Porthgwarra, plein air oil painting and details of what kit to take when painting plein air with oils, watercolours, mixed media

Porthgwarra from the cliffs, Tide in, Watched by a Seal, oil paint, about 11 inches square, not quite finished, Vivien Blackburn

A hazy, windy day, forecast rain stayed away, the tide in so no beach to be seen but a seal swimming out in the surf  kept popping up to look at us.

I sat in a sheltered spot amongst the wildflowers on the cliff  - just the sounds of the sea and the occasional gull - heaven.  Even himself was quietly musing, no talking.

It needs just a little work doing before I'll call it finished.  I often do just a little more when I get plein air works home - I'm looking at them as a painting then without distraction.


 the sea seething on the rocks

3 corndered leeks, sea thrift and many other flowers around me

I made it to Porthgwarra without incident this time - last time I ended up having to reverse for about half a mile because I met a HUGE oncoming tanker touching both hedges and totally filling the road, followed by a massive tractor with some sort of digger attached.  8>O   - the occasional little passing places are designed for 2 cars to pass - Carefully - not something like this!   There are just a couple of houses down there so I assume it was to fill their gas or oil tanks..

I often get asked what kit I take when painting plein air.   The answer is that in the car it's the kitchen sink and all!  I can't bear not to have virtually everything there.  Just In Case.

a very lightweight rucksack  is what I use to cut down on what I carry - for the a typical day like the one painting at Porthgwarra it contains:

  • Brushes - I like nylon brushes square, round, rigger - designed for acrylics and some hog brushes - don't go too small with these if you want to work freely.   I carry these in a rolled up, recycled padded envelope to keep them upright and together - but not add extra weight to the bag.
  • Disposable Palette - this beats having to clean a traditional palette
  • Baby Oil  for cleaning me and my brushes - skin and environmentally friendly, brushes (and me) then clean off totally with soap and water.  I put this in a plastic bag, which also houses any oily rags on the return journey.
  • Rags and tissues or kitchen roll for cleaning up, smudging paint, whatever
  • Pencil Case with mechanical pencil, carbon pencil, Rotring pen, Pentel Brush pen, Jakar battery eraser, normal eraser
  • bulldog clips and masking tape for holding things in place and preventing the wind flipping pages/book - I have worked in the teeth of a gale where I couldn't even hold a book still as the wind flipped it and my hands!  
  • alternative sketchbook if I feel like it  - I can then do drawings of the scen
  • something to sit on - I work in the countryside so take a thin, lightweight rain cape.   It's ok if the grass is damp and keeps me dry if it starts to rain.
  • camera
  • possible extras
    • If I'm working on the beach for any length of time I might take my half igloo  beach tent  - useful for sheltering from the wind, passing showers, nosy passers by(!) and throwing your gear in the back and providing a ground sheet to sit on.
    • sunhat if it's hot and bright - it makes colours much easier to distinguish if your eyes are shaded
    • sun tan lotion
    • Bag 2 If it's a long session of painting, where I'll do a series of pieces,  I might well take the shoulder bag with my watercolours, charcoal and mixed media stuff in - but that's another post :>)
    • Lightweight drawing board and bulldog clips to attach sketch pad and palette 
What I don't carry - turps - it's inflammable, needs containers. has to be disposed of in an environmentally friendly way, not easy plein air - so container for clean and dirty and in-use.   With Liquin I just tip a small amount into the mix on the palette that needs it.


I use this or canvas but prefer the oil paper really when working plein air.   I see no advantage at all in buying oil boards, I don't like them to use, they still need framing and they add extra weight.   I have used hardboard (masonite) in the past but it has the same drawbacks of weight and framing plus the need to prime it.

As the light changes so fast I don't usually work bigger than A3, much as I'd like to as it's not easy to finish in a short enough time.

If you close the book on a finished painting, carefully, the turn to the next page, let pages temporarily cling together, you can then continue working on another painting - and another and another ....  

Leave the book closed until you get back to the house and then spread them all out to dry overnight.   They never stick and don't get damaged (unless you trowel the paint on extremely thick).

Next day they'll be dry (if you use Griffin Alkyds)  and you can make any adjustments with glazes or scumbling far quicker than with traditional paint.

I really like these quick drying oils.   They are proper oils (some people think they aren't as the name sounds a bit like acrylics) - they simply contain driers.  This means that very thinly applied paints will dry the same day, thicker applications by the next day and all colours dry at the same rate, a real advantage.  I remember using traditional oils thickly in an autum painting and the yellows and oranges still coming off on me weeks later when I moved it.   Small amounts of traditional oils can be mixed with them without affecting drying times too much if you have much loved colours.

I always buy the big 200ml tube of white, never the small one - you need a lot of white and the small ones run out too fast.

 If you like the combined stool/rucksacks then these would be ok for you, particularly if you work a lot in towns. I tend to work in the countryside with uneven ground where it wouldn't be so practical - also there are often rocks to sit on or grass or sand, using my rain cape.  If working near the car I may use a folding chair or sit on the back of the car with the hatch up.

Personally I'm not a great fan of pochade boxes.   They are very heavy and for the weight, I'd rather take more materials.  With arthritis, the weight matters.   They also limit the size you can work in many cases.  I tend to work holding the paper or use a sketching easel if I'm using canvas (which I rarely do plein air).   

This post was triggered by several people asking me what kit I use plein air and most recently Katherine - who has been asking a million and one questions as she's off to Provence and thinking of using oil paints.   I was invited but couldn't go - I shall read the posts about the trip with sad sad envy!  It would have been so nice to work there with friends Katherine, Ronelle, Sarah and Robyn

If anyone does a post on their plein air oils kit I'll add a link


Anita said…
Brilliant post, Vivien! I love this kind of info. One thing that always puts me off doing plein aire is the amount of stuff you have to take with you. Glad to see you use nylon brushes (my faves!) and the disposable palette to me is unbeatable! Didn't know baby oil would clean brushes though. Lovely lovely painting too! I could see this on my wall! :-)
Unknown said…
Great informative post, Vivien and a lovely painting too! My, that sea looks a bit choppy - you must have been absolutely freezing.
I'm looking forward now to finding out what you take in bag 2. I've not tried oils in plein aire yet, although I do have a lightweight pochade and some Artisan water mixable oils so there's no excuse :-)
Sarah said…
lovely, thank you Viv. I was wondering about the canvas pads and how to transport wet paintings and now I know. As I work in such a close to my home way this trip to Provence is throwing up all sorts of questions. No prochade box or little painting boards your post has decided me!
I love the griffen paints too, I cant work acrylics and an way too impatient for regular oils so the Alkyds are perfect.
Thanks for the post, its clothes now that I am fussing about, being used to Cornwall weather, cant really imagin the heat!
Making A Mark said…
Great post Vivien - thank you for doing this. I've included it in http://paintingprovence.blogspot.com/2011/05/my-art-materials-or-why-its-good-idea.html and will be also including it in "who's made a mark this week" later today
Margo said…
Thanks so much for sharing your paint kit Vivien. Glad to hear I'm not the only one who wants to pack the entire studio. The only thing different I take is I use cooking oil to clean my brushes instead of baby oil. Trick I picked up from taking a workshop with Henry Yan. One day he even left his brushes in some leftover lemonade to keep them from hardening. His canvas smelled like lemonade the next day. too fun!
vivien said…
I use the cheapo cooking oil at home too Margo - but lemondade :>D different, well anything to save brushes from ruin!

It's not really too much stuff if you don't take heavy pochade boxes and chairs Anita - go for it :>)

It was lovely and warm out of the wind Michael so not one of the days where I suffered for my art ;>)

Sarah - layers I think, that can be peeled off as you get further south and piled on as you come north :>) - I hope you like the canvas pads - give on a run out locally to be sure? I wish I could have joined you all but I really couldn't make it :>( such a lovely group to paint with

I'm off to check out the blogs now Katherine .........
Great post Vivien, lots of very useful information. I love the Cornish colours in the painting. Makes me feel the wind and taste the spray.

Your hedge-huggin' tale made me chuckle... been there ;o)
vivien said…
:>) it was SO not fun!

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