Category Archives: Plein air

Calistoga Paint Out

plainAir-back-IMG_9671-4webLast month I participated in the Calistoga Paint Out held by the Calistoga Art Center.  As a watercolor painter, I faced some interesting challenges that artists in other mediums may not encounter.

The essential elements of a plein air festival include a check in period, a painting period and then a public show of the resulting paintings.  During check-in, the artwork supports, typically canvas, panels or paper are stamped on the back with an identifying mark and date.  This step ensures that the painting actually takes place during the painting period.

What I did not anticipate was that the stamp needs to be visible when the final artworks are displayed.  This is usually not an issue for canvas or a panel, but display of a watercolor sandwiched between a mat and backing board then inserted in a frame is a problem.  The stamp would be covered up.  

Fortunately, a more experienced artist suggested I solve this problem by cutting a hole in the backing board.  This required that I get my paper re-stamped near the center so that the stamp would not be covered by the frame moulding.  Then I had to measure the location of the stamp carefully to make sure I cut a hole in the same place on the backing board.

For future paint outs, it would be easier to have the watercolor paper permanently mounted on the backing board ahead of time so that I could simply have the backing board stamped.  I haven’t yet found a pre-made watercolor board that I like, so I intend to glue my favorite watercolor paper to foam core board or a flat panel.  

My paintings were not my best work, but I have to remind myself I did these in about an hour each battling wind and even rain showers.  I plan to repaint them in my studio.


Downtown Calistoga


Calistoga East


Travels with Watercolor – Palette 3

This leads me to believe that maybe the pre-filled pans are the way to go after all. They are certainly the least messy alternative for painting on a boat. My third palette is the new QOR set of pans, and I think you can agree that it’s a very good range of colors. I look forward to trying it during our current cruise through the Canadian Northwest.

The New QOR Watercolor Pan Set

Travels with Watercolor- Palette 2

My troubles began with my new smaller empty Meeden palette. These can be purchased on Amazon in many different configurations; I chose 6 full pans, and added 5 half and 1 full pan of my own. It would probably have been just fine if I had filled it and let it dry for several days, but I always wait until the last minute to pack my art supplies. Still, I thought I was ahead of the game filling it a whole day before leaving. But when I opened it, it was quite a mess as you can see.

I was especially disappointed but not totally surprised that the magnets didn’t work. I used thin magnetic disks with adhesive on one side to stick the pans to the palette. I was hoping this would keep the pans in place. The magnets were sufficiently strong, but the adhesive was really weak. I could tell that the pan was separating from the magnet as the magnet practically flew onto the palette when it got close. When I opened the palette after carrying it around for several days, one of the pans had completely flipped out and upside down.

Disk magnet should be attached to a pan

Travels and Trials with Watercolors

A popular practice of watercolor artists is to fill an empty watercolor travel palette with their own tube colors.  This allows the artist to work with their own palette rather than carry around pre-filled colors that they don’t normally use.

I’ve recently learned that there may be a problem with this approach.  I’ve seen some information on the internet that suggests tube paints are not the same as pan paints, and that pan paints are formulated differently for the wetting and re-wetting that a travel palette undergoes.  

I’ve not been able to find enough information to confirm or deny that claim- yet.  For now, I’m still mostly filling empty palettes with my own tube paints.  I brought 3 different travel palettes with me this trip with some issues of note.

I’ve been very happy with my American Journey travel palette filled with colors from the Michael Reardon palette, but I have had a problem with the pans popping out from under the metal retaining edge at times.  This palette has become easier to handle since the paints have mostly dried.  I’ve also stuck each pan down with a wad of Museum putty which was time consuming to do, but seems to work well.

Plein Air Supplies

American Journey travel palette


Plein Air Favorites

The following is an aritcal I wrote for the Palette Newsletter for Art Association Napa Valley.

In a previous article, I described my favorite set of watercolor plein air brushes.  Here is a description of some other items you might like to take painting outdoors.

Plein Air Supplies

Plein Air Supplies

Absolute Essentials

  • Brushes in Easel-Style Brush Holder – protects brushes in transit and opens for convenient access.  See previous article for my brush favorites.  Be sure to use Amazon Smile and specify Napa Valley Art Association (our legal name) so that a portion of your purchase is donated.
  • Travel Palette- I like Cheap Joes American Journey travel palette available empty or filled with American Journey paints.  I prefer to purchase empty pans to fill with my own favorites.  I’ve ordered extra half and full pans so that I can experiment with different combinations.
  • Watercolor Paper in blocks- convenient for travel and makes a separate easel unnecessary.
  • Water container and collapsible water cup. I like Faber-castell’s Clic & Go Foldable Water Pot
  • Notebook for thumbnail sketches, mechanical pencil and gum eraser.  You really don’t need anything bigger than 5×7 for thumbnail sketches.  Napa Valley Art Supply has the Strathmore Visual Journals in many sizes and also the Softcover Drawing Journals.  Shown above is the Canson 140lb watercolor 7×10 notebook which is really more expensive paper than is needed for sketching.  Be advised that drawing paper weights and watercolor paper weights are not the same.

Useful Add-Ons

Secondary Plein Air Supplies

Secondary Plein Air Supplies

  • Smart Phone for Camera to capture the light before it changes and doubles for emergency contact.
  • Spray bottle to moisten watercolor pans and also create atmospheric effects.
  • Drinking Water for you!

Handy Supports

Plein Air Easel and chair

Plein Air Easel and chair

  • Stool – this folding seat from REI rotates 360 degrees and is lightweight and comfortable.  I found the typical soft triangle stools too floppy and uncomfortable.
  • Easel and Tray from En Plein Air Pro.  This website has all kinds of equipment for plein air painting for both watercolor and oil/acrylic, but I found the actual tripods much less expensive from my camera supplier. Or you can opt for the typical wood french easel.  Bear in mind that heavy is not bad because easels can easily catch the wind and blow over.  Lighter easels actually sell rock bags to weight them down.
    B&H Photo Sun-Pak Tri-Pod:
  • A Bag to carry it all. It’s best to have a backpack or shoulder-style bag, OR a cart with large wheels to navigate uneven ground.  I found a folding metal market cart from Cal Mart in Calistoga.  En Plein Air Pro offers both a shoulder and a backpack.  Make sure the handles of any bag you choose are long enough to sling over your shoulder- the tote bag I took to Yosemite felt ok at home, but quickly got too heavy to walk from our campsite in Lower Pines to the painting site

Challenge Yourself with Plein Air Painting

The following article is an expansion for the Art Association Napa Valley on one of my earlier posts

plein air materials

Anthony’s Cabana, india ink and watercolor markers

Many artists will tell you that gaining experience painting en plein air is essential. They insist that experiencing the light when painting out of doors is unmatched. Historically, the act of outdoor painting from observation became popular in the 1840’s when paint became available in tubes. Natural lighting was especially important to the Impressionist movement.

In my own experience, I feel that plein air painting helps me to remember what I liked about a particular spot. When I take photographs for reference, it’s too easy to quickly snap the picture and move on. Actually sitting and looking at a scene, even if only for 15 minutes, helps solidify that picture in my mind. I find it much easier to get the result I want back in my studio after spending time outdoors.

Painting al fresco can also help you become less rigid or methodical. The changing light and weather conditions force you to work quickly. It lends itself to doing quick sketches that capture the essence of a scene before it is gone. Personally, painting from a boat at anchor is even more challenging. One’s point of reference is always changing even in the most still conditions as the boat gently sways in the currents and tides. And recently, my subject went from full sun to thick fog then back to sun again!

There are too many new and wonderful tools to cover, but plein air painting can be done with anything from a simple pencil and pad to a full French easel and oils. I find that I paint more often on vacation if I limit my supplies as much as possible. Most recently I’m using permanent ink pens with color added over them. I like my watercolor travel palette best, but also find the new Winsor Newton watercolor markers are a satisfactory substitute. I’ve tried many of the water-soluble crayons, but I don’t like the grainy residue they can leave behind.

Your Art Association has a plein air painting group. We try to get out a couple times a month in the summer. Come join us and try painting en plein air for yourself. Contact Sharyn Kastner Danielson for more information, sharynkd7 at gmail dot com

watercolor, india ink, plein air

Nancy’s Bakery, India Ink and watercolor markers

August 15th- Plein Air Painting Challenges


View from Joes Bay, Broken Islands, BC


…the same in the fog

Most artists will tell you that gaining experience plein air painting is essential. The insist that experiencing the light when painting out of doors is unmatched. However, I think painting from a boat at anchor is even more challenging. One’s point of reference is always changing even in the most still conditions as the boat gently sways in the currents and tides. And today, my subject went from full sun to thick fog then back to sun again. Quite a challenge!