The Perfect Pastel Plein Air Setup: The Search Continues


The travel setup (on the right) with students as we huddled under a bridge during a light rain one morning in France.


The drawing board with the camera quick release attached and the Eagle Creek shirt “Pack-it Folder” bag.

As winter sets in, the bulk of the year’s pastel plein air adventures are behind me. I promised in the July 6, 2009 blog, “Traveling Even Lighter”, to share how my newly downsized travel kit worked. I am pleased to report that it worked very well! As described, everything was in one backpack and I was able to keep it with me throughout the adventure. It did get a little heavy at times. (On my next trip abroad, I will consider attaching the backpack to a collapsible folding wheel cart.) At the final destination, extra packed supplies were removed, reducing the weight. You may want to consider a carry-on size bag that has wheels in place of the backpack. It all depends on your stamina. What seemed do-able in the morning became a bit bothersome after a long day of painting!

The major components that made it work were:

  • A sturdy backpack or rolling carry-on bag. Remember that your painting equipment is heavy and often has sharp edges. A flimsy bag will fall apart before the painting trip is over and finding a replacement in exotic locales can prove difficult. Bags made for executive travel purposes are often the best to consider.
  • A smaller, sturdy pastel palette. Pastels weigh a lot. A box that weighs very little empty can become quite heavy when filled with pastels. If you work with your pastel palette attached to a tripod/easel setup, you will most likely be reaching over it to work on your painting. Consider this reach before selecting a box. Dakota Art Pastels compact travel box and the Heilman backpack box are good choices.
  • A , tripod. Don’t skimp on this accessory. Most camera tripods are not built for the weight of our pastel set-ups. The better built the tripod, the better it will stand up to the abuses of painting. Avoid tripods that have a lot of plastic parts. They are often very flexible and easily broken. My travel tripod is a Bogen Digi model 725B. The ball-joint, quick-release head holds the drawing board for the surfaces.
  • A secure tray for holding the palette. Sun Eden has a couple of attachable trays that fit a multitude of tripod/portable easel models. I use the “Artist Self-400”. It attaches easily to the Bogen tripod and holds either of the above mentioned palette boxes. Secure the open palette to the tripod with a bungee cord before exposing the pastel sticks. It is of note that the Heilman box comes with a camera quick release built in. This allows for the use of their supplemental easel attachment that attaches to predrilled holes in the open box.
  • An attachment for the painting surface. While there are good easel attachments available from the Heilman and Sun Eden companies, I decided to flush mount the camera quick release plate that came with the tripod to a 12×16 piece of hardboard. This allows me to change positions and painting angles with ease. Paper can be taped to the rigid surface; mounted paper can be adhered to a 12×16 surface and clipped to the board; or preexisting 12×16 or 16×20 surfaces can be clipped to the drawing board – allowing for a multitude of possibilities.
  • A means of carrying painting surfaces and finished paintings. With the addition of another 12×16 hardboard, or lighter-weight gatorboard, surfaces and paintings can be sandwiched one on top of the other between the drawing board and the additional board. The boards create a hard puncture resistant outer shell. A perfect means of holding this sandwich together is a shirt “Pack-it Folder” from Eagle Creek Luggage Company. It accommodates a 12×16 very well and has four folding sides with Velcro for adjustable depth.


The “perfect” set up will always be elusive. This one came out of many years of trial and error, and undoubtedly will continue to evolve. It served me well this year and I look forward to putting it back into action in 2010!

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5 thoughts on “The Perfect Pastel Plein Air Setup: The Search Continues

  1. Richard McKinley

    Karen, To flush mount the tripod quick release a few factors are involved. First, it depends on the brand of quick release. The Bogen model described in the blog is pretty easy to adapt. The center bolt (which usually mounts to the bottom of a camera) can be removed by taking the cotter pin washer out, then a taper headed bolt is run through the hard board. With a few washers and a nut that fits the bolt, the quick release can be attached. The Bogen quick release also has a few pre drilled holes on the plate, which make it even easier to mount and adds more stability. The hardboard is Masonite. Masonite is a brand name. An Ampersand Gessobord panel from an art supply store works well. The edges are nicely finished. With a little thought and a bit of experimentation the quick release plate can be securely flush mounted.

  2. karen israel

    can anyone tell me how to ‘flush mount’ the tripod’s camera quick release plate to the 12 x 16 hardboard or gaterboard and is the hardboard ‘masonite’?

  3. Katherine Hansen

    I went and bought exactly the set Richard used in France as I did not have anything. It works so well. After all, 30 years of painting experience went into selecting that setup. I am used to hiking so it does not bother me to carry a backpack. I have a really good camerapack, Lowepro Computrekker Plus AW. It has heaps of space, but more important a solid hip belt. This means I carry the weight on my hips rather than shoulders and back. I am the one standing at the back in the top photo as can be seen I am not a big person!!

  4. mike

    I got my setup down to fitting in a backpack some time ago. A note regarding wheeled luggage. Those "skate" wheels are fine on sidewalks, but don’t do too well on unpaved surfaces. For trails and such, the bigger the wheel the better.