Plein air painting easel for watercolor

From time to time I wondered about the weight and functionality of my plein air painting easel. It took too long to set up and was heavy. This got me thinking about just what is important in an outdoor watercolor easel and how I could reduce the weight so that carrying it around is not a chore. As I like to paint on quarter sheet paper, and because I prefer to paint standing up, a tripod easel is a necessity. So I set about producing a lightweight plein air painting easel. Something that could be made with a minimum of materials but would still be very functional for my type of plein aire painting. This article gives all the details of my setup in case anyone would like to produce a similar easel for their own use.

Because of its length I have divided this article into two parts. The first talks about my old setup and what was wrong with it along with what I feel is needed in a good plein air painting easel for watercolor painting.

My old gear consisted of a wooden box easel used for oil painting which rested on a tripod. The box stored my pallet and even some spare paper along with a couple of trays that were attached to the tripod and on which I rested my pallet, water container and brushes. It worked well however it was not something you could easily carry while travelling abroad.

An additional problem with the old setup, apart from the weight (3.7 kg / 8.16 lb) was that I had to lean over the bottom tray to get to my painting surface. In time this was putting more strain on my back than I wanted. Figures 1 and 2 are of my old setup. As you can see I also used to paint on a watercolor block which meant carrying a lot more weight than I needed.

Because of the weight of the box on top it required a stronger and heavier tripod. It was also a bit awkward to fix to the tripod.

My original watercolor plein air easel
Figure 1: My original plein air painting easel
The problem with the original easel was I had to lean over too much, and the palette was too low.Bending over my old plein air easel hard on back
Figure 2: The problem with the original easel was I had to lean over too much, and the palette was too low.

I decided to see just what was really essential when I went out plein air painting and to discard the rest.

Plein air painting easel – essential features for watercolor

Here are the key requirements I wanted for my setup:

It had to be as light as possible while being sturdy enough to support my paper and palette without undue motion.

Everything had to be at a comfortable working height once I started my watercolor painting.

The palette should be close to the height of my watercolor paper so it could be accessed very easily.

The water container had to be convenient as well.

I required something to hold my brushes, and spray bottle, while painting without them rolling away and falling onto the ground.

The easel should be able to be set up very quickly with a minimum of parts that could go missing if they fell onto grass i.e. not too many extra nuts and bolts.

The mixing areas in my palette had to hold plenty of watercolor paint.

Continue to part two by clicking this link:  my current plein air painting easel.


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.


Watercolor brushes – 10 things which will damage them

Caring for your watercolor brushes

I am often giving my students advice about what to do and not to do with their watercolor brushes so I thought I would see if I could create a list of 10 things which will damage a watercolor (watercolour)brush. It took a bit of thinking but here is my list which you may find helpful with the care of your brushes.

Do not leave watercolor brushes sitting in your water container
Figure 1: Do not leave you watercolor brushes sitting in your water container
  1. Leaving them sitting in your watercolor container while you paint or worse still all day. This will force the hairs of your watercolor brushes out of shape and also make the wood of your handle swell which could result in it loosening the ferrule (the metal bit that connects the brush hairs to the handle)with the result that the hairs can fall out or the wood could rot.
  2. Letting the paint dry on your brushes. The paint builds up down low near the ferrule which can be very hard to remove. Will cause the point on the brush to be lost.
  3. Storing wet brushes point up – this allows the water to settle in the ferrule causing the wood of your handle to swell which could result in it loosening the ferrule as in point 1 above.
  4. Storing wet brushes with the point bent. The brush will dry in this odd shape losing its point. Depending on the brush this may fix by itself when you rewet the brush but sometimes it just stays in this wrong shape. One thing that can do which sometimes fixes even this problem however is to dip the hairs of the brush in very hot water and then reestablish the point with your fingertips and let the brush dry while laying it flat – I have had success with this technique with squirrel hair brushes but may not help with others – try at own risk!
  5. Using them for acrylic or worse still oil painting. Just don’t do this. If you want to use your watercolor brushes for acrylic or oil painting then set some aside just for that. Once you use your brushes for oil or acrylic painting they will begin to lose their point. Any oil or turpentine residue on the brush will make it behave differently then you later try to use it with watercolor.
  6. Using your good watercolor brush for apply art masking liquid or frisket. This is probably the quickest way to ruin a good watercolor brush. Once the liquid latex in the masking fluid dries on your brush it is gone. Even if you use the right technique when using masking fluid in time the brush will still finally pick up the odd bit of latex which will ruin it. Save your old brushes or buy some cheap ones and use them for masking.
  7. Storing wet brushes in a sealed container. The fibers of your brush will go mouldy if you store them wet without adequate ventilation. It will also keep the wood of the handle inside the ferrule damp which can lead to rod and a loose ferulle and cracked paint on the brush handle.
  8. Don’t use a good watercolor brush for scrubbing out color. Just makes good sense, the scrubbing will break down the hairs and in time your brush will thin out. If you want them to last longer then don’t use them for this purpose.
  9. Using paint that is too dry. I find this especially when students try to paint with cheap paints that dry really hard. The extra rubbing you have to do to get color out of your dry paint will wear the brush down faster than normal. If my paints have been left to dry without a lid on my pallet for a few days (which rarely happens now days) I just give each paint well a little spray with my water spray bottle and leave them for about 15 minutes, this will make it much easier to lift out paint after that. I use Winsor and Newton tube water colors almost exclusively I find they re-liquefy very easily.

10. Trying to put the round plastic protector back on that sometimes comes with a brush. Just don’t try it! The protector that came with the brush was probably put on by a machine and if you try to do the same yourself you will most likely end up with hairs pushed out of shape permanently. I just throw the protector away once I get my new brush home.

So there you have my list of the 10 things which will damage watercolor brushes. No doubt there are others but the above are the main ones I have come across. Once you get a really nice watercolor brush it is well worth your while taking the extra effort to look after it as it should keep in good shape for many years. A good brush will help you paint your watercolors while a bad or damaged brush will hinder you.

Buying Watercolor Brushes

What to look for when buying round watercolor brushes

If you are thinking of buying some new watercolor brushes what should you be looking for and how much should you spend? In the past the answer to this question would have been quite simple, “The most expensive brushes you could afford”, usually this meant one made with sable hair. This is quite a simplistic piece of advice but it was something I read over and over again in watercolor painting books and magazines.

However I don’t believe this is really the correct advice, certainly not any more.

Round Watercolor Brushes hold lots of paint and bounce back to a point
Good quality round watercolor brushes have a good point and hold lots of water

So what should one do?

Well let’s look at what makes a good round watercolor brush.

• It has to hold a lot of water and watercolor paint.

• The wet round brush should bounce back to a nice point when it is tapped on the side of your water container or your pallet.

• It should not be so stiff that it will easily disturb paint already on your paper when you are laying a watercolor glaze over it. Remember watercolors are quite delicate and their pigments are easily disturbed when re-wet.

• It should feel good in your hand for your style of painting.

All of these things are very easy to check when you go to your local watercolor art supply store.

Any reputable art supplier will supply you with a glass of water for you to be able to test their brushes before you purchase. If they won’t do this explain to them your reasons and if they don’t want to assist you then go to another store as the last thing you want to have happen is to buy an expensive brush that looks good but as soon as you test it out in water you discover it has no point, holds little water and is either too stiff or does not bounce back to a point. Watercolor brushes often look great on store shelves with really nice looking points, but this is because they have a type of water dissolvable glue on them that keeps then that way. When you test them out by swirling them in water this glue comes off and you can really see what sort of point the brush has! Remember even reputable suppliers sometimes will have a brush with a fault (but they should be very willing to replace it if they do).

I have found some very good brushes made with squirrel hair which fulfill the requirement above for about a tenth of the cost of very good sable brushes. So why spend the money if you don’t have to. And while of the subject of sable brushes, while there are some very excellent brushes out on the market by reputable art equipment manufacturers there are also some quite poor brushes which are not really worth the money you pay for them. What I mean by this is that it is better to have a good non-sable brush and a low quality watercolor brush made with sable.

Obviously you should hold the brush as you would when you are working with it on your watercolor paintings and if it does not feel right then doing buy it as you want the brush to feel good in your hands. Some brushes have handles that are too short or too thick – we are all different and you need to find one that feels good to you. After all with good care you will have your brushes for many years.

I haven’t talked about the actual quality of manufacturing here. Obviously if you try to spend too little on a brush you may end up with serious quality problems. A friend of mine bought a large round watercolor brush from a discount store and only paid about $15 dollars for it. He thought he had bought a great deal however right from the start it started shedding hairs, not just one or two as sometimes happens with a new brush for a very short while, but about a dozen with every painting. So now not only did he feel bad about the poor brush he bought but the ruined paintings were even more painful. This happened when he was starting out with watercolors and it was certainly a hindrance to his progress.

Don’t think that just because you are a beginner that it is alright for you to have poor quality brushes – that is a bit like saying it is okay to learn to right a bicycle with a wobbly wheel because you are a beginner. No, watercolor is hard enough when you start off that you should have the best equipment you can afford so that you are not held back by poor materials. At the same time you don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars on a brush when forty dollars is more than enough.

I tried many different brands of watercolor painting brushes before I found one that was best for me and then I have stuck with it. When buying watercolor brushes it is important to get the right brush not necessarily the most expensive.

Cheap Light Box for Artist’s Use

How to make a cheap light box

About six years ago I was given a great tip for transferring drawings you do on tracing paper or light weight paper such as Bank. This cheap light box is very cheap – in fact it is so inexpensive it is free!

After to you complete your sketch, you tape your drawing to a clear glass window or doorway. I prefer to use a southern facing window (in the southern hemisphere where I live) as it faces away from the sun. It would be the reverse if you live in the northern hemisphere.  I found if I used a window that faced directly into the sun; it was a bit hard on the eyes so I don’t recommend it.

Cheap light boxTape tracing paper onto window
Figure 1: Cheap light box – Tape tracing to transparent glass window or outer doorway

On top of the drawing you tape a sheet of 300 gsm, watercolor paper and you should be able to see through to the drawing underneath well enough to trace over it.

Tape watercolor paper over tracing
Figure 2: Tape watercolor paper over tracing

You may need to add a little pressure to the paper to see the tracing underneath easily.

You may need to add light pressure on the paper to see through to tracing easily
Figure 3: You may need to add light pressure on the paper to see through to tracing easily

I use this technique if I feel I will be doing a lot of erasing on my initial drawing before I get it right. It lets me work on the tougher tracing paper and also it obviously does not damage the watercolor paper through excessive erasing.

It also means that if I then go ahead and mess up my watercolor painting – hey it happens to everyone, it does not take me long to re transfer the drawing to a new sheet and I hence save myself a lot of redrawing time. This also lets me be a lot more relaxed with my painting, especially if the drawing required a few hours of work, as it does not take very long to retransfer the sketch.

In my studio I have an A3 light box but this technique can be used for any size depending on your window!

I used to rub graphite on the back of a sheet to create graphite paper, but this cheap light box is a much cleaner and easier technique.