portable solutions. For a long while, it was a large waist pack – but that became too constraining, and I’ve switched between small lumbar packs and small sling packs with more capacity for many years now… changing the bags as my needs arise.

Me and my plein air painting field kit in 1990, during our honeymoon

My own plein air aspirations began with a Pelikan watercolor pan set in early high school, which – surprisingly – is still in production today. However, I quickly exceeded the capabilities of the inexpensive painting media that came with that set and needed something more robust that would allow me to grow as an artist and not hinder me in the process. After much looking, I eventually stumbled across the Winsor & Newton Professional Watercolour Field Kit, which is actually cheaper now ($107) than when I bought my first one back in 1980 ($120) – which represented a lot of coin in those days. According to the inflation calculator, that same W&N Watercolor Field Kit should be selling at $395.67 today!

The W&N Field Kit is not bad as far as an all-in-one watercolor solution goes. It comes with a decent selection of twelve W&N professional-grade watercolor half-pans, a small water cup, a small sponge, a very small water reservoir, a small but high quality paint brush, and three small mixing surfaces – all in a robust plastic box not much bigger than a package of cigarettes. I’ve read a lot of negative comments about that little field kit over the years – specifically that the plastic box is junk – but I can vouch that my original box has lasted over four decades of being dragged through thick and thin, and is still perfectly functional.

Even better, the W&N Field Box lends itself beautifully to hacking, so one can easily modify it to whatever configuration one can imagine. The unaltered kit comes from W&N with room for only 12 half-pans (below, left), but by removing the rigid internal plastic spacers one can increase the capacity to 15 half-pans, and even 16 half-pans (below, right) if the sides of the middle row of half-pans are sanded to make them just a little bit narrower. Of course, if one is fed up with the very small water reservoir that comes with the W&N field kit (like I was), that can be ditched as well, and the capacity can then be DOUBLED to 30 half-pans (below, center) of glorious color!

Five decades of field kit evolution

I don’t know of any other watercolor field kit on the market today that can carry 30 half-pans in such a compact package, though the Art Toolkit Pocket Palette with mini-pans is close at 28 colors; however, the mini-pans are definitely tiny in size (below, right).

W&N standard half-pan field kit vs eighth-pan Pocket Palette field kit

Now that we have the paint box out of the way, here is the rest of my plein air kit. I’ve opened the main sling bag so you can see how it’s packed.

Zipped open for the contents

And below is the contents of the main bag:

The main bag unpacked

With the main bag out of the way, below is what I keep the art materials in – a Peak Design Tech Pouch, with lots of pockets and dividers suitable for a wide range of various art supplies.

The art supply pouch

Below is what the pouch looks like opened, so you can see how it’s packed.

Art supply pouch opened

And below is the list of items I keep in the Peak Design Tech Pouch:

Art supply pouch unpacked

When everything is packed together, the main bag weighs 6.2 lbs (2.81 kg). If I find that weight to be too heavy – which happens on occasion when my lower back flares up – I simply use the much smaller Pocket Palette, with a smaller bottle of water, one travel brush, and a couple of other items to bring the weight down to less than 1 lb (0.45 kg).


Photo info:
Plein air watercoloring field kit
Poolesville, Maryland
August 2021
Apple iPhone 12 Pro

18 thoughts on “What’s In Your Plein Air Field Kit?

  1. Thanks so much for posting all of this very helpful information. I really like being able to see what you have and where you’re putting it all, and yes, it’s inspiring me. I’m definitely going out to do plein air painting tomorrow morning. I’m still undecided, though, on what medium I’ll be using. Eventually I do want to do oil painting en plein air, but I’m not sure I want to do that right now. I do have a “gansai” outdoor kit I’ve put together. I use it on our art club outings, and while it’s not as finely-tuned as your kit, it serves the purpose. I just don’t use it as often as I should, but that’s primarily because I’m not a watercolor artist. But I am doing a lot of gansai/watercolor this summer as part of my “fast and furious” summer art program, so going out tomorrow with my gansai is a definite possibilities. And then there are oil pastels. You mentioned them in a comment on my blog, and I do like oil pastels. I’ve used them before, and while I’m not completely familiar with all the “how-to” of oil pastel, I’ve enjoyed them. Here’s a link to one of my oil pastel paintings.

    Patience Is a Virtue

    And yesterday, my new “subscription box” from Paletteful Packs arrived, and what was in it? A complete little set of 12 Faber-Castell oil pastels, along with a bit of 5 x 7 Stonehenge paper. I’m thinking about putting together a little “field kit” for oil pastels and having fun re-acquainting myself with how to use the medium.

    Now that I’m committed to going out to paint tomorrow morning, I’m already having doubts. 😦 What will I paint? How do I find a good composition? Maybe I’ll end up painting the same things I’ve painted on art club paintings in the past, but I guess the important thing is getting out there and doing it. So, I’ll be hitting the hiking trails at dawn tomorrow, and I’ll be sharing the experience — good, bad, or whatever — on my blog.

    And just think, either you’ll get full credit for pushing me into a positive experience… or you’ll bear the full brunt of the blame if I fail. LOL. Of course, no matter what “art” I come up with, I’ll enjoy getting outside and hiking the trails. No rain in the forecast, so nothing should stop me.

    Thanks again for this very informative post. I’m going to refer to it many times as I start putting together my own “field kit” — for watercolor, for oil pastel, and eventually for my oil paints.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re very welcome. Getting outside to paint is never a failure! I always view it as a learning experience.

      Also, just because you’re outside, don’t feel pressured to do a “landscape”… it can be a study of a flower, the framing of a tree trunk and branch, a leaf, a rock, whatever!

      When I was doing plein air paintings the most, many years ago, I would do fast flower studies over and over. Think many hundreds of them, if not thousands. And because I did them on watercolor postcards, I then sent them onto to friends, family, and acquaintances – either as legitimate postcards or mounted to a blank greeting card (https://www.dickblick.com/products/strathmore-400-series-toned-cards/) as part of a more formal letter. For me – back before cell phones, and when long distance calls on landlines were prohibitively expensive – writing was how I kept in contact with everyone, and many of the recipients still have those little paintings displayed about their homes.

      Yes, painting the same thing that many times is repetitive, but I constantly mixed up how I did them so I never got bored.

      Your oil pastel paintings are good! I know some oil painters use them for quick color studies out in the field, then use them as reference for studio paintings later.

      Have fun!

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      1. Thanks for all the encouragement. I’ve decided I am going to take my oil pastels with me, mainly because I’ve gone out with my gansai several times, and I’ve never been too happy with my results, simply because watercolor is tricky. I’m much more comfortable with my oils, but I want to keep it simple and easy today, so the oil pastels will be a good alternative.

        “What will I paint?” That question has been on my mind for the last 24 hours, for sure. I love our park, but in many ways, it’s not all that scenic — as far as landscape views. But the hiking trails! Oh, yes, that’s what I love most. There, however, I don’t have “landscape views”, so as you’ve suggested, I’ve been thinking about doing leaves or flowers, or another “up-close” drawing/painting. I guess I’ll see when I get there!

        It’s still dark here, so I’m finishing up a few things around the house, and then I’ll be packing up my art supplies and heading out once it starts getting light.

        Our weather will be perfect, I think, and of course I’ll enjoy the experience. The question is whether or not I can return with any sort of “art” — other than a crazy drawing that bears no resemblance to anything.

        This is what concerns me with plein air. If I go to great lengths to pack up art supplies and spend a morning painting, I should have something to show for it, something more than messy scribbles or a really bad painting. 😦 I know it sounds like I’m whining (I guess I am) but this goes really deep for me.

        When I first began learning to draw, yes, indeed, everything I drew was a “success” of one sort or another. (Except for my first attempt at hostas, but never mind that.) I was learning. I was seeing progress. Even my mistakes helped me.

        Now, in trying to learn to draw better, there’s a whole new set of challenges, a lot of difficult questions, and much more opportunity to fail at what I’m doing.

        I want to find the joy in art again, but right now that’s not easy. As my blog post today explains, sometimes it’s all just hard.

        Hopefully I can find my way out of some of these difficult feelings soon. 🙂

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      2. Yes, watercolor is very tricky. Unlike most of the other drawing and painting art forms – which are opaque – watercolor is transparent and cannot use the same application techniques. For instance – if you lay down a background in oil, acrylic, or gouache – you can paint directly over it. Make a mistake? Paint over it. Do any of that with watercolor and you get a muddy mess.

        Have you thought about using gouache instead of watercolor? A lot of the same techniques you use with oil paint and oil pastel can be used with gouache, simply because it’s opaque. One of the best gouache painter/illustrators of today is James Gurney (https://jamesgurney.com/), and he likes sharing how to work with gouache.

        I understand wanting to find joy in doing art. My wife, Cindy, used to love doing art… until she didn’t. She found that the more she got into art, the more she doubled-down on it, and the more she concentrated – and so on into a downward spiral 🌀, until she no longer found any enjoyment at all in doing art. To her it became a source of great anxiety and stress, because she was too focused on making it “perfect”.

        Me? I just roll with my mistakes and accept them. I can paint the same flower dozens of times and have a different mistake in each painting – some of which can be seen by the casual viewer, and others not so much… but I know they’re there.

        When I want to just freely do art and not care about the results, I use the cheapest materials available and work with gusto. When I begin to find something that I like, then I switch over to the better materials to create something with more craft to it.

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      3. My gansai is almost like gouache, and that’s one reason why I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve had fun with it in my “nature journal”. I make quick ink drawings and then add the gansai. I enjoy doing it, and I like the casual, loose look I get with it.

        Now, as far as “art” goes… I am definitely not an “artist” when it comes to using watercolor or gansai. I’ve learned a few basics, but overall my skill level is very low. Trying to “create real art” that way only leads to frustration because I don’t have the skills to do it. Same with my oil pastels or soft pastels, too.

        The only “real art” I can create is with oil painting or with graphite. I know all you’re seeing on the blog lately are very bad graphite drawings — with a bit of gansai here and there — but I am capable of making decent graphite drawings (and charcoal, too). And my oil painting skills have improved enough to have won me a few awards, including a first-place finish at a regional art show. Even there, though, I’m still a beginner, still trying to figure out how to paint.

        One reason I’m pointing there things out here is because my plein air experience this morning was not a good one, sorry to say. I’ve written a post about it. It’s a lengthy one, and when you read it — it’s scheduled for August 10, I think — you’ll shake your head at all my tears and frustrations.

        When it comes to plein air PAINTING, I’m not there yet. I don’t know what to do or how to do it when I’m faced with nature. I feel like I have a lot more to learn before I can be comfortable with it.

        FWIW, oil pastel was not a good choice for me today. Gansai wouldn’t have been a good choice either. If I were ever to succeed at plein air painting, it would have to be with my oils because that’s the only medium I’m really comfortable with.

        But then, there’s plein air DRAWING, and that’s a whole different ball game. I call it “nature sketching”, and I love it. I can sit and draw for hours on end and feel that only moments have passed. I can create good drawings, drawings I’m proud of, and that’s what I should be doing more often.

        I mentioned you in the post I wrote about my plein air disaster 🙂 and I linked to your blog. You’ll probably tell me to get my oils together and get back out there, and that’s the direction I’m going now. I realize that using a media I’m not good with at all is NOT the way to approach plein air anything!

        But first, I’ll be spending more time doing my nature sketching outdoors. That I can do. That I enjoy.

        I do appreciate the push today. It helped me really understand why I have problems with plein air painting. I know more about what I need to work on now and why.

        Maybe I’ll get there, or maybe not. But either way, I can enjoy my plein air DRAWING time. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      4. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with nature drawing – I do it too!

        Keep in mind that some people find their art nirvana with urban sketching, while I know of at least one guy that has focused on – of all things – the drawing and painting of tugboats. Others like birds, gardens, rocks, trees, etc. There’s plenty of room out there for everyone to find whatever niche calls to them.

        And just because the experience is frustrating, doesn’t mean it’s time to give up.

        I say that because my own watercolor plein air efforts (and watercoloring as a whole) were an exercise in madness for me until I worked in the audiovisual/multi-image industry back in the 1980’s. That work exposure – which clearly exposed me to the concept of additive and subtractive color mixing – helped me realize that less is actually more when dealing with watercolor.

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      5. What I really need to do is get outdoors with my oil paints. I can handle that. I have more sense of knowing what I’m doing. For me, creating that “comfort level” is crucial. I have it with my graphite drawing when I’m outdoors, I need to learn how to create that same comfort zone with my oils.

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  2. wow…that kit is impressive in it’s function and portability! mine is a larger back pack as well as a rolling cart ( it’s actually called Art Cart) and i just hang the back pack off of it. This way i can take larger canvasses and a full size easel outdoors without having to carry them. The cart also turns into a chair which can be nice , or i can use teh seat as a make shift table..Generally i use acrylics outdoors, still working myself up to how to transport the paints more easily in the bag ( i only use Goldens heavy body in jars , not tubes- because tubes tend to dry out so fast for me).I have transferred them into pill boxes at times that i can get at a dollar store for a buck and just throw away after. I always take 3 used water bottles and a cup for rinsing..2 bottles i fill with water , the other empty ( filling it with the dirty as i go)so i can keep from throwing dirty paint water on the ground,Generally i use a few old rags for drying brushes etc when i am done and they along with any trash go into a plastic grocery bag. I take a few of those also because sometimes if it’s windy i put whatever near by rocks into them and hang them off my easel to keep it from blowing over. I also take a few large binder clips for misc things.I would have to say -it’s not the lightest way to pack but since it rolls along the ground i never have to carry anything and so it leaves me handsfree and and unencumbered as i trapse along woodsy paths, in the sand or wherever my hear takes me:)

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