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.