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

Seldom Seen Now

Common toad (Bufo bufo) – Poolesville, Maryland

We used to see lots of tree frogs and common toads in our yard when we first moved here in the early-1990s – lurking for unsuspecting insects in our vegetable garden and flower beds – but they began to disappear within a few years and now we rarely see them at all. This is the last large toad that I’ve been able to photograph, and that was over seven years ago. We’ve seen two or three other small amphibians since then, but none of them have been as big, beautiful, and plump as this one.

We don’t know what to attribute the decline to, because we didn’t use chemicals on our lawn, garden, or flower beds during the time that we noted the decline of their numbers in our yard. However, we do still hear peepers in distance at night, but even their welcome sound is dying down over time.

Toad – Poolesville, Maryland

Photo info:
Common toad (Bufo bufo)
Poolesville, Maryland
April 2014
Leica Summilux 50/1.4 ASPH lens with helical extender
Leica M240 digital rangefinder camera

Summer Purples

Blooms – Wheaton, Maryland

Blooms, blooms, and more blooms. When you visit anyplace that figures “gardens” prominently in their title, it’s a good bet that there will be lots and lots of blooms to view and appreciate – such is the case with Brookside Gardens. The last time I was here was nearly two decades ago and it’s had major improvements during my absence – elevated boardwalks, a new visitors center, many plantings that I don’t recall – the list goes on.

It’s funny… I absolutely hated visiting places like this when I was a kid. My mom was big into flowers and gardening, and would drag me practically kicking and screaming to various professional gardens whenever we moved to a new state. And now? Now I love them and seek them out.

The change for me was my last photography job, where I worked in an audiovisual 24/7 sweatshop down on K Street NW in Washington, DC. I was hired there in the spring of 1988 initially as the sole optical photographer (everyone else was a Genigraphics computer artist), and I worked excessively long hours shooting all of the optical images that we produced – many hundreds of thousands of images by the time I left there some four years later. Product shots, studio shots, composite insertion shots, black and white Kodalith slides, E-6 color duplication slides, Ektachrome slide composites – you name it, I shot it.

All of this photography work was done in a dark room. Scratch that… all of this was done in a completely BLACK room, including the ceiling and floors. Due to cross contamination issues from any other color source, every square inch of that room was painted flat matte pitch black, and every crack that emitted light was sealed tightly shut. When the lights went out – which was 90% of my hours each work day – that room was the complete absence of all light. It was black-hole-level-of-darkness personified. And believe me, that wasn’t a job for anyone with nyctophobia or vertigo.

By the time I was six months into that job, I began seeking out anything that wasn’t black. By the time I left it, I was addicted to pure color. Bright color. Saturated color. Jackhammer-to-the-eyes color. And I discovered that one of the very best places to find pure unadulterated colors were the professional gardens, which I have loved and enjoyed visiting ever since.


Photo info:
Flower blooms
Brookside Gardens
Wheaton, Maryland
July 2021
Voigtländer 65/2.0 APO Macro lens
Sony a7 III digital camera