Plein-Air Setup | California Seascape Painter of Big Sur

The key to on location painting is to go light, and bring only essentials.

How do you know if you are packing too much?

If you are ready to head out to paint plein-air and you get this thought "I don't feel like packing and dragging all this stuff with me" .... it's time to re-think your strategy. 

I spend 80% of my time painting outside, so for me it was essential that I get this part right, and besides I did not want any bad thoughts to enter my mind - they can influence my paintings.

It took me few years to get this right.

I wish I could have painted that!

I didn't ever want to just "wish I could have painted that", so I keep my setup "always" in the car, ready to go.

This saves me time of loading and unloading the car, but mostly it enables me for spontaneous plein-air paintings. You are driving and see a beautiful seascape / landscape and you get that second look ... you know that look ....  you just have to paint it. 

I set everything up by my car

Just like you see on the picture, I carry the whole setup in one hand and the wet panel carrier in the other hand to the location. 

When I get to my location I put down the easel, I am ready to paint.

After I finish, I clean up everything thoroughly on-location: brushes, mixing area - to have it ready for the next painting. The only thing I leave in the mixing area are the colors.

NOTE: The carrying of the setup in one hand may not work for everyone, because the tripod is quite heavy. You have two alternatives - pack everything in a backpack or get a carbon-fiber tripod (more expensive) with a sandbag to hold it down during windy conditions. 

Before I paint I examine each color if it is fresh

Simply tap on the paint with your pallet knife and if it feels hard to the surface, carefully peel off the top surface of each paint. If it is too hard - most likely the paint is dried up and it's time to re-fresh. If you paint outside everyday this is not a problem

Get to know your paints, some dry up faster than others - for example my Vasari paint - "Bright Red" - stays fresh for week, where as my Winsor Newton - "Burnt Umber" drys up in 2 days.

I prefer "long" paint - I premix all my oil paint before I begin painting with turpentine in order for the paint to flow and to be "long". How do you know if it's long? If you lift the paint with your palette and it's ready to fall off without it being runny than you know it's "Long".

I pre-mix all my local colors before I begin painting. 

What I carry with me:

Easel, linen-covered-panels, paints, brushes, liquin, can of odorless turpentine, razor-blade, paper towel, waste bag, box for transporting finished work, gloves, sun hat, good warm wind-proof jacket, pliers.

be ready for unexpected- have backup

Double up on these items:

White paint - few times I just simply run out, so I keep one extra in my car.

Turpentine - you want extra - few times the wind knocked my easel over, while I was stepping back to examine my painting, having backup in the car now solves this problem.

Paper towel, waste bag, gloves - just a good idea to have extra.

When painting the sea, sometimes you get too close to water, add to it high rising tide and most likely your shoes, pants, socks get wet - now I always have backup.

Bring water - keeps you hydrated while painting.

Pliers - the tripod can get stubborn from the sand, or some paint may need an extra help. Pack one. 

plein-air EASEL- for paintings under 20"

For paintings under 20" - I recommend a light weight pochade box. Before choosing your favorite do ask about weight of the easel. I use 11x14 pochade box from - great quality, and lasting easel.

I made one modification to it, I painted the bottom mid-value-5 "gray" and covered it with 1/8" glass. If you go thinner even a light bend to the setup may crack the glass, if you go heavier the easel becomes  too heavy.

The glass will enable you to clean up the mixing area with razor-blade when you are finished.

The mid-gray-value helps me relate colors easily (lighter and darker) when mixing (my panels are pre-stained with burnt umber about medium value).

An alternative to openboxm is easel from it comes down to your preference.

Either easel you choose, you will need to also purchase Manfrotto MT190XPRO3 Tripod with 496RC2 Ballhead - it is pretty sturdy, and weighs more than I prefer but the extra weight also makes the easel more sturdy.  An alternative is carbon fiber easel but than you definitely need a sandbag.

Get a sandbag for windy conditions. I just throw a rock in mine. An alternative is to get a bungee and tie the wet panel carrier to the easel as a weight.

Maintain your easel and tripod. Make sure you clean off the tripod with water so it doesn't rust if it was splashed by water. Get the sand out so the legs move up and down easily. Spray moving parts with WD-40 than wipe it off.

For paintings over 20

I use Beauport Large Format easel - great easel, and relatively easy to setup and you can go big.


I purchase only linen covered gatorfoam panels - they are extremely light weight, and they can be easily restored 100 years from now (but that's another article about using archiving materials).

Buy them from "New Traditions Art Panels, Inc" . They are not cheap, but this is one place where I would never save.

I am fanatic about the surface, it just has to be right. You will have to test what you like, in my case I like only L280 (medium weave), L600 (really nice and smooth grade) - both linens are double oil primed.

I also like 359 this is alkyd primed medium - I use a different technique when I paint on this canvas because I can create a really nice effect - tough to describe - it can be only seen when viewing paintings live (you can't see the effect on the photo).


I buy EZ Port from - I try to keep it simple, by bringing only same size panels.

Half of my box is 12x16, the other half is mixture of 16x8 or 16x9 - it is extremely easy to manage the paintings because they are all the same width 16.

Immediately after I finished painting, I place wet painting board in the box, keeps the smell away from the car.

I made a minor modification on the box - added a foam to the inside top. When I close the box I wanted to make sure the boards don't move. (I'll post a picture in the future for reference.).


All are Windsor Newton Oil Colors, but exceptions are noted. I like to use rich Pthalo (or Winsor by Winsor Newton) colors.

Lot of my colors are transparent they are critical (at least in my case) to paint the sea.

I started off my plein-air paintings only with four colors, they are marked with * below.

Painting with four colors will turn into a paint mixing machine over time and they pretty much assure color harmony in your paintings.

I experimented over the years with hundreds of colors and I am sure my palette will change again soon so check back.

Some colors below are inter-changeable except Titanium White. I only use white from Vasari, it has just the right flow, it's pure Titanium - it's the best white ever.

If you use alternative maker for the colors make sure you examine what oils (or additives) they used in the paint, as it will greatly influence how the paint behaves on your canvas.

Why so many? I like to be effective and not waste a lot of my time mixing colors, specially when I am on location, makes it very easy to paint. If you are just starting out, I would recommend to start with four colors marked with *below.

I buy paintings from - prices are competitive and they have large selection, Vasari paints can only be purchased from Vasari directly - their packing is unbelievable - I re-use their boxes when I travel oversea. 

  • Carribian blue hue PB15/1 - Charvin - just a nice color for sea paintings.
  • Winsor blue red shale
  • *Ultramarine blue - Vasari Oil Colors
  • Cobalt blue
  • Cerulean blue - I tested many cerulean colors and Winsor Newton in my opinion is the best for my paintings. You will find it a little grainy, and a little hard. I pre-mix it for it to flow and I don't mind the grainy effect. 
  • Winsor violet
  • Pthalo turquoise
  • Permanent green deep
  • Viridian
  • Pthalo green
  • Alizarin Chrimson - Gamblin or Vasari or you can use Permanent Alizarin Chrimson from WN
  • Transparent Oxide Red - Rembrandt
  • Raw umber green shade
  • Burned umber
  • Burnt Siena
  • Winsor Red deep (I love this color)
  • *Bright Red - Vasari
  • Winsor orange - sometimes I use Cadmium Orange from Michael Harding - very clean
  • Indian yellow
  • Raw sienna - Vasari (I use this occasionally)
  • Yellow Ochre pale - or Yellow Ochre from Vasari - both have the same value.
  • Cadmium Yellow Deep
  • Cadmium Yellow Pale
  • Hansa yellow Intense Transparent (PY3) - Graham
  • *Cadmium Yellow Lemon from Vasari
  • *Titanium White - Vasari ONLY - I tried many whites, nothing comes close. I bring with me always two tubes. 


By - they make great brushes at fair prices.

I use "classic long flat" (4, 6, 8 sizes) brushes.

I like Signet brushes but I modify them - they feel a little bulky to me so I cut off with a razor portion on both sides. 

I almost never use round brushes until the very end of the painting when I use few "rigger brushes".

For some ocean effects "fan brushes" are perfect choice.


To mix paint I use palette knife, it's great to premix local colors.

I only use palette knife occasionally to paint, it does give a perfect edge - so when it's needed I use it.


Gamsol from Gamblin


I use "Original Liquin" from Winsor Newton, or

5-1-1 mix 5 Parts of Turpentine, 1 Part Stand Oil, 1 Part Damar Warnish.

Note that you need to use Winsor & Newton Distilled Turpentine to mix the 5-1-1. 


Holbein Metal Brush Wash Medium - 16 Oz ONLY. No other canister will last, it's pricey, but will not leak and last many years. An exceptional canister.


Kirkland Signature™ Nitrile Exam Gloves 400ct (in my case Large) - they are great. I like to paint with gloves - when I am done I like to just take them off and go (without spending another 5-10 minutes cleaning my hands). These gloves are tight and if you need to use your finger to adjust an edge it will work just like without gloves. (In the studio when I am done I dry them and re-use them.)


Razor blades from Home Depot, I buy a big batch for a whole year.


Scott Shop Towels Original either from Costco or Amazon. I prefer these towels because they will not have loose "hair" as the white paper towels.


For used paper towels, or any waste, use any kitchen bag.


Bring pliers - it will be handy when the paint tubes get stuck, or the screws on the easel get stuck. (from time to time I spray wd-40 on all screws on easel)


If you are painting on the beach - this is essential.


This is optional. If you are a beginner and can't adjust your colors on the canvas for bright light, this is essential. At minimum keep your painting and colors against the sun so both are in the shadow, or just paint when it's overcast. 


Essential to paint on the beach for those cold windy mornings in Northern California.


BLACK on one side/REGULAR on the other size are necessary to re-confirm your values or colors - this is the best tool to critique your painting and it never lies.


For plein-air painting I found making the perfect car for me and my family, I highly recommend these cars for artists, photographers. 


I always keep first aid kit in the car, and pack few items in the backpack, just in case. When hiking to a remote destination one item is always with me - a poison extractor. Just in case of any snake or any other bites that can be life threatening can save you few hours to get proper care.

If you want to get more depth overview on the setup, feel free to contact me, and note that nobody paid me to recommend any of these products. 

I also teach plein-air painting techniques workshops along the California Coastline, contact me if you would like to be added for the next class or if you need private class (plein-air or studio) to solve specific problems in your artwork - we get do it online or one-one.