Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Perfect Plein Air Sketching Setup

I'm always on the lookout for new ideas to simplify my plein air/travel sketching kit and when Marc Taro Holmes first introduced the idea of using corrugated plastic boards as a base for his palette, sketchbook, and tools, I thought it was a great idea and have been using it ever since. (Corrugated plastic, sold under the names Coroplast or Plaskolite, can be found in the sign section of home improvement stores like Lowe's and Home Depot, or at a sign shop.)

The Coroplast worked well, but I didn't care for the binder clips that Marc uses to hold his palette and brushes to the board, so I came up with a more streamlined approach that eliminates the need for bulky clips. It's lightweight, compact, and beautifully simple!

My Coroplast board measures 11" x 14"

With my setup, the palette is fastened to the board with Velcro, and the brushes and pens have their own holder with openings of varying sizes. (Surprise! It's a drill bit gauge, available for a few dollars at any hardware store.) Isn't that cool?

The brush holder is taped to the Coroplast lap desk with clear Gorilla Tape, which is v-e-r-y sticky and tenacious. Believe me, this brush holder isn't going anywhere!

Drill bit gauge used as a brush and pen holder

My DaVinci travel brushes are straight-sided, so to keep them from slipping through the holes I can either wrap some tape around the barrel like this...

or place the brush in the hole upside down like this...

There are plenty of openings in the brush holder for the drawing and painting tools I tend to use, but if I decide I need an additional hole or two of a particular size, it would be a simple matter to drill a few more holes.

See the little piece of loop Velcro in the upper left corner of the plastic?

When the brush holder is folded over, it connects to a piece of hook Velcro on the Coroplast base, securing it firmly so I can slide the board into my backpack without the brush holder catching on anything.

Brush holder folded for storage

My Winsor and Newton Compact Set is the perfect size for plein air and travel sketching. It has two mixing areas and fourteen wells, which I refill with artist's quality tube paints. I even divided up the tiny removable water cup into four sections using a bead of hot glue, giving me four more paint wells. I like having a good selection of colors.

The palette is fastened to the Coroplast with strips of Velcro. My palette already had Velcro strips on the bottom from when I used it with another sketching setup, so all it needed was a strip on the lid. I used regular loop Velcro and stuck it onto the palette with double-stick tape. (I used Sealah tape because I had it on hand. You could also use self-adhesive Velcro.)

On the Coroplast, I placed strips of self-adhesive hook Velcro where it would match up with the strips on the palette. When married together, the Velcro strips hold the palette securely in place on the plastic board.

Any number of palettes will work in this configuration, like the Heritage folding palette...

This one can be a bit top heavy, but the weight is balanced by my sketchbook when I'm working

Velcro strips attached to bottom of palette

or this inexpensive one from Hobby Lobby...

A sponge works well to absorb excess water from my brush when I'm painting. This one has a "scrubby" side, and I can slip a large paper clip between the cellulose layer and scrubbing layer to fasten the sponge to the board. It's low-tech but it works!

For a water container, I like to use a collapsible silcone cup since it takes up minimal space in my bag. This small one was part of a measuring-cup set that I cut the handles off of. It holds 1/3 cup of water.

If I'm using larger brushes, I like having a larger water container, so the water doesn't get dirty so fast and I don't have to change it so often. There's plenty of room in my setup for this Sea to Summit X Mug (holds 16 oz.) or the Sea to Summit X Cup (holds 8 oz.)

Plenty of room for a larger water container

A magnet is taped to the underside of the Coroplast below where the cup sits.

I used Krazy Glue to attach a magnet inside the silicone cup. I'm not sure if the glue will hold over time - we'll see. Another option is to use a loose magnet that you just drop into whatever cup you want to use. Just be sure you don't lose it when you empty your water.

This whole setup is compact, efficient, streamlined, and user-friendly. I'll be taking it to Italy with me in October, and I'll let you know if I come up with any improvements after a couple of weeks of use in the field. It seems pretty perfect now.

Wondering what to carry your palette, pens, pencils, and brushes in? Check out this post for a look at the Kutsuwa Dr. Ion Super Mega Pencil Case that I plan to take on my trip.


  1. Love the drill bit holder as a pen and paint brush holder! Very clever! Have you ever redone your carry bag? Looks great! :)

  2. Another source of FREE coroplast boards is political signs… available at your favorite (or least favorite) politician's rally… they'll give you 2 or 3 if you ask sweetly… you can paint over them or use as is :-)

  3. Great ideas!! I started using sign board a few years ago, it's lightweight and durable. I use magnet sheets on my boards to hold my tin palettes, and use a clip-on solvent cup (they come in 3 sizes) with removable bottles...then no pouring is needed, just cap and go! Marc liked my kit in Barcelona, but was worried about the magnets and his phone (I still use a flip-phone, so no worries there!) ;-) For my larger board that doesn't fit in my sketchbag, I drilled two holes and attached a shoulder strap ribbon. ENJOY Italy!

  4. Oh, it looks so convenient! Beautiful drawing!

  5. Great ideas! I've used the coroplast and velcro. But the drill bit holder is a novel idea! Excellent strategies!

  6. Thank you Lesley, for all your good tips. not that I've been doing any plain air painting or any painting recently for that matter.

  7. What a great idea! Thank you so much for the detailed instructions and pictures. I'm somewhat new to watercolors but I'm loving the look and am quite eager to try different techniques!

  8. Interesting to see your setup! Looks like it would be perfect.

  9. Leslie, I enjoy painting on site; something I called a 'Paint-out', long before I heard the term 'plein air'. While I have been at it for a while, I like your ideas for simplifying the process. I'm sure I will visit the hardware store soon. Thanks!
    Sam Hill, Sam Hill Studio

  10. Leslie, Brilliant, lightweight, space efficient,,, I think you have everything you need. Thanks for sharing! Brenda

    1. I've been using this setup for nine months now, and I really like it. It's great having a "lap desk" to work on, with everything right at my fingertips.

  11. Just love the good work you are doing. Nice post.

  12. I've been looking for plein air set up ideas. I really like yours. Thanks for explaining how you did everything.


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