Ultralight Plein Air Painting

Ultralight plein air landscape painting gear discussion.

♫ The hills are alive… ♫

Trudging through the snow in the Alps this February, I decided that my plein air equipment was annoyingly heavy and I resolved to lighten it. One major problem outdoor landscape painters have with regard to equipment is that we need it to be wonderfully light while we’re trekking around looking for views, and then we need it to be heavy and stable when we start painting.

I believe that some of this is also just a question of getting used to painting with a different set-up. When I first started landscape painting I used the heavy steel easels made by Fome in Italy. When I tried their aluminum version I found it to be annoyingly unstable. Now I use that same aluminum easel everyday without issues. In my quest for lighter gear I recently tried repurposing a plastic box from a hardware store and had the same experience. The first few times I found it moved too much and seemed unstable, but after sticking with it for a few weeks it works fine for me now.

Having equipment blow over in the wind is a bigger problem, but for most breezes the weight of the backpack is enough to stabilize everything. For heavier winds I think the best solution is to have some way of attaching a weight to the set-up when one arrives at the painting site, and finding said weight there. In nature this usually means finding a big rock and in cities it can mean buying a bottle of water.

This is my current set-up (lighterpack.com link).

Ultralight plein air landscape painting materials.

My ultralight plein air painting equipment.

  1. Black mirror
  2. Plastic pochade box with attached palette cups
  3. Kunst & Papier softcover sketchbook
  4. Home-made wet panel carrier
  5. Night lights for nocturnes
  6. Brushes and brush-holder
  7. Ferrino Zephyr 22 + 3 backpack
  8. Fome aluminum tripod easel
  9. Medium, turpentine, palette knife
  10. Zecchi gesso-primed panel
  11. Backup tubes of paint (just white, the three blues, and ochre)

It clocks in at around 11 lbs, or 5 kg, with the easel.

Ultralight plein air painting kit

Everything packed up.

My focus here is really on having a painting set-up that works for me, the weight is completely secondary. For example, I won’t give up the ridiculous number of brushes I need to paint with. My Kunst & Papier sketchbook is also quite large, but I find drawing compositional ideas in a small Moleskine-sized sketchbook to be restrictive. (Kunst & Papier has much better drawing paper too).

I only carry titanium white, Roman ochre, cerulean, cobalt and ultramarine blue paint tubes with me. The fact is that the cadmiums last forever on the palette. They don’t dry out, and the tinting strength of Williamsburg is such that I use very little over the course of a day. I find there is almost never a reason to have back-up tubes in the bag. (Another solution is just to take half-empty tubes of everything).

I’m currently using Zecchi’s gesso-prepared wood panels in Europe, but I’ll switch to New Traditions’ C12 Claessens-on-gatorfoam when I’m in the US this summer. With the Zecchi boards I use those orange ‘Pony’ clamps to hold the lid of my pochade box and the top of the panel. With New Traditions, the clamps are too strong and will crush the gatorfoam so I switch to lightweight (plastic) photographer’s clips. The New Traditions’ boards are quite expensive, but I know people who are making their own version with their preferred primed-linen attached to gatorboard, dibond, or wood via sheets of Beva 371 thick film (glue) using a low-temprature iron. Linen mounted on gatorfoam is wonderfully lightweight and can be especially useful for avoiding overweight fees on airplanes.

Obviously, the night lights aren’t necessary unless I’m painting nocturnes.

There are a lot of cottage industry companies these days making ultralight backpacks (here is a good list). The problem with many of the ultralight packs is that they’re often huge for what is essentially a day trip for most plein air painters. They’re also usually minimalist with regard to add-ons and pockets in order to reduce weight. I find the bells and whistles to be really useful on a backpack. I also need a gazillion pockets to sort everything. Furthermore, having everything waterproofed is useful as medium leakage is a standard occupational hazard for landscape painters and it’s good to be able to protect the other items in the pack from such an event.

At the moment I’m using a Ferrino Zephyr 22 + 3. It’s not an ultralight pack as there is a frame that pushes the body of the bag away from one’s back which seems relatively heavy. (Frankly, the frame doesn’t seem that well thought out as it pushes too far into the main section so it doesn’t leave a great deal of space inside). I bought it after trying on a dozen or so backpacks in various stores as it was very comfortable and the pockets were the right size for my equipment. It’s been holding up well, but I plan on having one custom made after the summer. I’d like to organize the storage to fit my materials exactly, and in a way where I can quickly access the items I regularly need while working.

Ultralight plein air landscape painting easel and backpack.

My current set-up in the field.

Many pochade box companies advertise a 30 second set-up time. That seems like a lifetime in plein air painting. My set-up is up and running in closer to 10 seconds.

That said, I’d like to try a carbon fiber camera tripod set up. While the Fome aluminum easels are lighter than most good carbon fiber camera tripods, I’m curious to see if I can get more stability out of carbon fiber. I wrote to Manfrotto/Gitzo and asked them if they could make some attachment parts for plein air painters, but they said they only design their equipment for photographers. (What ingrates. A landscape painter invented photography for them, and this is the thanks we get.) I considered writing to Fome too, but after they started putting rubber in the lids of their turpentine cups I have very low expectations of their design team.

There are some great American pochade box makers these days, but based on the weight of the boxes they’re making they all seem to have sherpas carrying their equipment around. I’m also more interested in the cigar-box-with-separate-mast system that I currently use. The pochade box model doesn’t work for sight-size, unless you’re ok with having your nose in your palette.

So, after not being able to find a strong, stable, and lightweight attachment system for a cigar box and tripod, I’m currently experimenting with making my own carbon fiber equipment at home. I’ll post the results in a few days.

Plein Air Painting in Tuscany

Plein air landscape painting of Sant'Angelo in Colle, near Montalcino, Tuscany.

Sant’Angelo in Colle. 20 x0 30 cm, oil on panel.

A quick post with some of my paintings from last week in Tuscany.

Late May/early June is my favorite time to paint in the area south of Siena, as the wheat fields are at their best, just before the harvest. The Senese is probably one of the more picturesque places on earth, and it is arguably the place where the first landscape paintings since antiquity were painted in the Allegory of Good and Bad Government frescos by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in the town hall of Siena.

Plein air painting of a Fiat Panda.

Fiat Panda. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

Painting of a farmer in Chianti.

Mario. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

Plein air painting of Castelmuzio, Tuscany, Italy.

Castelmuzio. 25 x 35 cm, oil on panel.

Montisi (unfinished). 20 x 30 cm.

Montisi (unfinished). 20 x 30 cm.

We were lucky with the weather. There were thunderstorms around Montisi (where we were staying) but with the big skies of the Senese we could see where they were growing and move around them.

Plein air painting of Sant'Angelo in Colle.

Sant’Angelo in Colle #2. 25 x 35 cm, oil on panel.

Dipinto della spiaggia a Roccamare.

On the Beach, Roccamare. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

The last few paintings are of the sunset every evening from the farmhouse where we were staying outside of the village of Noce, near Tavarnelle val di Pesa. It’s part of a continuing series I’ve been working on which I intend on framing all together in one large frame. You can see some of the ones from last year here.

Plein air painting of a Tuscan sunset.

Torricella Sunset #5. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

Plein air painting of a Tuscan sunset.

Torricella Sunset #6. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

Plein air landscape of a sunset in Tuscany.

Torricella Sunset #7. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

Plein air painting of a sunset near Tavarnelle val di Pesa.

Torricella Sunset #8. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

Two Days in Venice

Rio di San Barnaba painting by Marc Dalessio

Rio di San Barnaba. 35 x 25 cm, oil on panel.

I was in Venice for a  couple days this week to see friends, and I managed to get a few sketches done. Venice is only 3.5 hours from Zagreb and I really should go more often. I’ve been visiting the city for the last 23 years and I still am struck every time I arrive and watch the city function entirely with boats. It is really such a special place.

Plein air painting of the view from the Giudecca in the morning.

Morning on the Giudecca. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

Plein air landscape painting of the Rio della Croce canal on the Giudecca in Venice, Italy.

Rio della Croce. 25 x 35 cm, oil on panel.

Plein air painting of the Rio del Ponte Lungo in Venice, Italy by Marc Dalessio.

Rio del Ponte Lungo. 30 x 20 cm, oil on panel.

We stayed on the Giudecca, so most of my paintings were done there. When I’m on a short trip such as this I find it much more productive if I don’t scout around too much. Tourist season is in full swing as well, so the main areas were very crowded for painting with an easel. I started an evening sketch near San Marco but gave up halfway through as the crowd got so thick I couldn’t see my view.

Painting of a sailboat moored in the harbor on San Giorgio, Venice, Italy.

Sailboat, San Giorgio. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

Salzburg Studio Paintings

Oil painting of the statues in the Mirabell Garden in Salzburg, Austria.

Mirabell Statues. 90 x 120 cm, oil on linen.

Here are some images of the larger landscape paintings I’ve been working on in the studio over the last month. These are enlarged from plein air sketches done on site in Hallein, Salzburg, and the surrounding area in Austria and Southern Germany earlier in the year.

Oil painting of the Church at Faistenau, Austria in the winter.

The Church at Faistenau. 60 x 80 cm, oil on linen.

These will be in an exhibition at a new arts center in Hallein in September. There are a couple of more I plan on starting and I’ll update this post when they’re finished. I’ve never been a huge fan of the Spring colors we have outside at the moment. I find the acid greens and browns don’t work all that well in paintings, and it’s nice to be working inside for a bit.

There is also a certain freedom to studio work which you feel less when working from the subject in life. The painting becomes much more about design and creativity, and less about the visual accuracy I usually strive for when working from the subject on site.

Landscape painting of Salzburg in the winter.

Salzburg, Winter. 60 x 80 cm, oil on linen.

Oil painting of a path in the snow above Bad Dürrnberg, Austria.

Morning above Bad Dürrnberg. 80 x 100 cm, oil on linen.

On an unrelated note, for anyone in London this week, a number of my paintings will be exhibited in the BADA fair, with my British dealer Constantine Lindsay.

Update: Here is another studio piece from this week:

Oil painting of St. Gilgen, Austria.

St. Gilgen. 70 x110 cm, oil on linen.

Salzburg Paintings

Painting of the Mirabell Garden statues in the snow, Salzburg, Austria.

Statues in the Snow, Mirabell Gardens, Salzburg. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

These are the rest of my sketches from the last two weeks in Hallein, Austria. As I’m not used to driving with heavy snow on the roads I tended to move around more on sunny days. Hence the clear skies in many of these pieces.

The first few are from Salzburg, a city rightly famous for it’s beauty. It also has a really Italian feel to it as a couple of the architects who designed the major structures hailed from Italy.

Plein air painting of Salzburg in winter.

Salzburg. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

Plein air painting of church towers in Salzburg, Austria.

Salzburg Steeples. 35 x 25 cm, oil on panel.

The next ones are from the small villages in the foothills of the Alps around Salzburg.

Plein air painting of Faistenau, Austria.

Faistenau, Morning. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

Plein air painting of Faistenau, Austria.

Faistenau Afternoon. 30 x 20 cm, oil on panel.

Plein air painting of Faistenau, Austria in the evening.

Faistenau Evening (color study). 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

Plein air painting of St. Gilgen, Austria in winter.

St Gilgen Roofs. 25 x 35 cm, oil on panel.

Plein air painting of St. Gilgen, Austria.

St. Gilgen, Evening. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

Plein air painting of St. Leonhard in the winter.

St. Leonhard. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

And the last two are from just over the border into Southern Germany.

Plein air painting of Berchtesgaden, Germany.

Berchtesgaden (unfinished, I left out their cathedral). 30 x 20 cm, oil on panel.

Oil painting of St. Bartholomä am Königssee.

St. Bartholomä am Königssee. 25 x 35 cm, oil on panel.

These paintings as well as some enlarged studio pieces (done from these sketches) will be in a group show of local landscapes in Hallein in June.

 

Winter in Hallein, Austria

Plein air landscape of roofs in the snow in Hallein, Austria.

Hallein Roofs. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

Here is the first group of the plein air landscapes from the last two weeks in Hallein, Austria. We had a lot of snow, but enough sun to give us a bit of variety in the lighting.

Plein air landscape of Hallein in the sun.

Winter Sun, Hallein. 35 x 22 cm, oil on panel.

Croatia and Austria were part of the same country not so long ago, and it’s only four hours by car from Zagreb to Salzburg (by contrast, Dubrovnik is eight hours to the south of us). The architecture in that part of the world has a similar feel to the old parts of Zagreb, and there is some overlap with the food and customs.

Plein air landscape of factories in February.

Factories. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

These paintings are for an exhibition I’ll be having with a few other painters in June of this year, and in May I hope to go back and paint some ‘warmer’ pieces. Also, some of these sketches will be enlarged over the next few months as well. March and April are my least favorite months to work outside.

Oil painting of Hallein, Austria in the snow.

Hallein. 25 x 35 cm, oil on panel.

Plein air landscape of a snowy street in Hallein, Austria.

Snow in the Streets, Hallein. 30 x 20 cm, oil on panel.

Plein air landscape of an overpass in the snow.

Overpass in the Snow. 30 x 20 cm, oil on panel.

Plein air landscape of the Upper Town, Hallein.

Upper Town. 30 x 20 cm, oil on panel.

I drove quite extensively, as usual. Next post will be the sketches from Salzburg and the surround towns, villages, and countryside.

Plein air painting of a path in the woods, Bad Durnberg.

Path in the Woods, Bad Dürnberg. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

Two English Studio Landscapes

Here, briefly, are a couple of larger studio pieces I recently finished from sketches done in September in Norfolk and Suffolk, England. They’re off to Constantine Lindsay Fine Art.

Landscape painting of Boats at Low Tide, Burnham Overy Staithe.

Boats at Low Tide, Burnham Overy Staithe. 80 x 100 cm, oil on linen.

Painting of Pin Mill at low tide.

Pin Mill, Low Tide. 70 x 100 cm, oil on linen.

I’m off to Austria to paint outside in the Alps tomorrow. It will be good to get out of the studio for a bit.

The Iphone as a Painting Tool

A short post on using an Iphone as a black mirror. Like most of my tips, this is not my idea and I understand this has been common practice for a while at the ateliers like the FAA which teach sight-size. I mentioned it to other painters who hadn’t thought of the idea and it was well-received, so I decided to post it here.

I made the following video a few years ago demonstrating the use of a mirror in sight-size portraiture:

And in the next video of Ben Fenske painting a landscape you can see how often an artist will reach for the mirror while working:

The fact is, the mirror is one of the most efficacious devices for checking shapes and proportions in painting. It can be used without sight-size, but having everything visually locked-in makes the mirror especially powerful as an artist’s tool. For commissioned portraiture, where speed and accuracy are so important, it is really essential.

In landscape painting, artists will often use welding glass (sometimes called a black mirror) as it also greatly reduces the values. This allows the painter to see a value range closer to what they can actually capture in paint, and simplifies the number of values they need to compare.

Enter the Iphone, the $700 black mirror.

The Iphone has a flat, black glass screen and works perfectly for measuring shapes, proportions and values while landscape painting. Most of us also carry our phones around with us all the time. I recently inherited an older Iphone to replace my Nokia. While I’ll miss the maps and the privacy of my previous phone, I hated the rounded screen as I couldn’t use it to check shapes. Since I often forget, lose or break my painting mirrors when I travel, it will be a nice upgrade (that and the fact that iOS supports Instagram so I can stop borrowing the wife’s phone to post).

New York City

Plein air painting of Chambers Street in Tribeca, New York

Andrea and Luella on Chambers Street. 12 x 8 in. oil on linen.

Here are some paintings from the past week on the streets of in New York City. I was there for a portrait commission and other business stuff, so I didn’t get a lot of time for plein air work.

It was fun painting on the streets, the New Yorkers (and tourists) were very complimentary about the work.

Apologies for the potato-quality photos, I didn’t have my camera with me.

Plein air painting of the Freedom Tower from West Broadway.

The Freedom Tower from West Broadway. 12 x 8 in., oil on panel.

Plein air painting of soccer players in Central Park, NYC

Soccer Players in Central Park. 8 x 12 in., oil on panel.

Plein air painting of a print seller near City Hall, NYC

Print Seller. 8 x 10 in., oil on linen.

I don’t normally sell prints of my work, but the above piece will be available for purchase as a print from Larry, the guy in the painting. He’s by the exit to the City Hall subway exit, near the Brooklyn Bridge.

Plein air painting of Times Square, NYC

Times Square. 8 x 12 in., oil on panel.

Plein air painting of the Manhattan Bridge.

Manhattan Bridge. 14 x 11 in., oil on panel.

Update: One more of the pile driver in Dumbo that woke me up every morning.

Plein air painting of a construction site in Dumbo, Brooklyn.

Pile Driver, Dumbo. 14 x 11 in., oil on panel.

Norfolk Plein Air Paintings

Plein air landscape painting of boats at Burnham Overy Staithe, Norfolk, UK

Boats at Low Tide, Burnham Overy Staithe. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

Here are the paintings from last week in Norfolk, England.

One of the best things about painting in the UK, I think, is that there is a large number of excellent plein air painters to work with. This trip was organized by David Bachmann, and we were joined by Roy Connelly, Tony Dakin, Jory GlazenerTim King, David Pilgrim, Mike Richardson and Karl Terry. (One evening the English artists were insisting that there aren’t really that many plein air painters in the UK, but then the two spots where we painted had large groups of plein air painters from the Norfolk Painting School, run by Martin Kinnear, and David and I saw another group earlier in the week at Pin Mill).

Plein air landscape painting of Burnham Market, Norfolk, UK.

Saturday in Burnham Market. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

While the weather in the UK was beautiful all week, we had a marine layer over northern Norfolk. I enjoyed the grey skies though, after a very hot August in Italy (well, the second half of August at any rate).

Driving inland a bit I was able to find some sun.

Oil painting of a bull in a field in Norfolk.

Bull in a Norfolk Field. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

Plein air painting of sheep in a field in Norfolk, England.

Sheep in a Field, Cranworth. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

Painting of the garden at Teal Cottage, Burnham Overy Staithe.

Teal Cottage Garden. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

Plein air painting of the sky at Brancaster Staithe, Norfolk.

Norfolk Sky. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

Norfolk is famous among artists for its skies. The flatness of the land combined with the unstable English weather makes for some great sky paintings. Or so I’ve been told. We only had one day when the clouds were distinct, most of the time it was hazy or a flat grey.

Plein air oil painting of the church at Burnham Market, Norfolk.

The Church at Burnham Market. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

I spent a lot of time painting the boats at low tide, I guess since I find it such an unusual subject.

Plein air painting of a sailboat at Burnham Overy Staithe, Norfolk.

Sailboat, Burnham Overy Staithe. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

Plein air painting of a boat at low tide, Brancaster Staithe, Norfolk.

Boat at Low Tide, Brancaster Staithe. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

Plein air painting of a cornfield in Norfolk.

Cornfield, Brancaster Staithe. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

Norfolk has a lot to offer for subject matter. It’s also a really nice place to work as the people are friendly, it feels really empty (at least in September), and there are very few fences anywhere.

Plein air painting of morning light, Brancaster Staithe, Norfolk.

Norfolk Morning. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.