Our Simple, Portable Plein Air Setup

If you've ever set up a French easel, you know it can feel like wrestling an octopus.

That's how I felt the first time I set up my French easel as an art student. Little did I know that my awkward struggle would become legendary. Years later, I learned that our instructor had observed my clumsy attempt that day—and had been using it as an example to students of what not to do!

There is a way to set up a French easel quite easily. But the easel's bulkiness, along with joint-tightening issues in some brands, have caused some artists to seek alternative solutions.

Plein air painting has grown hugely popular in recent years, and with it, many easel solutions have become available. Andrea and I don't claim to have the best solution, but we like our setup because of its portability and ease of use. Plus, it was partly homemade, making it fairly economical!

In this post, I'll break down our plein air setup for you…

Palette Box

Our palette boxes were made with love by my wonderful wife! Andrea created them by modifying paint boxes similar to this one (shop around for best price).

She cut the lid of the box into halves and attached these halves to either side of the box with hinges (A). These new lids serve as trays for brushes, towels, etc. They also hold the palette in place when the lids are closed. In one lid, she added a compartment to hold our brush washing containers (B). Clasps on the front keep the box shut (C).

The palette is a piece of plexiglass (D). The back side is painted with middle-value gray acrylic paint, which makes it easier to judge values when mixing colors.

Our plexiglass palettes are lightweight and durable, making them better for travel than glass palettes. However, a razor blade glass scraper can gouge them, so we try to clean them off promptly with a palette knife after use.

Underneath the palette are compartments to store supplies (below).

Andrea's dad cut angled brackets for the palette box, so it can hang over the legs of our tripods. Below are several pics of the brackets, in case you'd like to make your own.

My palette box (not including brackets) measures about 15" x 10.5" x 3.25" when closed.

Don't Want to Make Your Own?

Andrea designed our easels after James Coulter's Coulter Easel, which you can purchase in a variety of sizes here. The difference between our setup and Coulter's is that, instead of using a separate piece to hold our paintings, we use a tripod easel to hold both our paintings and our palette box (see below).

Tripod Easel

Andrea and I use Italian steel tripod easels from Richeson (Shop around for best price). We've broken other brands, but the Richeson easels have held up well. Plus, they come in a variety of fun colors!

My favorite thing about this easel is that it can hold my painting high enough so I don't have to bend over to see it straight-on. I like to stand while painting, and having to bend over hurts a tall guy's back after awhile!


Best of all, everything fits inside our matching backpacks! Aren't we cute? ;)

It's one thing to have the right painting equipment, but it's another thing entirely to create a compelling painting! I'll share how to communicate the beauty of portraits and figures in my upcoming online video course, "Learn to Paint Dynamic Portraits & Figures in Oil." Click the button below for more info!

Learn More About Online Video Course

Until next time,

1 comment:

  1. Interesting post, but for folks with not many wood tools, in place of your brackets, I used coat hooks from Home Depot! Easy, and they work great.
    James Gurney recently featured my homemade gear, if you're interested:
    http://judypalermo.blogspot.com/2017/05/homemade-plein-air-gear-for-paris-7.html .


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