How I Made My Plein Air Setup

I've had a number of people ask me about my plein air set up, so I've taken the time to outline what I've put together, how I carry it around, how much it cost, and where I got my inspiration from.  May it help others as much as I've been helped by a number of other internet resources.

So, I really liked the Plein Air Pro Traveler set up.  This company produces a nice (and niche!) product, but I didn't have the 200$ that was needed to get their product.  I also found this video of Vinita Pappas going over her plein air set up.  Looked great too.  What's a boy to do?  Combine the two and go about making my own!

It's all very doable, but it'd be a lie to say there wasn't some blood, sweat, cursing, and power tools involved.  Still, if you've got a jigsaw and a power drill (or you know someone who does!), and some gumption, you ought to be able to accomplish atleast the basics of this plein air easel set up (minus the palette, brushes, stool, and backpack-- just the required easel) for about 60$.  As for myself, I admit... I was excited by the challenge!  In the end, it really was only a few winter evenings in the garage by myself, experimenting mad-scientist style.  :)  Besides, there was something about building my own plein air easel-- I felt like I was making my first light saber!  LOL. :D

First, for about 20$ I got the same light-weight collapsible tripod that the Plein Air Traveler uses-  the Sunpak 2001 UT.  It has a quick release switch, which I use to quickly attach my paper and backing to the tripod (more on that later).  It also has telescoping legs that allow each leg to be variable in length (helpful when the ground is at a slope), as well as the triangular support in the middle.  The head is also rotatable in all directions, which is very useful if you want to alter the angle of the paper, etc. 

It's quite light, and compacts nicely.  It's only 19" long when folded up.

It just fit into my slightly big backpack, if I tilted it sideways and stretched the zipper.  If I had a satchel, it would have fit easily in that, and not weighed much at all.

I also got a REI camp stool for 20$, which I don't use for painting (I paint standing up), but rather for resting and setting things up.  It's a little longer than the tripod, and had to be attached to the outside of my backpack, in the water-bottle carrier, until I got my new (bigger) plein air travel backpack, which I'll go over later in the post.

Attached to the front, I used the basic shelfing idea of the Plein Air Travelers Easel as inspiration.  I bought a piece of 1/4" thick plywood at my local hardware store for 15$, and cut it into a 10" x 14" block-- I basically mimicked the size of the Arches watercolor block I've been using for plein air work, so it packs easily.

On the back, I cut an additional piece, about 4" x 14", and glued it to the big piece for reinforcement.   More on the metal pieces in a minute.

Once they were wood glued together, I cut out that upside down "T" shaped section so that it would be just a little bit wider at the mouth than the tripod is at the top of the legs, where they come together.  This allows me to put the shelf into place and slide it down the legs, until the shelf keeps itself in place as the legs get farther apart and go into those two notches.  How long is the widest part of that "T", where the legs end up fitting?  Depends on how tall you are, and how far down you want your shelf to rest.  A taller person would probably have a skinnier "T", so the shelf would stop higher up.  A person who was shorter (like myself) would have a wider "T", so the shelf will slide down farther.

What was important was that the top of the upside down "T" (the area where the tripod legs rest) be only 1" wide.  This is because legs are only 1" wide.  If you make the top of the "T" section 1.25" wide, for example, the whole shelf will tip dangerously forward.  The goal is to have the width of that top "T" section be almost exactly the same width as the tripod legs.  Then they match each other, and the shelf doesn't tilt forward.

Unfortunately, once I got this set up other problems began to occur.  The metal of the tripod legs were digging into the wood bit by bit, as I used the palette and weight was applied to it, and this was making the shelf tilt more and more forward.  I tried reinforcing the area (thus the double 1/4" plywood section), but this didn't solve the problem well enough.  Instead, I used a long "L" piece of aluminum (available at your local hardware store for 5$ or so), cut it into little sections, drilled a couple of holes in them with a normal metal power drill bit, and screwed it into place. Alumnium is light weight, strong, and easy to work with.  That has solved the problem, and I've been using the shelf for months.

In the process of iterating, I actually made two of these shelves.  This ended up being an interesting mistake, because I now have two shelves that sit at different heights, if I want to use both.  I don't do it all the time when I pack to paint plein air, but in the house I sometimes use both, like this--

One sits higher than the other because the slot where the legs fit are a different width, like this--

They both are reinforced on the back, around the "mouth", with an extra piece of 1/4" plywood.  This means if I place them "back to back" they pack together well, like a little Tetris set.  A nice accidental benefit!  Altogether, the two of them add up to about 3/4"- 1" in width, when packed.

I also made a little mount for the tripod.  This is based almost entirely on Vinita Pappas methods, and is basically the one essential thing you've got to figure out.

That little black piece is the "quick release plate" for the camera tripod.  Two of them come with the tripod, but you can buy replacements if you want.  It fits into a little area on the tripod head itself., with a lever to... release it quickly!  This is what it looks like on the other side--

Cameras have a little threaded slot on the bottom which is where you attach it to that screw that's sticking out.  Basically, we have to make that slot, so we can have a way of attaching the tripod to the backing/block, etc. Taking Vinita Pappas' advice, I bought a T-nut (a special kind of special inside-out screw that you can get at the local hardware store for something like 1$), which looks like this--

I then drilled a hole through the little glued-together base of 1/4" plywood you see up above, and then tapped (with a hammer) and glued (with Gorilla Super Glue) the T-nut into place.  Once it dried-- voila! I had a threaded female piece available to attach to my quick release plate.

How, you ask, do I attach my backing to all this?  Why, on the other side of that little 6" x 6" block of 1/4" plywood is a few pieces of fuzzy velcro.  On my block or Gator Board is the other half.  Wanna know where I got the velcro strips?  You guessed it-- at my local hardware store for something like 5$.

Notice, btw, how I have 4 strips on the base unit, but only 2 on the Gator Board.  Having 4 on the base allows me to rotate my board any way I want, and there are always two appropriately placed velcro strips waiting for me.  You can also see the remnants of that little hole I drilled into the base unit, where I attached the T-Nut.  If you looked into the hole, you would see the butt-end of the screw which is attached to the quick release that came with the tripod.

After all of that measuring and  gluing and cutting and drilling, the rest is pretty straight forward.  This is what I keep on the shelf.  Yes, that water container is a collapsible dog dish from the pet food store.  I got it for something like 7$.  I keep a sponge (2$ or 3$ at the grocery store for a pack of 3) next to it for dabbing excess water off my brush, and I place my brushes in between the two-- so they don't roll away.

My watercolor palette is small and easily held in the hand.  I bought it from the Ken Bromley website.  They call it the New Compact Watercolor Palette.  It's pretty cheap (about 20$, plus shipping), has good sized mixing wells, and a reasonable number of spots for paints.  Issues?  It doesn't seal very tight, so I keep it in a zip lock bag.  I often get paint on my fingers when I hold it, while open.  I also wish it` had more mixing areas.  Still, for 20$, it's been wonderful.  A great introduction for plein air painting.

But I'm probably going to end up getting this new palette eventually, the Cloverleaf Paint Box, which runs about 50$.  It has a spot for my thumb to go, in the way I like to hold the palette, has more mixing wells, has more pans for paints, and yet is basically the same size.

For the sake of sharing, these are my brushes- a big 5/8" Davinci Squirrel Mop, a smaller size "0" Squirrel Mop (about 1/4" round) from Alvaro Castagnet, and a Needle Point, from Castagnet as well.  The Castagnet products are located here.

I was using a normal backpack for a while, but it was really snug.  Besides the brushes, this is where I ended up splurging, and I got a really nice backpack for travel.  It's a North Face "Router", and is tall enough to easily fit both my tripod and travel chair in its primary compartment.  It has a separate back compartment that is 12" wide (instead of the normal 10"), which means I can now fit actual quarter sheets of loose paper in there, along with Gator Board or some other backing.  Before, I could only fit small Arches blocks (10" wide or under), but this allows me more flexibility in my choice.  The many other pockets provide space for all my painting supplies, and even room for lunch.  !! Very important.  :)