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.

Plein Air Easels- A pochade box for travel

This is my 4th in a series of posts about artist's easels. You can see the other installments here:Part I: On the quest for the perfect easel Part II: Guerilla Painters' Pochade Box Part III: My Soltek Easel

After having already written extensively about my Soltek love, it may seem curious that I'd have yet another pochade- style easel to write about. But what I've found (and I'm sure other plein air painters can empathize) is that the quest for the most versatile and easy to use plein air easel must be tempered with the quest for the lightest possible plein air setup. This is especially important if you're an artist who likes to travel.

With the airline regulations being what they are, it has become more and more of a challenge trying to figure out what items to check (if any) and what items to carry on in the ever-diminishing size of the acceptable carry on bag. While I may not be able to bring all of my art supplies with me on the plane, I prefer to have my easel in my carry-on. When traveling overseas, this sometimes means carrying my bag while running to make a flight connection, so a lightweight and compact bag becomes all the more important.

While the Soltek is lighter than many other setups, I still found myself wondering, "Can I go lighter?"  The answer is, of course, yes. Surely there are many options for going lighter, but the one I chose was the "Prochade Kit" by EasyL,  referenced in a book I blogged about a while back by Kevin Macpherson;  Landscape Painting Inside & Out.

I had seen other EasyL paint boxes and I was impressed by the setup. In fact, if I hadn't already gotten a Soltek I might have seriously considered the EasyL Versa, which offers a good deal of versatility while still being lightweight, and at a much more wallet-friendly price. But having already made my "primary" plein air easel selection, I honed in on the Prochade Kit for travel.

EasyL Prochade box

At first, I thought I'd only get the little box. After all, I already had a tripod and a couple of bags. But after really examining the Kit, which included a lighter-weight tripod, a GREAT bag, and a number of other nifty add-ons and doo-dads, I justified that it was a decent buy, considering. I really feel like a lot of thought went into the design of the kit, and with everything weighing in at around 10 lbs, I couldn't imagine as detailed a  setup that is much lighter.

When I first got this little box, I was a bit wary. Compared to the other models I'd experienced, the box seemed a little TOO light, and I was concerned about its fragility. The adaptive panel holder appears to raise and lower by the means of some kind of internal spring. I wasn't used to this kind of mechanism and wondered if it would hold up, but after several months of use it has so far worked fine. It does come with a warning, however, not to extend this mechanism beyond the 10" high limit. It holds panel heights from 6 to 10 inches, and any reasonable width. Since I usually paint on the small side out of doors, and particularly when I'm traveling, this was actually fine for me. And while I feel the external latches that close the box are on the flimsy side, the knob and sliding hinge are of a quality that is actually quite good.

But probably what I like most about this kit is the bag. It has a perfect number of slots, pockets, and compartments, making packing and organizing supplies a breeze. While this bag isn't suitable for larger easels or thicker pochade boxes, it is perfect for a true cigar-style pochade box, whether purchased from EasyL or home-made. It is  the right size for the airline carry-on regulations; and while it is lightweight, it is extremely durable and has enough padding to make it comfortable to carry.

Overall I have been quite happy with the kit, for the main reason that it met my specific needs of a travel box that is lightweight, but complete enough so that I can do more than just light sketching. But I don't know that I'd recommend this kit as a primary setup for the every day plein air. Even weighted down,  it does not hold up in the wind--and I've found myself holding on to it for dear life during some unexpected wind gusts.

I'll close this little book on plein air easels with some final thoughts.

  • Do plenty of research before you buy your plein air easel, but beyond that, give some thought to the way you typically paint. If you don't paint large, you probably don't need an easel that accomodates a 30" high canvas. Perhaps even consider writing down the key features that are important to you in a plein air easel before shopping.

  • You don't have to spend a lot of money to paint en plein air. There are a number of options that are quite inexpensive that you can start with before taking the leap of buying a fancier model:

    • One of the most inexpensive commercially available models I've found is the Studio RTA simple tripod steel easel. Nothing fancy, but quite sturdy and lightweight (though because of this it will probably not stay put in strong wind.) With this model, you'll have to hold your palette and find somewhere to put your supplies, but at $40 it's a decent deal. I have a couple of these easels at my studio for workshops and they work quite well.

    • Another option is just to consider making your own plein air setup if you are particularly handy. I've promised my husband that this is going to be my next pochade box . Cost? Under $15! (hand slapping squarely on forehead.) Thank you to Ellie Clemons for the wonderfully detailed instructions, and to artist John Haynes' thoughtful blog  that I just discovered for pointing me to Ellie's page. Also check out artist David Cornelius' hand made work-in-progress "easel pal" for some additional ideas.

  • If your art travels involve flying, be sure to check out the many (and seemingly ever-changing) guidelines and regulations before deciding what to bring and what to leave at home. The Gamblin website has some useful tips about traveling with your paints. Artist Robert Genn had a good discussion going not too long ago on this subject also, on "The Painter's Keys" --a website that offers artists tips on matters both practical and inspirational.

  • Have fun and happy painting!

Art Books; Landscape Painting Inside & Out

In my last post I mentioned Kevin Macpherson's latest book, Landscape Painting Inside & Out. This is a nice companion to his first wonderful book Fill Your Oil Paintings With Light and Color. The latter focuses primarily on plein air painting, while the former encompases both plein air and studio work. In his newest book, the author does a pretty thorough job of describing his supplies and tools of the trade for both his permanent studio and his portable one. Personally I really enjoyed the photos he's included of his indoor studio, (which is dreamy!) as it gives the artist (who likes to dream) some good ideas about how to plan a good setup. It was interesting for me to see that he puts his taboret in front of his easel, so that his color mixing palette is directly in front of him rather than off to the side, mimicking the setup one would have on a smaller scale outdoors. I work in the exact same way, with a mini-taboret on wheels my husband rigged up for me using a small laundry cart.

Subsequent sections touch on the different qualities of light and their effect on your subject, as well as value relationships and shape relationships. He has an interesting way of explaining the importance of describing elements in the landscape in terms of shape rather than rendering every minute detail. Here the book shows various black and white silhouettes to explain that an accurate contour is what describes an object. For example, one should be more concerned with the shape of a tree and largely indicate this  as one mass, using details such as individual leaves sparingly and just to accent and better define the subject.

This book touches on a lot of different concerns for the landscape painter. Aside from the ones I mentioned above, the author addresses edges, color temperature, and includes a very interesting section on planning and designing the painting. Several of these subjects are covered in just one or two pages, but they are well articulated and will give the serious landscape painter a starting point for further investigation.

After this overview comes what I consider the "meat" of the book--a large section on painting outside on location and another substantial one on translating your outdoor studies into larger studio works. In these sections, as in his previous book, Macpherson provides several very well described demonstrations of his processes. These sections appeal to me very much. I personally love demos, as it is easier for me to understand visually than it is having it explained.

What is particularly interesting to me about this part is the way the author encourages experimentation. He includes a few demos using different limited palettes that give the reader some ideas-- experimenting with an earth primary palette, using a strong color palette, or using a set palette with a monochrome (grey) underpainting.

Different from his last book, Macpherson includes a final section on "The Path to Success". This is really a topic worthy of an entire book (or a series of books). Macpherson goes into no detail at all about how to manage one's art career, but merely touches on some things to think about. Largely he writes about things like being inspired, doing what you love, setting goals, blah blah blah. Sure, all of this is important, but it's dealt with in a pretty vague manner and personally this is the least informative section of the book which covers about the last 15 pages. I suppose it is really just meant to be inspiring, so as long as you don't expect more, you may really enjoy this part.

Overall, this is a very interesting book with some very beautiful color reproductions of the artist's lush, impressionistic paintings. The demos are good, and I like that the breakout topics are geared more towards experienced painters who might be looking to experiment or deepen their understanding of landscape painting.  Macpherson does do a  good bit of selling of his other products, such as his other book, video and his "Kevin Macpherson Plein Air Palette" and "Kevin Macpherson Prochade Kit".  But this to me is only mildly annoying because I'd probably do the same thing if I offered these kinds of products. ;-) And heck! It must have worked...I've ordered his Prochade Kit for myself and will probably blog about it once I've had a chance to try it out.