There are as many setups as there are plein air painters. The plein air gear market has thrived in part because there is no “one size fits all” solution. The outdoor artist must research what’s out there and if nothing solves the problem, invent a solution. And what are the problems to be solved, you might ask?
Ergonomics. Young and old painters alike have experienced the discomfort that comes with trying to adjust to equipment made for other people, not to speak of the repetitive motions performed while standing or sitting. Loosening or tightening wing nuts, opening and closing cam locks, pulling heavy carts along uneven terrain, and sitting on low camping chairs made for people under forty comes to mind.
The weather. Here in the Bay Area, springtime brings strong, dry winds that tear through paper palettes, blow easels and masonite boards yards away, and freeze anyone not wearing a parka. In the summer, you can get warm days that liquify oil paints and dry acrylics before they hit the canvas. A painter’s umbrella can be set up when wind is not as strong, but what about times when you set up on asphalt?
Geography. Sometimes the best views require an arduous trek uphill forcing one to be in good cardiovascular shape. During our mild winters, slippery paths have to be tackled with carts and sure footing. And those sandy beaches along our East Bay shores can jam most telescoping easel legs. Even when no altitude is gained, dusty, bumpy roads traversed by cattle make it hard to drag anything through them.
If these are the problems, the solutions are only limited by our imagination and the media of our choice. Contrary to the opinion of many beginners, no expensive setup is required in order to create gear that works with these three challenges. Experience is the best guide to finding lightweight setups that let our bodies move naturally and that protect us from the elements. The humble binder clip, for example, has multiple uses. It can hold paper palettes, turp cups and bungee cords in place. It can also act as a makeshift hanger or as a brush holder in a pinch. A bungee cord can secure your aluminum easel, hold your backpack shut, or let your water container dangle at an accessible angle. Your jacket can provide warmth or shade, depending on the day. And so forth.
Sometimes we invest money on expensive pochade boxes and italian easels that we do not use. if this happens, ask yourself what seduced you. Was it the marketing or the myriad functions? Did any other feature end up being more important? When all the adjustments fail, it’s good to reflect on what we tell ourselves as we leave equipment at home instead of using it.