what to take when sketching plein air (1 ) .... oils

What to take when you go sketching plein air?

what materials? what equipment? what medium? - oils? watercolour? pastel? acrylic? coloured pencil? pencil? what size paper/canvas/sketchbook? what to sit on?

Warm Day, April, Wells next the Sea, oil, plein air, approx 10 ins square Vivien Blackburn (old work)

what and why? that's like 'how long is a piece of string' - one person's perfect kit isn't going to be right for another. All I can say is what is right for me.

I use virtually any and all media sketching. What I take depends on
  • whether it's a family outing
  • a trip specifically to sketch with friends
  • sketching alone
  • how long I have there to paint/sketch
  • how far from the car I have to walk carrying equipment and materials
  • the weather

If with family then what I take is lightweight and limited, and may be simply a moleskine or other sketch book and a mechanical pencil or biro.

If with friends then it's kitchen sink time! I would take in the car: my oils, coloured pencils, some oil pastels for mixed media, watercolours, charcoal, pencil and a variety of sketchbooks/papers in all sorts of sizes and paper types. I also like a variety of colours - I often work with a limited palette - but I want to choose which colours for individual paintings in front of the landscape - not one-set-does-all, chosen in advance. I hate it when I've cut back on something - watercolours or oils - and I haven't taken them.

If I have to walk far carrying materials then it will affect what I take and I'll select from the stuff in the car. If we plan to stay all day then I may be prepared to carry quite a lot - if it's only a short trip then maybe I'd cut back.

What medium I use when I get there depends on subject, light and weather. I'll look at the different media I use in a series of posts, starting with -

Oil paints:

Recent sketches in Cornwall really reinforced my love of oils as a preferred medium for catching colour and movement quickly and fast. I don't draw first but just go in with colour. For me this is definitely the quickest medium and enables me to work larger.

Working plein air in oils

Plein air I use Griffin Alkyds, quick drying oils, that have all the properties of traditional oils but have the advantage of all colours in the range drying overnight.

Equipment: I've recently stopped carrying turps. I simply take a bottle of Liquin for thinning paint if needed and a bottle of baby oil for cleaning up - brushes and me.

I put my paints into a box file along with a few brushes, a painting knife and a colour shaper .

Then all I need is a disposable palette or some paper plates, a very small container for some liquin to be tipped into and rags.

The box file opens wide and means I can scrabble through the tubes to find the one I want without losing any (hopefully). It fits easily in a wheely bag (one of those overnight cases with wheels and towing handle), rucksack or largish shoulder bag - the choice of bag depends on the terrain/how far from the car.

Support: To paint on, either a Cryla pad of acrylic paper or canvas. As I don't trowel paint on I'm able to turn pages in the Cryla pad to work on the next sheet without any damage to the previous painting, They are kept clean (and don't stick) until I get home and can spread them out to finish drying. I would only use a canvas if working near the car and then I might use an easel. Normally I just hold whatever I'm working on.

Sketchbooks: I'll also use oils in sketchbooks - the oil doesn't soak through to the next page and I can shut the book on the sketch without harming it. Though I do get a ghost print on the facing page :>) So my Canson hard back watercolour book has watercolour on one page and an oil on the next and a drawing on the next.

A drawing board can be useful if you are near the car, as you can use bulldog clips to attach your palette and paper to it.

If I'm painting at the beach and know I'll be there for hours then I'd use a little tent that my friends and I all have - those half igloo fishermen ones. It gives me shade, a groundsheet to sit on, gives me somewhere to throw bags, drinks and sandwiches and stuff to keep them together, and is a shelter if it rains. It also means people can't stand behind you and look over your shoulder! They fold up small and are quick and easy to put up - unless it's a day like the one below. I ended up working in a tiny 6 inch sketchbook that day as, due to the gale blowing straight off the sea, I couldn't hold anything larger still.

Stormy Day, oil in 6 inch sketch book, plein air, Vivien Blackburn

I find that baby oil is great for taking out to clean up. Brushes are easily cleaned between colours or when packing up and if I - as I often do - get paint on my jeans, the baby oil will get it out and clean up my hands as well. At home I clean brushes with the cheapest cooking oil. It's environmentally friendly and smells less :>)

I hate wearing hats but do find that a sunhat both protects my face from burning and also the shade makes colours much easier to see accurately.

Easels and chairs are optional and not at all essential. I rarely use them plein air.

In future posts I'll look at the other media I use - watercolours, coloured pencils, charcoal, pencil ... all sorts!

What do you prefer to use?

Links to some of my plein air work

(These 2 paintings are old ones of the North Norfolk coast).


Great info vivien and beautiful work as always. I'm still trying to get used to the oils as cleaning medium, but I'll get there. As for equipment, I am one those "what if" people...what if I change my mind on medium, what if I only want to play around with materials, what if I need that colour, or this canvas...with the result that I still take a lot of stuff with me...I fix most of it in a backpack and then just have to "CARRY it and not complain!
vivien said…
'what if' - oh that's me too!

so ditto re carrying it :>)
Lindsay said…
Wow! Have I missed alot here. I love all these posts on your plein air work. The sketches and the oil paintings are just beautiful and I really appreciate how much information you share about both your observations and your painting.

You have such a unique way of expressing light, movement and color. I love your work...but you already know this.
Robyn Sinclair said…
Terrific post, Vivien. Your range of supplies sounds quite liberating, so I can't wait to try it. I don't have quick drying oils but apart from that I have the whole kit - so running out of excuses. ;) Of course I don't have the little tent but it does sound like a splendid idea for 'shy painters' like myself.

Beautiful oils - I particularly love love the Wells beach.

Now looking forward to your follow up posts.
Cathy Gatland said…
This is wonderful to know - I've never dreamt of painting in oils plein air, as I thought I wouldn't get my head around everything I'd need to organise and carry, but you make it sound quite simple. A teacher I had once said that baby wet-wipes are also great for cleaning hands and surfaces after oils. I love your paintings here, the top one especially.
lmp said…
Do you have a link to the tent you use for working en plein aire?
vivien said…
Lindsay, Robyn Cathy and Lisa - thanks :>)

It's good to see you back Lindsay

I'm sure you'd like using oils plein air Robyn - I look forward to seeing some in the future

Cathy, yes, baby wipes are good too

and Lisa - here is a link to a similar (but a bit posher! tent http://www.thekidswindow.co.uk/Selling.asp?product=1557 - mine isn't a sunproof one, simply plastic that gives some shade, but it does look quite like this. Mine was a LOT cheaper as well.
Joan said…
Oh, I loved seeing your plein airs!!!! I guess I'm lucky that I work in watercolors. I just bring along my backpack with all my sketching stuff, a paint palette and brushes, some water, my chair and I'm off. I can pretty much carry most of what I need if I'm not going too far.
Anonymous said…
Thank you for sharing this info with us, I will use baby oil and cooking oil for cleaning brushes, sounds better than white spirit to take out. Actually I tried plein air just in the garden and wasn't much of a success first time round, I will have a go again though. This has inspired me not to give up. You have really captured the sea in that small one.
vivien said…
Hi Joan and Carolann

I think a little donkey to carry the paints would be useful :>) or one of those dune buggys :>)

Carolann - keep going with the plein air, it gets better and better as you go - and I see you were a mature student too. It's a buzz isn't it?
Kelly M. said…
Love your "Warm Day in April" oil painting! I'm going to try oil sticks and Liquin, or maybe a little Dorland's wax to get thick and paste-like? I hate carrying too much equipment and thought the sticks might do the trick -- we'll see!
Jean Spitzer said…
Beautiful painting. I definitely will come back and read the post when I'm not so hungry; it's well past lunch time, here.
I'm not doing any plein air painting atm (locked in my studio and inside my head) but how I wish I was - these two OIL paintings are terrific: full of light and fresh sea air (I must get back down to the coast sometime soon)
vivien said…
Kelly let me know how you get on with that combination?

I wouldn't personally aim to work too impasto plein air - there's just too much scope for smearing and getting the paint over car and yourself!

David isn't there an art group you could join? It's really tough to work in isolation I know.

Jean enjoy lunch!

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