Make a Simple Plein Air Kit for Watercolors

diy plein air watercolor kit
Just to give you an idea of where we are heading with this, here’s a picture of what the kit looks like when it is all put together.

Today I decided to try painting outdoors — or en plein air — for the first time ever. In case you don’t know, en plein air is a French expression that means “in the open air.” In art, the expression is used to refer to the act of painting outdoors.

I wasn’t sure how I was going to bring everything I needed with me — especially water. After a little bit of trial and error, I put together this simple kit.

I’m really happy with how it came out. It is extremely compact, and stayed together nicely in the backpack even after miles of riding my bike. Here’s a quick breakdown of the things you’ll need if you want to make your own:

  • A small set of watercolors. I’m using the Winsor & Newton Cotman Sketchers’ Pocket Box. I got it on Amazon for about $15.00. The paints are surprisingly good for how cheap they are, and the box is so tiny and cute that it is easy to use on the go.
  • A few paper towels
  • Several sheets of your favorite watercolor paper, cut to a size of 5.5″ x 7.5″
  • An empty yogurt cup
  • A bottle of water
  • A mechanical pencil with a good eraser. You can use a regular pencil, but I decided to go with a mechanical one for my kit so I wouldn’t have to worry about sharpening it if the tip broke.
  • A couple of your favorite brushes. You can bring as many or as few as you’d like. I decided to keep my kit simple by just taking a medium sized round brush and a tiny liner brush.
  • A thin piece of masonite cut to approximately 6″ x 8″. You can find masonite in the lumber section of most home improvement stores. It’s thin enough that you can cut it down to size with a utility knife – no power tools needed. To help protect mine from water, I painted it with several coats of cream colored house paint.
  • A piece of cardboard cut to approximately 6″ x 8″
  • A sturdy, flat piece of sewing elastic or a large rubber band

Once you gather your supplies, it’s time to get started! 🙂

The most complicated part of this whole process is making your board that you will use to hold your paper. I don’t know about you, but when I am in the mood to paint, I don’t like to spend a lot of time taping down my paper.

To get around this problem, I came up with the idea of putting tape on my board, sticky side out, then just sticking each sheet of paper to it. When I am done with a painting, I pull it off the board, but leave the tape behind so it’s ready for the next piece.

The tape I used is some kind of art tape that is designed not to stick to paper. However, it works just as well with plain old masking tape. Here are some instructions for folding the tape:

Start by tearing off a piece of tape the same length as one of the sides of your board. Place it sticky side down on the table in front of you. Fold it in thirds by folding the far side toward yourself, approximately to the center of the piece of tape. Crease it with your fingernail. Lift the tape up and turn it around so the non-folded side is facing away from you. Fold that side toward yourself, over the top of the previously folded section. When you are done, you should have a flat "tube" of tape that has the sticky side out the whole way around.
Start by tearing off a piece of tape the same length as one of the sides of your board. Place it sticky side down on the table in front of you. Fold it in thirds by folding the far side toward yourself, approximately to the center of the piece of tape. Crease it with your fingernail. Lift the tape up and turn it around so the non-folded side is facing away from you. Fold that side toward yourself, over the top of the previously folded section. When you are done, you should have a flat “tube” of tape that has the sticky side out the whole way around.
watercolorboard
Repeat this process for each side of the board, sticking the pieces of tape to the board as you go. When you are done, there should be a piece of tape around each side of the board. Leave a border of about 1/2 inch on each side since your paper is smaller than the board. Ideally, the outside edges of the tape should be the exact size of your paper to keep water from seeping under the edges of your piece while you are working on it.
watercolorboardcloseup
Here’s a closeup of the tape on the board. Notice how the edges are covered with watercolor, but the center of the board is relatively clean? That’s because the tape helps create a barrier that prevents water from running under your paper.

Once you are done creating your board, stick a single sheet of watercolor paper to the front of it so it is ready to go when you pull it out of your kit. Stack your other sheets of paper on top of that, then cover the whole thing with the piece of cardboard.

Roll your brushes and pencil up tightly in the paper towels, and set them on top of the cardboard/paper/masonite stack. Finally, add your water bottle (filled with water) and your empty yogurt cup. Secure the whole thing together with elastic. When you are done, it should look like this:

diy plein air watercolor kit
Here’s the finished product. It’s cute, compact and extremely functional! Best of all, though, it’s sturdy and you don’t have to worry about your brushes taking a beating while you travel to your destination.

I hope that gives you some ideas for your own kit! If you have any tips you’d like to add, or if you’d like to share a photo of your kit, please feel free to do so below. I’d love to see what you use when painting with watercolors outdoors!





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