Plein air easel for watercolor painting

Towards St Marks Plaza Venice watercolor painting

You can see a photo of my light weight plein air easel below. The whole thing, excluding my plastic palette weighs only 1.146KG (2.527 lb) which is less than a third of the weight of my original setup. The old metal palette weighed 495gm when filled with watercolor paint while my new, modified plastic palette only weighs 241 gm.

I no longer need to lean over my palette as it now sits at the side, similar to how it is in my studio.

Light weight plein air easel

plein aire painting easel for watercolor light weight
Figure 3: My light weight plein air easel for watercolor painting.

Instead of using a watercolor block I use a piece of Gator Board onto which I glued a tripod head (or quick release) that is used to connect a camera to a tripod. You can see a picture of it in figures 4 and 5. This allows the Gator Board to be very easily clipped onto the tripod. The gator board dimensions are 13″ x 17″, just a little bit bigger than a quarter of a full watercolor sheet. Note that I had already removed the screw which is normally used to connect a camera to the tripod head.

Tripod head glued to a piece of gator board
Figure 4: Tripod head attached to gator board (17″ x 13″) with epoxy glue.
Detail of tripod head glued to gator board after removing connecting screw.
Figure 5: Detail of tripod head glued to gator board after removing connecting screw.

When I go out for a morning’s watercolor painting I usually only do on work so I now pre-fix my watercolor paper to the board with masking tape before I leave home. In this way I don’t even have to carry extra masking tape. The Gator Board is very light but very strong, making it an ideal backing board support for my watercolor painting. A plein air easel should not be required to carry every conceivable item you “may” need. It should just have the key items that are needed to produce a watercolor painting with a minimum of weight. Remember you may need to carry it quite some distance before you start painting as I learnt when visiting Venice, Italy, a few years ago.

Watercolor palette

I used one of the legs from an old small camera tripod (you could use something similar) to support my lightweight plastic palette on the side of the tripod (brand and model of tripod I use is SILK SDV-550). I did this by drilling and filing a rectangular hole in part of the top of the tripod (figure 6). This part used to hold a lever that you wound to move the central core of the tripod up and down. In my case I did not need that function so I even removed most of the internal bits to lower the weight further.

Hole made in side of tripod to fix support arm for plastic watercolor palette.
Figure 6: Hole made in side of tripod to fix support arm for plastic watercolor palette.

The arm that supports my palette has a little piece of flat timber beading which is used to keep my palette quite flat. It is surprising how well this works.

The palette is fixed to the arm with a little wing nut through the locking mechanism of the palette. I glued the screw to which this wing nut is connected to the aluminum arm so it would not get lost.

Figures  7 to 10 show the details of these parts.

Parts of the side up which supports my watercolor palette
Figure 7: Components of side arm which support my plastic palette.
Assembled side arm ready to attach plastic watercolor palette.
Figure 8: Assembled side arm ready to attach plastic watercolor palette.
Hole drilled though palette locking clip to fix it to support arm
Figure 9: Hole drilled though palette locking clip to fix it to support arm
Plastic watercolor palette attached to its support arm before insertion into plein air easel tripod
Figure 10: Plastic watercolor palette attached to its support arm before insertion into plein air easel tripod.

The palette originally only had quite shallow mixing areas (two small and one larger one).  I solved this by gluing some pieces of aluminum into place to raise the height of each mixing well, of which there are now four.  You can see on the right hand side that I used a piece of aluminum channel instead of just a flat piece of aluminum. My idea is that if the grey locking tab on the palette breaks I can drill a hole in the channel and use that to connect the palette to its support arm.

Stips of aluminium glued into palette to create deeper and additional mixing well
Figure 11: Aluminium strips glued in the mixing wells with epoxy to create more depth.

As I replaced my heavy box with lightweight Gator Board I was able to use an even lighter tripod than I had been using, saving additional weight. Obviously this setup would not work for larger sheets of watercolor paper but if you mainly work on quarter sheets or smaller I have found this tripod to handle the load easily – just don’t go leaning on it or try to use it as a walking support!

My watercolor brushes are placed on a little aluminium tray with serrated edges to stop my brushes from rolling around. One of the serrations near the middle of this tray is bent out so that my water container can be hung from it. The tray was made from a small piece of light weight aluminium plate bought from my local art and craft  store.

Aluminium tray used to support watercolor brushes, water container and spray bottle on my plein air easel
Figure 12: Aluminium tray used to support watercolor brushes, water container and spray bottle on my plein air easel.

Hopefully the above descriptions and the photos give you enough information to produce a similar light weight watercolor plein air easel should you be so inclined. There would no doubt be some adjustments that need to be made depending on the tripod and easel that you use.

Obviously it goes without saying that you will need a certain level of technical expertise to make all these parts, should you wish to make something similar.  Take due care when using equipment such as cutters and electric drills as you could get hurt – for which I take no responsibility! This article is provided as a record of what I did and what you do with it is up to you. Ideally if you are in anyway hesitant about using these tools you should get someone to make any parts for you.

If you have any questions please contact me through the forum pages.

Here, again, is a photo of the full plein air easel set up:

plein aire painting easel for watercolor light weight
Figure 3: My light weight plein air easel for watercolor painting.

Connecting an umbrella to the Easel

I have been asked how I connect an umbrella to my plein air easel so here is a picture of it.

Umbrella and plein air watercolor easel side view
Umbrella and plein air watercolor easel side view

I use a light weight umbrella I purchased from Dick Blick art supplies to which I attached an extendible pole. The pole was made from another cheap easel I had no use for . It is connected to the easel with some Velcro. You may need to use more than one piece of Velcro depending on conditions.

Umbrella connected to watercolor easel with Velcro
Umbrella connected to watercolor easel with Velcro

Obviously this setup would not work if there was a lot of wind. However wind is not good for plein air watercolor painting in any case. You could however stableize you easel by adding some weight to the arms of the tripod with a bag filled with local rocks or water.


Author: Joe

Owner and adminstration of the Painting With Watercolors website and forum. I am a professional watercolor artist, though I also use other mediums including pen and ink. I also enjoy playing with computers and the internet so this website is a bit of a hobby of mine.

30 thoughts on “Plein air easel for watercolor painting”

  1. Your easel setting up is very nice.
    I’d like to know Figure 12 aluminium tray seller’s e-mail address or,
    Shop name, price,etc?

  2. The aluminium watercolor brush tray I made myself. You can buy a small sheet of aluminium from your local hardware or craft store.

  3. G’day Joe, The glue for attaching the the gator board to the quick release, is it the same epoxy glue or something different for gluing plastic to cardboard?
    Regards Robyn

  4. Hi Robyn,
    The glue I used was two part araldite. I suspect it is the same as what you would use to glue plastic to cardboard but I am not sure. I used araldite for all the glued bits on the easel.

  5. Leigh,
    I will take a photo of my set-up tomorrow and post it so you can see. Basically is is an light umbrella on an extensible pole. Anyway the photo should show it all. Not so useful in strong wind of course 😉

  6. Hi Leigh,
    I have now added a couple more images, to the end of my article, showing how I connect my umbrella to my plein air easel. I hope it answers your questions. If not let me know.

  7. Hi JoeI
    I love your set up!
    I have two questions though 1)it looks like a tan board between the Gator Board and the quick
    release component in fig.#4 ???
    and 2)after making deeper well in your pallet can you still close the pallet?
    I have a similar pallet and would love to make the wells deeper as you have done .
    Thanks for sharing your solutions!

  8. Hi Sheila,
    The tan board you see is actually the Gator board. The Gator Board I use is made up for a foam inner and two thin tan boards cemented on both sides. I know there are some white Gator Boards available but that is not the one I use as it is too soft.

    Yes my pallet still closes after I made the wells deeper – if you try to make the wells to deep it may not close however. It all depends on the size of the dividers you use to make the mixing areas deeper in your palette.


  9. What is Gator board? I’m in Australia where sometimes it can be very hard to get regular art supplies. I’m quite used to my local art store looking at me in stunned surprise when I ask for something, and my local hardware store has gone out of business. Is it similar to masonite, or more like a 3ply foam sheet with a central core of some sort of plastic to keep it firm?

  10. Gator Board is similar to Foamcore. Foamcore has paper on either side of the foam. Gator Board has two thin veneers of compressed timber on either side of the foam which give it its strength and durability. Artscene in Sydney sells it, as does ArtSup in the Penrith area.

  11. Thanks for a great design, wondered how I could adapt my camera tripod. Need to think how to fit the pallet without drilling my expensive carbon tripod, sure there will be a way, Add a holder for my G&T and it will be perfect 🙂

  12. Hello Chris,
    I suggest you buy a cheap tripod and use it for your watercolor painting easel and save your expensive one for your camera 🙂 Glad you liked the design.

  13. Very nice set-up. How do you attach your brush holder and water? I can’t seem to make it out in the photo. Thank you for sharing.

  14. The aluminium tray pictured in the article fits over a couple of the tripod legs. The tray has notches cut in it that stop brushes from rolling off. I push one of the middle notches out a little so I can hang my water container from it. Hope this makes things a little clearer.

  15. Thanks Joe. Had a tripod that I wanted to convert to a WC easel and in my search, I found yours. I have done very similar to your good self and am thrilled with the results. Time now to sling paint!

    Regards Ross

  16. Brilliant set up Joe. Mine has the palette slot in at the top and I haven’t found a way to store my brushes, I love your work and will try modifying my easel thank you x

  17. Have similar setup except metal tray for brushes. Great. I made more mixing wells using hot glue gun. Thanks for sharing.

  18. Hello Joe,
    I just want to thank you so much for the great idea for a plein air easel! I was so close to simply buying one, however now that I see how I can convert my camera tripod into one since I don’t use it, that’s what I’m doing. Thanks so much for sharing your ideas, wish there were more people willing to SHARE ideas!!

  19. Joe:

    Can you please provide more detail on the palette support arm? Is it fixed or adjustable and what specific items did you purchase to make it?

    Thank you

  20. Hi Fred,
    The support arm is just a cheap camera tripod leg (adjustable) from an old tripod I had. It just has to be strong enough to support the palette.
    Nothing else purchased. The small nut and bolt and piece of timber to help stabilise the palette were in my garage.

  21. I had an easel made similarly. All that’s left, basically, is the adjustable metal mount with quick release attached. I would really like to use it with a ballhead. Any experience with those?

  22. Great project. I have an old camera tripod or maybe two. But I am not sure where to buy gator board. I am in the USA. The stuff I found called gator board is all plastic, and sort of clear. Any suggestions?

  23. I just posted about Gator Board in the USA. Never mind replying, I found it. They just call it Gatorfoam. But the description says wood veneer, matching your description. Great blog, I am enjoying all you work and advice.

  24. I am going on a painting holiday and like your idea of using a tripod. There are so many to choose from. Can you tell me which one you used. Thanks.

  25. The model I have is called as SLIK SDV-550, I am not sure it is still available however. I have had friends make them with other tripods.

  26. Hi Joe! Thanks for the great post. I stumbled upon it when I’m searching for a solution to deepen the well on my palette.
    I have one of those holbein aluminum palettes, and the shallow mixing welld are really troublesome for me… However I do not know the first thing about cutting metal or gluing them. Is there any easy way to fix it? Or what’s some supplies i should get to do this project. Thanks again

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