Plein Air Painting

Bucolic scene – Annapolis, Maryland

A little over three years ago, Cindy and I were going through some high levels of stress while dealing with her elderly mother and the house in Annapolis, Maryland, that she had lived in since 1960 or so. At age 94 – some 8 months prior to the images on this page – her mother had finally gotten senior dementia bad enough that she could no longer safely remain in her home on her own, and she needed to be transferred to an adult assisted-living facility. Everything was a challenge during that time. After we finally got her mom successfully out of the house, we were faced with the onerous task of cleaning it out prior to putting it on the market for sale.

Why was the task so difficult? Because the house was literally crammed with the results of nearly 60-years of hoarding, with some items dating back all the way to the early 1930s. So Cindy and I began emptying the house one room at a time, filling up more than 12 huge dumpsters with junk over the course of 9 months – and that still didn’t finish emptying the property. We finally admitted defeat and called in the experts to complete the job, which took many more dumpsters yet after our initial efforts.

At one point in June 2019, after many hours of exhausting work filling up one of the seemingly endless dumpsters, I finally called for a rest break and decided that I needed to de-stress. And for me, that entailed getting some iced tea, breaking out my plein air watercoloring kit, grabbing a chair, and sitting in the shade of some trees in the backyard. The image above was where I found myself, and I decided to just go ahead and paint that. First I used my dip pen and ink to create a rough sketch, which you can see below.

Ink sketch

Then I pre-dampened the watercolor paints and began to mix some colors, and applied them in approximate places on the paper, which you can see below.

Filling in the color

Everything goes quickly on a painting like this. For one, even though I was seated in the shade, it was quite hot outside, and the paints dried almost as fast as they were applied to the paper. Two, even though I was taking a break, we still had a virtual mountain of junk remaining to be transferred to the dumpster for pickup early the next morning – so it wasn’t as if I could take all afternoon to complete this artwork.

Mostly completed

Nearing the end of the time I had available, the painting looked pretty good to my eyes. Was it perfect? No, but then nothing ever is. Was it successful as a piece of art? Well, I was certainly pleased with it. And I had achieved my goal, which was to do something that I enjoyed immensely to lower my stress levels from the task at hand. The final result is as you see it below.

Finished painting

I later mounted this little painting to a blank greeting card, and sent it to my best friend for his birthday.

Painting info:
Bucolic backyard scene
Annapolis, Maryland
June 2019
Daniel Smith Extra Fine Watercolors
Schmincke Horadam Aquarell watercolors
Fluid 100 100% cotton 140 lb cold press paper

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

Rural Sunrise

Rural sunrise – Poolesville, Maryland

One of my many plein air watercolor paintings, this is one of the surrounding crop fields that we have here where we live – done in the spring when the colors are intense and vibrant.

Painting info:
Rural sunrise
Crop field
Poolesville, Maryland
April 1989
Daniel Smith Extra Fine watercolors
Lanaquarelle 100% cotton 140 lb hot press paper