In today’s post, I’ll share my top 5 favorite affordable watercolor plein air painting setups.
Getting started with watercolor plein air is easier than you think!
The benefits of painting outside are plenty. Not only are you enjoying fresh air, the therapeutic sounds of nature, and the excitement of discovering new places, but you will be honing your understanding of color and light in the best way possible – direct from nature.
It might be intimidating at first, and that’s OK. I was so nervous when I first started. But along the way, I’ve discovered very useful tools and tips for success.
First, let’s talk about the pros and cons of plein air.
PROS of Plein Air
- Seeing “true” colors (Photography lies to us and will change the colors and values)
- Observe how light interacts with objects
- Train your mind to extrapolate critical information from complicated subjects
- By observing movement in the environment (clouds, water, leaves), a deeper understanding of the subject is inevitable
- Gain a deeper appreciation for nature
- Nature Therapy: Fresh air, sights, sounds, smells of nature
CONS Of Plein Air
- Weather dependent / weather changes quickly
- Finding the right gear for the job
- Light changes quickly
- People might want to interact with you (disruptive for some)
- Requires extra planning
- Difficult to translate 3D subjects to a 2D plane
In my opinion, the benefits far outweigh the difficulties, and the more I paint outside, the less often I enjoy painting from photos. I often feel stifled and uninspired when painting from photographs because of how much I’ve come to enjoy plein air painting. But that’s my problem…
Let’s stay on track here!
Next we’ll talk about some gear that will get you started on your journey.
Art supplies are like Pokemon. Gotta catch em all!
But seriously I have several affordable setups for all my plein air watercolor adventures, each with their own set of pros and cons. With watercolor and gouache, I change my setup frequently to suit my mood and the weather.
I really want to emphasize that you DO NOT need to spend a lot of money to paint outside. In fact, when I started, I had a cheap Cotman travel set of watercolors and a pack of 4×6 watercolor postcards. I drove to the Denver Botanic Gardens every week and painted flowers. I had no idea how to layer watercolor or paint complex scenes, but it didn’t matter. I was admiring the beautiful blooms all around me, inspired to capture them in whatever way I could.
4 years later and I’m still finding new and exciting gear and my setup continues to evolve. I’ll share some of my current favorite setups and the pros/cons of each.
1. Tiny | DIY Under $10
I like to think that I was pretty clever when I invented my mini wrist palette all by myself.
I was so excited to patent this invention and make millions, but my dreams were crushed after a simple google search. Turns out, I’m not as original as I thought!
If you want to join the mini wrist palette army, all you need is a little google-fu and a few dollars.
Here’s how I made mine:
- Empty Altoid tin (or similar). Needs to be metal!
- 6 empty half pans that you will fill with your favorite colors.
- As a bonus, glue tiny magnets to the bottom of each.
- Magnetic wrist band – these are often sold to construction workers and electricians so you might look in the hardware store / online.
And that’s it! Fill your pans with your favorite colors, grab your favorite sketchbook and go.
- Very cheap
- Hands free (no table or tripod needed)
- No tripod needed
- No mixing space
- Potential for spilling
- Only 6 colors
- Again…no mixing space!
2. Tiny | DIY Under $15
My second favorite “tiny” kit is not quite as creative, but one of my most-used setups. It fits in my pocket, and I can either hold it or set it on my lap (or the ground) to paint.
My refillable Meedan metal paint box goes with me almost everywhere.
Not only is this a very lightweight option, but it offers a bit of mixing space, and I pour water into the lid.
- Affordable & refillable with your favorite paint
- Enough mixing space for small pieces
- The lid can hold water
- If you want to paint bigger pieces, you may need to mix more color and space is limited
Or spend a few more dollars to get a pre-filled set like the Cotman Pocket Box Set – the first kit I ever used!
3. Medium | Under $10
More mixing space is helpful for being able to mix your colors and dilute the paint properly, which I HIGHLY recommend for watercolor. So if you find the first two options too small, it’s time to upgrade to something a little more substantial.
I use this Frisk Folding Palette (small) (and there are lots of cheap options out there) with a limited palette of 10 colors. By only filling half of the wells with color, I’m able to use the other half for mixing color and cleaning my brushes (yea, I just pour water into the unused wells!) Or if I need a bit more water, I use this double dipper palette cup:
But even if you filled every well on this palette with color, you’d still have a lot of mixing space! In my opinion, the more mixing space, the better.
- Very cheap palette
- Handheld (no table or tripod needed)
- Palette is made of brittle plastic – handle with care!
- The wells are not very deep, don’t hold a ton of paint (but still plenty for a few sessions)
4. Medium | Under $20
There are times when I don’t want to sacrifice the amount of colors I have or mixing space to paint outside.
That’s when I reach for this setup:
The tray is actually a “projector/laptop tray” which comes with a predrilled tripod mount. Simply attach to any normal tripod and you’ve got a stable work surface. It’s large enough so I can either rest my paper on it, or use it to hold lots of supplies.
It can be tilted or used flat which is ideal for watercolor paper. Since it’s metal, I can attach things with magnets, such as my metal travel palettes, brush holder, metal water cups, and more.
- Stable work surface
- More space for items
- Can be used for holding supplies or paper, or both if you use small paper
- Heavy, would not want to walk for miles with this
- Tray is a little too large to be able to zip my backpack closed (maybe I need a bigger one!)
- Requires tripod
5. Large | $50+
On days when I’m feeling extra fancy, I use one of my Pochade boxes. Although I purchased them for my oil painting, they can be used for any type of paint. Pochade boxes come in all shapes and sizes, and are convenient for several types of paint.
They attach to a tripod and provide a space for the paper/canvas, a space for mixing paint, and a storage compartment for storing supplies.
Some of them even allow you to store wet paintings inside when moving, so it’s a self-contained unit. I mainly use mine for oil painting, but they could easily be adapted to watercolor.
Regardless of what you prefer, it’s absolutely worth the effort to carry a pochade box outside. Reminder: You’ll need a tripod for any pochade box you buy.
- Everything can be stored inside
- Stable working surface
- Versatile for any type of paint
- Can store wet paintings inside some of them
- More expensive
- Some of them are bulky (my Sienna doesn’t fit in my backpack)
- Requires tripod
Getting your watercolor plein air setups doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg, or be bulky! There are so many advantages to painting outside, so no matter what, give it a try. Through studying color and light on location, I’ve been able to improve my paintings immensely.
In the future, I’ll provide more tips on getting through the struggles of painting outdoors, but for now I hope this was inspiring and helpful!
You can watch lots of my plein air painting adventures and get an idea of what it’s like.
One last note: my average costs don’t include buying the paint, but I recommend buying paint in tubes because you get way more for your money! Sometimes you can find sales. In the US, I recommend searching on Blick Art Supplies. In Europe, I highly recommend Jacksons Art.