What is your setup for painting en plein air with pastels?

mckinley_painting2.jpgWorking with pastel on location is a rewarding process, facilitating immediate spontaneous applications of pigment to surface. The anxiety is transporting our fragile pastels into the dangerous world. If you have ever spilled your pastel case and spent the rest of the day picking up bits and pieces, you know how important it is to have a stable setup.

The first consideration is to organize a strong case with the least amount of pastels. It’s difficult to know which sticks to select until you’ve worked on location for awhile. For my palette layout, I limit myself to a selection that represents the color wheel, value scale and a neutral range of warm and cool colors. Then I’ll make changes to my field palette depending on where I’ll be painting. In areas such as the Northeast, for example, I might add a wider range of greens and blue/violets and decrease the red/orange family. Whereas when painting in the Southwest, the opposite approach would better suit the situation. I always know I can make final touches back in the studio where I have all my pastel choices.

Next, be sure to have a stable system for holding your pastel palette and surface. One of the oldest and most widely used is the French easel. The open drawer holds the pastel case, which may be secured with a bungee cord. The inner drawer is useful for holding miscellaneous items, and the pastel surface attaches to the easel for painting and transport. If weight and size are a concern, a half French easel is a good solution. All-in-one boxes are a convenient and compact alternative to the traditional French easel and separate pastel case. They are available from a variety of vendors and attach to a sturdy camera tripod.

Another useful item is an umbrella which shades the working area and keeps an even light on the painting and pastel palette. Make sure it’s white, black or neutral in color, so it doesn’t create a color cast. Smaller, sturdy models have become available from suppliers of plein air equipment. Wind is always a problem, and never more so than for the pastel artist. Picking up a turned over oil setup is one thing, but dealing with a couple hundred pastels strung across a field is another! For this reason it’s advisable to weigh down or secure the easel as much as possible when wind is present. Recently, I’ve had good results using a model available from Artworks Essentials  that allows the umbrella to lift off in severe wind.

Other items I bring along are: extra pastel paper; a sketchbook for thumbnail composition sketches; a small digital camera to record the scene and record the stages of the painting; a small watercolor palette for possible underpainting; a few oil bristle brushes; Viva-brand paper towels; a small secure container of mineral spirits for spreading the pastel if needed; a few 2B drawing pencils for sketching and drawing; a good wide-brimmed hat to shade my eyes; water; bug spray; and sunscreen. Some of these are stored inside the French easel and the rest in a small backpack. Learning to travel light and still have the things we need is an ongoing process. If I haven’t used something for awhile, I remove it and lighten the load.

I have wondered (all plein air painters must at one time or another) why I go through it—lugging my equipment around, standing in the sun, getting eaten by insects, and fighting the constantly changing light. But, after experiencing the allure of natural light, the sensitivity gained from a tactile relationship, and the differences in my work because of these, I’ve become totally hooked!

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