Pastels At the Ready | Preparation and Essential Tools for Plein Air Painting

It’s that time of year again—when the outdoor temperature is comfortable and the span of daylight is long. It’s the season that every landscape artist looks forward to; it’s plein air painting season! While the artistic benefits of plein air painting are numerous, the physical challenges often overshadow: The sunlight is constantly changing; temperatures can be extreme; the insects vicious; the wind brutal; and the equipment cumbersome. Compound these problems with an overwhelming overload of potential subject matter, and it’s easy see why many aspiring plein air painters throw in the towel and retreat to the comfort of a studio. But there is a way to tackle the challenges: preparation.

pastel plein air painting group

A group of pastel painters working in the field near Santa Barbara, California.

Along with the Boy Scouts of America, the motto of the devoted pastel plein air painter should be “Be Prepared.” the devoted pastel plein air painter. While it isn’t within our power to control the sun, wind, and pests, there is one thing we do control: our equipment. A well thought-out plein air setup that’s always at-the-ready can make the experience of painting on location much less foreboding.

My “At the Ready” pastel plein air setup consists of the following equipment:

  • A Half-French easel or a sturdy camera tripod with easel attachment (various models are commercially available). Check around and ask your pastel friends for their recommendations before committing. We all keep looking for the perfect setup and most of our garages are full of the runner-ups!
  • A well-padded backpack. Many of the backpacks being made for computers suit this purpose very well. The slot designed for the computer will hold a pastel palette box. Alternatively, a messenger’s bag can be used if you prefer an over-the-shoulder bag. Most of these bags have numerous pouches suitable for holding various painting products. When searching for a new bag, I take my pastel palette box with me to the store to see how it will fit.
  • A pastel palette box and pastels. This can be a commercially available box (see “Choosing Your Pastel Palette” for more on palette box options) or a simple sturdy cardboard palette if weight is a big concern. The choice of palette box is also contingent on what the easel configuration can tolerate.
  • A small watercolor palette, a couple of nylon bristle brushes, a collapsible cup for water, and a small pump spray bottle for possible underpainting techniques.
  • A sketchbook, pencils, pencil sharpener, and felt-tip value markers for preliminary thumbnail sketches/notes.
  • A small portfolio containing two black Gatorfoam backing boards,  pieces of pastel paper in various sizes, and a few sheets of glassine paper.
  • An umbrella for shading the palette and painting surface—not you. There are many models available. Make sure it is neutral in color and the stem is long enough to reach above your head when attached. (For more tips on the plein umbrella, see my post on “Sun Vs. Shade”)
  • Miscellaneous items: viewfinder, digital camera, drafting tape, black masking tape, Viva brand paper towels, plastic garbage bags, pocket knife, hiker’s multi-use tool, small roll of duct tape, bungee cord, alligator clips, bug spray, sunscreen, wet-wipes, hat, vest, water bottle, and nutrition bars.

This is my personal setup and reflects my own painting habits. Additions and subtractions can be made to suit your individual needs, but having a designated setup at the ready at all times will allow you to battle the plein air adversities with aplomb, ultimately increasing your painting wins. And we all deserve to win once in awhile!


Get more expert advice from Richard McKinley in his instructional videos. Watch a free preview here!


Free Download! Click here for “A Streamlined Method for Quick and Deliberate Plein Air Painting.”



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One thought on “Pastels At the Ready | Preparation and Essential Tools for Plein Air Painting

  1. marymarin

    Hi Richard. Maybe your readers will find this interesting…
    I’ve come up with a really simple viewfinder set that I’m hoping will be helpful to others. It includes 10 cards, each of which has a rectangle cut out for viewing, and each is marked with what sizes of canvas it will work with. For example, if you are painting on a 16×20 canvas, you’ll choose the 4×5 card, which also notes 16×20 on it so you don’t have to do the math. Here is a link to my product in case anybody is looking for an alternative to the few that are out there already. Oh…and it is lightweight, has no moving parts, and can easily be wiped off if you get paint on it.

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