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.
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!
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).
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.
And below is the contents of the main bag:
- The art materials pouch
- Stub nib fountain pen
- Iron gall ink
- Headlamp and spare batteries
- Two accessory lenses for my smartphone
- Lens cleaning microfiber cloth
- Matador Pocket Blanket
- Aquaphor lip balm
- Small roll of gaffer tape
- Eye drops
- Aspirin and Tylenol
- A variety of different watercolor postcards
- A variety of different watercolor paper
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.
Below is what the pouch looks like opened, so you can see how it’s packed.
And below is the list of items I keep in the Peak Design Tech Pouch:
- Several paper towels
- Olfa Slimline knife
- Molotow art masking fluid pen
- Art Deckle 6-inch ruler
- 6-inch cork-backed ruler
- Staedtler Mars plastic eraser
- Gum rubber eraser
- Scribal Work Shop iron gall ink
- Assorted dip pen nibs
- Ink nib holder and nibs
- Two porcelain paint mixing dishes
- Water sprayer
- Mini microfiber towel
- Squeeze-open spice container (white side for fresh water, clear side for brush rinse water)
- 8.5 fl oz (250 ml) repurposed plastic water bottle
- Small capped plastic vial for mixing paint washes
- Blunt-tipped syringe for pinpoint water application
- 0.5mm mechanical pencil
- Spare 0.5mm pencil leads
- Tombow Mono Zero precision eraser
- Sakura Pigma Micron archival ink pens – 02 and 08 size
- Natural sea sponge (part of the W&N watercolor field kit)
- Winsor & Newton Professional Watercolour Field Kit
- Homemade color chart
- Rhodia leather pencil case
- Collapsible toothbrush head
- Three different wash brushes
- Scrubber brush
- Escoda Perla watercolor travel brushes – sizes 12, 4, and 2
- Escoda Reserva Kolinsky watercolor travel brush – size 4
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).
Plein air watercoloring field kit
Apple iPhone 12 Pro