Flying with artist oil paints, plus tips for plein air

As I set out to answer a few questions about traveling with paint from fellow painter Marilyn King, I realized the length of my response was worthy of its own blog post! So Marilyn, thanks for the assignment! :-)   There are a million different approaches, a million different solutions; but here are some ideas:

Oil paints; Lighten the load!

While it is more economical to use larger 150 ml tubes, I generally save them for use in the studio. (In fact, for my white and some other colors, I buy in even larger quantities –either in cans or in caulking guns.)  But if you’re using a double primary palette en plein air, lugging big tubes of each color can get a little weighty! For this reason, I keep a set of smaller tubes for plein air painting. I generally carry one large 150 ml white out on the field and smaller tubes of the other colors. A couple of other options:

  • Yes, you guessed it–limit your palette. This gets easier to do the more you try it. There are many plein air painters who limit to 3 primaries plus white to get all of their colors. This is Kevin Macpherson’s suggestion in his first book on plein air painting, and even in the second one  (though he does get a little more expansive in the latter). A limited palette  does simplify things for plein air.
    • Cadmium yellow light, Alizarin Crimson, and Ultramarine Blue plus white would be one example of a single primary palette. In this case you might even bring larger tubes since you’ll have fewer of them. I’ve often used this palette as stated or supplemented only slightly with one additional color (e.g. a small amt. of phtalo green.)
    • While it can seem pretty limiting at first, a limited palette will create more overall unity in your painting,  it is a very good practice for anyone who is interested in learning about mixing color. 
  •  Squeeze out your colors on your palette before going out to paint. Obviously this won’t work if you’re flying on a plane! The down side is that most beginning plein air painters don’t squeeze out enough paint on their palette to begin with! And even if you’re used to painting outside it can still be a challenge to judge how much you’ll need.
  • Transfer your colors into smaller containers (again, won’t work with flying!)
    • Jerry’s Artarama (and probably other art supply stores) even sell empty paint tubes for this purpose.
    • Paint film canisters or other readily available plastic containers could also be useful, though be aware of the depth as it may be a challenge to dig the paint out after a while.  Another option is to find the larger sized pill box containers. You know, the kind that have slots for each day of the week? I did this for a while, but since this is a temporary solution, I eventually got lazy and just bought smaller tubes for plein air.
    • Note: Many plastics may eventually degrade–particularly the lids that are often made of the softer plastic needed for flexibility. I like to leave a plein air “emergency kit” in my car and I have had containers made of softer plastic degrade, warp, ooze and pucker over time. Yuck.

Yes, but what about flying with oils?

For flying, here are some solutions I’ve gleaned from others and from trial and error:

  • First, I wrap my paint tubes in foam sheeting or bubble wrap to reduce the chance of puncture, and then pack all of my paints in ziplock bags in my checked bag. (You can’t bring paints or mediums in your carry on.) 
  • I also enclose MSDS sheets in the bags with my paints, as provided by the manufacturers. These sheets list the flash points for the paints. According to the Gamblin website, artist oil paints contain vegetable oil and no solvent, and you’re good to go if your paints have a flashpoint of 140 degrees F (or above). *If bringing a painting medium, check to make sure that it does not have a higher flashpoint before packing it!
  • If questioned by airline security, explain that these are artist’s oil colors and have no solvents, and provide the documentation that says the same. It seems the word “paint” can possibly set off undue alarm.
  • Buy turpentine in the destination country (en Francais- “La terebentine”; in Italiano- “La trementina”!)
  • If possible, just bring your tools and supports, and consider buying paints in your destination country. This is actually a lot of fun! If you haven’t been in an art supply store in Paris, you owe it to yourself to go any way. I always feel like a kid in a candy shop when I do.
  • If you’ll be in a more “out of the way” or unfamiliar location, you might research art supply stores in the area where you’ll be going. Did you know that the regional visitor centers are extremely helpful? In the past I’ve just sent them an email and gotten back a list of stores in the vicinity prior to my departure.
  • Lastly, you just might check into water soluble oil colors. I need to experiment more with these some day. It’s hard to beat the tried and true, but WS oil do eliminate a few challenges for the portable studio, and many artists report being pleased with their results.

 Medium or no medium?

 Often times I don’t even use a medium for plein air painting because it seems like even with just a little bit of breeze, any kind of alkyd medium gets a “skin” before I can even use it. However, there are times when it is handy; especially if I want to try and hasten the drying time of my paintings.

  • An alkyd based medium (Liquin, etc.) is useful for this, and fairly portable if you can buy it in a small bottle.
  • Another option is Wingel (by W&N) or Lukas Painting Butter, both of which come in tubes. But being more “solid,” the tube mediums seem to dry up even faster than the liquids, so the key is to use it sparingly if you’re going to use it (a good practice any way).
  • If hastening the drying time is what you’re after, you might just look into getting an alkyd-based white for plein air. I have found that when I use Gamblin’s “Quick-Dry White” it helps speed up the drying time of my entire painting while still keeping the painting open for a good while.
  • If you are reliant on a medium to increase viscosity (flow), be aware that turps and paint thinner are *not* mediums and should not be used  to thin paint beyond perhaps the very beginning “sketching” stages of your painting. They will weaken the paint film.
  • Again, if you’re going to be flying, check the flashpoint before packing the medium! If it’s too high, leave it at home and consider doing without or buying it at your destination.

13 Responses to Flying with artist oil paints, plus tips for plein air

  1. Hi Jennifer, yes, I was a studio artist long before I found myself painting scenery. : 0 )
    But, I would like to know, how are you going to get your paintings home? I no you have a wet painting box. But, how many will it hold?
    This has been a fascinating tutorial, thank you , Amy

  2. There is a lot of info here in this little blurb. I have pretty much mastered acrylic painting and making clever yet offensive comments on artblogs around the world. It is probably time for me to take on a new challenge. It could take me a couple of months to master oil painting, but what the hay. When I fly and paint, it has been my expierence that isle seats are best. Often the person sitting in the seat across the isle doesn’t mind holding the paint thinner. I usually give him the roll from my meal. People love those.

  3. Jennifer,
    Really great info and thanks very much! You really put a lot of time and effort in this post even when you are leaving the country in two days. I’m impressed , Superwoman!
    I can add one other option about paint. When getting back to painting in oils six months ago I purchased M.Graham oil paints made with walnut oil. I was interested in how these would perform as they were advertised as not needing the use of turps or solvents ( the odor really bothers me ). All that is needed is the walnut oil for a medium and cleaning brushes. A quick drying Titanium white was available and I purchased that as well. Over all the paints handled very well, very smooth and good flow and dried about the same as regular oils. I did find that I would still use some turpentine to fully clean my brushes before using soap. But out in the field you would not need any solvents. All you would need would be a little oil and your paints. You could get buy on the whole trip without turpentine or mineral spirits. Just clean brushes with a brush soap at the end of the day. The colors available are pretty standard and very nice. The price of these paints are comparable to other brands and readily available at most art stores. As I have recently begun running out of paint, I’m going back to linseed oil based paint and now use a medium I mix myself. The only reason for the change back is I now have a good formula for the medium that doesn’t smell. I think I can handle that here at home, but if I was traveling I would definitely consider having a go at the M. Graham and Co. paints.

  4. Jennifer,

    Thank you for the great post. I was at the art store today buying paint and was wondering about your palette choices (especially your greens and blues.) I know you will have a computer free painting experience, but I hope you will share lots of photos of your trip when you return. Have a lovely time. By the way, where do you buy your paint supplies in Paris?


  5. Amy- My wet painting boxes only hold 3 paintings at a time–enough to carry your wet panels from the field back home after a day of painting. But usually the paintings themselves dry to the touch in a few days’ time, and in even less time if using a drying medium. I bring glassine paper (kind of like wax paper but acid free) along on my trips to sandwich in between each paintings for the trip home, and I’ll put the last few paintings I’ve done in the wet panel carriers. I’ve not had a problem bringing work home in this manner.

    Rick- Two months to mastery? Why so long? Good idea about the roll bribe. I’ll have to try that.

    Marilyn- Great alternative to the solvent dilemma! I’ve heard a lot of artists really like the M. Graham paints and they are apparently a great choice for anyone sensitive to solvents. I actually have some of the M. Graham walnut oil sitting on a shelf at the studio. I must have read something about it at some point and went off half-cocked to purchase some, only to leave it for a day in the future when I’d have time to experiment with it!

    Question: I could have been reading your comment incorrectly but my interpretation is that you don’t feel you can use walnut oil to clean your brushes unless you’re also using a walnut oil-based paint? I’m no scientist but I don’t see why you couldn’t still use walnut oil to clean your brushes, or even a little as a medium if you want to, even with linseed oil based paints? Is there some conflict with linseed oil that you know of?

    The one thing I’ve read about walnut oil is that it tends to be slower drying than linseed, which would be a concern in regards to travel if it’s to be used as a medium. However, M. Graham does also have an alkyd-based walnut oil which is supposed to have similar properties to Liquin. Any experience with that?

    Heather- The most common and expansive palette I use is a double primary palette plus white. Double primary consists of a warm and cool version of each of the primary colors- yellow, red, and blue, and I mix all of my colors (including greens and blues) from the primaries.

    I tend to mix it up in terms of which reds and blues I use. Right now I’m enjoying Cad Lemon or (Cad yellow light)/Indian Yellow, Permanent Rose/Alizarin Crimson, Ultramarine Blue/Pthalo Blue, plus white. (I’ll also use Pthalo Green as a “blue” sometimes instead of Phtalo Blue). In the field I may pare it down a bit. The most pared down for me seems to be Cad Yellow Light, Alizarin Crimson, Ultramarine Blue, and Pthalo Green (plus white).

    RE: Art stores in Paris. I’m no expert by any means. I just remember seeing all manner of shops from art supply stores to stationary stores there and inevitably getting sucked in to nearly every one (mostly just to savor and window shop–honest!) There is a wonderful one that I do remember though, near the Musee d’Orsay on the Left Bank. The Sennelier store. That name may ring a bell? ;-) It’s on the Quai Voltaire and has been around since 1887!

  6. Never call them paint in the airport. You are right about that. ALWAYS say artists colors.
    I use safflower oil sometimes when I travel. You do not need to use special paint to paint with this or walnut oil. Safflower oil is in most of my Winsor Newton artist colors anyway. It takes a little longer to dry if you get too much mixed in with the paint. It cleans the brushes well enough with a wipe of a paper towel and I wash them up with soap and water at the end of the day.
    Oh, I have flown with it, but it is easier to buy when you get there.

  7. Jennifer,
    I hope your trip was wonderful, you were missed and all your millions of fans are waiting with baited breath for your next installment.” When will she surface again?” we all cry. Seriously, where are you?

  8. I’m baaaack! Thanks Marilyn for your concern. I am really touched– A million fans? Well, any way, you make me feel like I have at least that many! :-) The trip was awesome! I’ll be blogging about it in the coming days, but it’s taken me a while to get back to into the swing and back to computer land. (And I was wondering how I’d manage without it!) Back online now though, so thanks for the welcome–and thanks for continuing to check in.

  9. Jennifer,
    One modification to what you said about traveling with paints, etc. The flash point needs to be above 140, not below.

    Thanks for your info,

  10. John, thanks for the catch. I’ve made the correction in my post!

  11. Jo El Sullivan

    We are thinking of going to Italy for 11 days in December. My husband would like to do some plein air oil painting, but we do not know how to get the wet paintings back to Dallas on the airplane. We could have friends ship them back when they are dry, but I hate to ask them to do that. The size I am talking about is about 24 x 30 or 24 x 36. Any thoughts on that?
    Jo El Sullivan

  12. Hi Jo El,
    I normally paint fairly small when I travel–(12×16 and smaller) so I am afraid I don’t have any experience with carrying larger wet paintings on a plane. Small paintings easily fit inside a wet panel carrier and pack well in a carry-on (or checked bag, if you’re willing to risk it) . For larger paintings I have no suggestions beyond the obvious–to ship them after they’re dry to the touch. In that case your husband might look into using faster drying oils like Alkyds (or at least using a drying medium).

    Another option is to try a different media altogether, such as acrylics. I haven’t tried this product yet, but apparently Golden has come out with “open acrylics”, which are supposed to offer the best of both worlds- more openness for workability and fast drying for ease of transport. If your husband does decide to try a different medium, I highly suggest he practice and become very familiar with it before he travels. When painting in a new environment with limited time, you don’t need the added handicap of learning to work with new materials. Good luck and happy travels!

  13. What about traveling with Oil Bars? Has TSA had any qualms over them?

    I too, would buy walnut, safflower or linseed oil upon arrival and use soap to clean brushes in the evening.

    Thanks, C York

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