Plein air easel for 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.


Stress management techniques for watercolor painting

So now we have talked about how stress can be detrimental to your watercolor painting progress We will look at some additional techniques that can help you reduce this stress (stress management)  so you can observe better and hence move your watercolor artwork along.

So now we have talked about how stress can be detrimental to your watercolor painting progress We will look at some additional techniques that can help you reduce this stress (stress management)  so you can observe better and hence move your watercolor artwork along.

Here are some techniques I have used in the past that I have found helpful in reducing stress which develops while painting in this medium:

  1. As already mentioned, set yourself realistic goals. It will take years to master this medium. Enjoy the journey rather than loading yourself with goals like having to produce masterpieces in your first few classes. I had a student who had a very senior job in IT (Information Technology). For him watercolor painting was his stress management. He didn’t care how his work turned out, he just enjoyed being in class  and playing with his watercolor paints. He ended up producing some quite nice watercolor paintings.
  2. Put it in perspective. Painting with watercolors is not a life threatening activity. You are talking about a few of dollars worth of paper and watercolor paint.  That is it!
  3. If you find your work getting too repetitive try something new for a while. This could be a different subject, painting  a smaller size, maybe force yourself to use a new color in a dominant manner.
  4. Before touching your paper think through the steps you are going to take for the whole painting. This will highlight any areas you are still unsure about which you should solve before you touch your watercolor paper. This is a key stress management point. If you know how you are going to proceed with your painting you will mostly be in control and hence your stress level will be lower.
  5. Look at a failed watercolor painting as a step towards success. Analyze your failed paintings to see what parts did work and what parts didn’t. Acknowledge success with the parts that worked and then look at ways to improve the bits that didn’t in future paintings.

What watercolor artists can and can’t control

To help with your feeling of lack of control look at your watercolor painting and see just what you can and can’t control.

So what can you control? Well firstly realize that you are in control of most things. For example you can control how fast he paint flows down your paper. By adjusting the angle of your easel from flat to quite steep you can stop any flow of paint down the page or speed it up. Also by using more water in your water- color paint mix it will flow faster, less water in the mix will reduce the flow rate. You can control the size of the paper you use. The smaller the watercolor paper size the more control you will have as it will not dry as fast and you can cover the watercolor paper with fewer brush strokes.  Using a spray bottle to keep the shine on your paper will give you a lot more time to keep working on those wet on wet passages in your painting. You get to choose the size of brush you can use, etc, etc. So you really are in control over most of your watercolor painting stages.

Now, what aren’t you in control over? Well while we can control the flow of paint down the watercolor paper to a large extent, it is very hard to come up with a totally predictable formula. So in this sense every time you touch the paper you are creating an unrepeatable brush stroke if it is wet on wet. How the water color paints flow into one another can be limited but not totally controlled – however this is an effect which gives watercolor paintings their originality. You can paint the same painting a dozen times but the wet on wet passages will always be different.

In the end you will probably find that you really do want a little bit of uncontrollability when painting with watercolors. This is what makes it an exciting medium, but it should not be allowed to get totally out of control or your stress goes up and observation goes out the window!

Play and stress management when watercolor painting

The first watercolor painting I ever did in class wet on wet - just playing!
The first watercolor painting I ever did in class – just playing!

Finally, give yourself some play time with your materials. The very first time I used watercolors I asked my tutor what should I do and he said just wet the paper and play with them. I have often given the same response to my students. The simple watercolor painting on this page is the very first painting I did. It was quite small and I was just playing to see what the colors did on my paper. I still have it today and is a constant reminder not to take it all too seriously. There is no need for “Stress Management” when you are playing and having fun. Tackle all your watercolor paintings in a spirit of play and you will always enjoy the experience.

Stress and watercolor painting

New artists often find watercolor painting extremely stressful. Considering many people take up art to reduce stress this is not a good thing. The main problem with stress and watercolor painting is that when you are in a state of stress you stop observing. Yet observation is a critical factor when painting with watercolors.

Stress can come about from a number of different ways.

Some of us are naturally in a permanent state of stress due to our upbringing, work and general environment, etc.  Handling this type of stress is not something I want to tackle in this article. I am mainly talking about the stress that can come from the act of painting with watercolors. Watercolor paintings can seem to have a mind of their own at times. One can begin to feel that your watercolors have gotten out of control.

If your work is not progressing and you find yourself doing the same thing over and over again this can be stressful. This constant repetition can make you feel you are not progressing which further heightens your stress. Yet when you tackle something new the chances of a messed up painting increases and up goes the stress level again.

Stress during a watercolor workshop

Watercolor painting workshop class Jan 2013. A watercolor workshop can be a stressful environment but doesn't have to be.
Watercolor painting workshop class Jan 2013.

Sometimes stress comes from one putting too high an expectation or  standard on oneself right from the start. Fixing this stress in this case could be as simple as to set realistic goals for yourself.

I often have students say, during a workshop or class, that “My painting didn’t turn out as good as yours!”- usually after they have only been painting with watercolors for a few weeks or months. When you look at any good watercolor painting books you will see some beautiful  artwork and it is only natural to wish to be able to produce paintings like that. However, you have to realize that those paintings did not just happen, the artist would have had many years of practice behind him, or her, to produce that work. Furthermore, it is their best work not their many failures which are in their books. When I run a workshop I make sure I always select paintings which I have already done before so there are no surprises – which can still happen!

I usually begin my watercolor workshops by saying I don’t expect the attendees to produce their best work during the workshop. I tell them this in part because a workshop is not their natural painting environment. They are in someone else’s studio with different lighting and environment, maybe tackling different subjects, using different techniques and materials. They are in the company of a whole lot of strangers of different skill levels. To say nothing of having a tutor looking over their shoulder.  I cover this topic to hopefully guide them towards having more fun in class.

For most of you a watercolor workshop is something you do to learn – your best work will come later when you are in the controllable environment of your own studio.

All of this stress is working against your watercolor painting progress because it stops you from observing!

If you are stressed you stop observing what is happening in your palette and on your paper and watercolor brushes. Once you stop observing while you paint your work with watercolor ceases to progress. This in turn creates more stress which often results in people leaving the subject entirely, which is a real shame as watercolor painting can be a very relaxing and fulfilling medium indeed.

Now that we have covered why handling stress is important when watercolor painting let us go to the next part of this article and look at what we can do about it: Stress management techniques for watercolor painting.

Watercolor painting forum registration steps

I have just finished setting up a watercolor painting forum to make it easier for people to communicate with me and others interested about the articles and demonstrations on this site, and watercolor painting in general.

You can find a link to the forum on top menu bar of Painting With Watercolors. Or you can just click on this link which will take you directly to the forum: Watercolor painting forum.

You do not need to register to read any of the posts on the forum but if you would like to leave a comment or a question then you need to go through the quick registration process. This is quite easy and is designed to minimise spam on the forum.

Watercolor painting forum registration

One the right hand sidebar of the watercolor painting forum click on the word register in the Login/Register section.

How to register on watercolor painting gallery
Select register to go to registration page

You will then be taken to the forum registration page:

Watercolor painting forum registration page
Watercolor painting forum registration page

There are just for simple steps:

1. Enter the user name you would like to use on the forum

2. Enter you email address. This is used to send you your forum password and to verify your account.

3. Enter the Captcha code (to protect the forum from automated spam registrations).

4. Click on the register button. Then you are done.

You will then be emailed your password so you can begin posting. If the password does not arrive within a few minutes please check you junk mail folder in case it has ended up there by accident.

Once you have received you password go back to the watercolor painting forum page and enter your details in the Forum Login/Register section of the right sidebar.

Login or register to watercolor painting forum
Login or register to watercolor painting forum in right side bar

That’s it. I hope you find the watercolor painting forum of use in further developing your own watercolor paintings. In time I would like to see it become a highly useful repository of watercolor painting knowledge in its own right.






Painting With Watercolors Goals for 2013

My Painting With Watercolors website has been up and running now for about  two years and I thought I would make my first post for the New Year one which lays out the goals I have for my website.

Painting with Watercolors initially started as a support site for my weekly watercolor painting students. However over the last couple of years it has grown well beyond that with about 300 people visiting the site each day from over 100 different countries. It has been a lot of fun for me to see it grow like this and I like getting feedback from watercolor artists, both beginners and others, about the site.

McCarrs Creek with sail boats watercolor painting. Lots of wet on wet reflections.
McCarrs Creek with sail boats watercolor painting

Currently there are 21 watercolor demonstrations on the site of which 19 are step by step demos and two are video demos (one watercolor painting and other Pen and Ink). In addition to the demonstrations there are many other articles on watercolor painting techniques and various tips which I hope are of benefit.

I have also appreciated the regular downloads of the demos which have contributed greatly to supporting this site.

OK , so much for the past, what is in store for 2013?

Well I would like to create more step by step demonstrations, hopefully pushing the number to over 30 by the end of this year.

I am keen to try and further develop this community of watercolor painting enthusiasts by setting up a Forum on the site which will enable others to more easily communicate with myself and other like minded people. This will be very much dependent on how well I can keep the spam under control – my previous effort did not go so well but I have learnt a lot since then.

I am in the process of redesigning the site to incorporate this forum feature and hope to have it up and running by the end of January 2013.

Finally, I intend to produce more video demonstrations, most of these will be on a paid basis but some will also be free. In either case they are not expected to be very expensive. My idea is to produce watercolor painting demonstrations similar to what occurs in my weekly class. In this way they should help anyone trying to learn how to paint with watercolor paint but are not able to attend a regular class.

I have a few other ideas on how to develop the site but they may not occur so I will not list them here.

To finish off I would like to wish you all a wonderful 2013 and hope you achieve all you set out to do for the year.

Happy watercolor painting!

Joe Cartwright