My Favorite Equipment for Drawing Outside

My Favorite Equipment for Drawing Outside

With my Autumn plein air drawing challenge fast approaching—September 1 is the first day—it seemed like a good idea to share some basic information about plein air drawing. For the next few days, I’ll be publishing a post every day (except Sunday).

A reader of the plein air drawing with colored pencil autumn challenge brought up a good question. She asked:

If you are going to be using an easel, what type will you be using?

My Favorite Equipment for Drawing Outside

I rarely use an easel for any colored pencil drawing. It’s simply easier to draw sitting in a chair or on the couch and working on my lap. I got into that habit early on and continued to use it while at horse shows, art shows, and traveling.

But I thought it worthwhile to speak a little bit more about the process behind the drawing methods, especially since I realize many of you may be thinking about trying plein air drawing for the first time.

My Favorite Equipment for Drawing Outside

I employ two different, but similar methods for drawing with colored pencil.

Two Basic Methods

Drawing Pads

The first one is very simple. I buy pads of paper with rigid back boards and use them like a drawing board. Spiral bound pads are best because you can fold the front cover back without bending it. A lot of drawing and sketching pads are spiral bound and most of them also have rigid back boards, so you have a great selection of papers from which to choose.

My Favorite Equipment for Drawing Outside - Drawing Pads
Keep a selection of drawing pads on hand for plein air drawing. I recommend at least one small pad 8×10 or smaller and one that’s larger. The largest drawing pad in this collection is 14×17 and it’s probably the largest size I’d take on a short trip. Larger pads are nice to have for extended travel.

When I use the word “rigid”, I mean rigid enough not to bend. All drawing pads have backs of cardboard of some type. But some of those back boards are not sturdy enough to be useful as drawing boards.

To see if the drawing pad you want to buy has a rigid back, hold it by the back cover only. If the cover remains straight, it’s heavy enough. If it doesn’t, you may still need a drawing board of some type.

For those who prefer a higher quality paper such as Bristol or Stonehenge, you can still purchase them in pads. You’re more likely to get a glue bound pad with the better papers. The reason is that a glue-bound pad allows you to remove sheets with a clean edge.

Some drawing pads are spiral bound and some are glue bound. Each type has advantages and disadvantages.

This type of drawing pad works very well and is a self-contained “package” but you may need to carry a binder clip or two or a rubber band to keep the cover folded back.

You can work without marking off margins or you can draw margins the paper, use tape (low tack, of course) to mark the margins, or combine the drawing pad with a pre-cut mat as shown here.

If you plan on doing wet media drawing, choose a paper capable of handling the moisture. Stonehenge is good for moderate amounts of wet media and it also dries flat, but it you want to use watercolor or water soluble colored pencils almost entirely, a watercolor paper is your best option.

Either way, tape the edges to a rigid support to keep the paper from excessive buckling.

My Favorite Equipment for Drawing Outside - Working Mat
This is how I often work on smaller drawings. I’ve clipped a small pre-cut mat (4.5 x 6.5) to a 9×12 drawing pad. That leaves enough space for a nice composition with room for color swatches.
This is the back of the drawing pad shown above. I’ve clipped the cover back so it’s out of the way. When I finish drawing, I can put the cover down again, covering the drawing in progress. Use binder clips or large rubber bands (available at any office supply store) to keep the cover in place.

Laptop Drawing Boards

I also use home-made drawing boards that I’ve come to refer to as laptop drawing boards.

A laptop drawing board is put together with sheets of corrugated cardboard with a piece of mat board on top as the drawing surface. I lay my drawing paper on top of the mat board, then clip or tape a pre-cut mat over that, binding everything together for drawing.

Step-by-step directions for building your own lightweight laptop drawing board.

I prefer these because I can make them any size I want. The largest I currently have on hand is for an 18×24 inch drawing. The smallest is a 4×6.

They’re ideal for plein air work, especially if you’re traveling, because you can set up several and take them along, ready for drawing.

This is one of my smaller laptop drawing boards with a studio drawing in progress. The drawing size is 7×9. The outside dimension is 8×10. I used binder clips to hold it together so I can take the drawing out whenever I want and even swap it for a fresh sheet of paper for a new drawing if necessary.

How the Process Works

The actual drawing process with either a drawing pad or a laptop drawing board is simplicity itself. Find a comfortable place to sit and work with the pad or board resting in your lap. If you’re like me and turn your paper a lot when you draw, you can just turn the drawing pad or laptop drawing board as necessary.

Want to step back and take a look at your drawing? Prop the board or pad in your chair and take a few steps away.

The Bottom Line on My Favorite Equipment for Drawing Outside

Any of these options is perfectly suitable for drawing outside, while traveling, or even in the studio. They’re easy. They’re lightweight. And you can prepare for drawing before you leave the house, so you have more time to draw in the field (or the park or the front porch.)

But the real bottom line is to find the system that works best for you.

Even if you have to make it yourself!

But What About Easels?

Since I can’t share personal experience with field easels, I refer to you my favorite supplier of art supplies. Dick Blick. From their page on Portable and Field Easels:

Portable and Field Easels are designed for artists who plan on traveling with their easels, need to be able to easily move them around their studio, or who want to plein air paint. These easels fold to a compact size for easy storage and portability and are considerably lighter weight. These easels usually contain the minimal necessities to successfully use them effectively.

Several types of portable and field easels are available through Dick Blick and similar suppliers. The best suggestion I can offer is to find an easel that’s lightweight, folds to a small size that’s easy to transport even if you have to carry it yourself, and is stable enough for rough terrain.

Here are a couple of video reviews of portable easels that might also be helpful. Even though they’re for painters, the easels can be used for colored pencil work. Even if you don’t end up buying any of these easels, there are some great tips for plein air painting in each one.


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