Packing for a Plein Air Trip - My wood tray with assorted stuff: Styrofoam tray for pastels in use, tissue standing in for wet wipes that I need to go buy!, compact mirror, Body Shop Hemp cream, sketchbook and pencils, bungee cord, two types of tape, viewfinder.

Packing for a Plein Air Trip to PACE

I’m often asked about packing for a plein air trip so as I’m in the midst of preparing to go to this year’s Plein Air Convention and Expo (aka PACE), I thought I’d share what I’m taking in art supplies. Please note, this is a work in progress! 

Packing for a plein air trip for me means being as light as possible. Less is More!! Or…Less is waaaaay better. The less I have, the easier it is to carry everything to and from and while on-site. Also, it makes packing up after a painting session a lot quicker. AND, it means I don’t have the weight of a heavy pack to stop me from going to paint on location! 

Although it’s important to have the essentials, I do scrutinize all my choices once I’ve got things gathered. I’m always tempted to carry more than I use. And yet, I’m always thinking, What if I need this? For example, What if I have an urge to paint a watercolour? Maybe I should bring my watercolour and paper. It’s only a small package of things. Yes, AND it will add to the total bulk and weight!!

Okay, let’s get to my stuff!

Going light means NOT taking all the pastels from my studio! Someone asked once, How do you select which colours you’ll take for a specific location? Well, I don’t. I use what I have on hand in the moment.  (I go deep into this question in an earlier post.)


I take my Unison Colour set of 36 colours knowing I can pretty much paint anything with it. But if I’m going for a short time, I don’t take the whole box. I have a smaller box (which takes up less space) and I have pieces of each pastel plus extra pieces of colours I tend to use up faster. I sometimes slip in a few extra colours (a couple of neutrals, a darker blue for instance) but inevitably, I don’t use them. So I’ve decided this time to just take the colours from my set!

Packing for a Plein Air Trip-My Unison Colour pastels in a smaller box than the original box
My Unison Colour pastels in a smaller box than the original box

This isn’t the time to experiment with paper. That’s better left for when you’re in the studio. Take the paper you’re most familiar with. For me at the moment, it’s UART. I love the ease of using their 9 x 12 in pads that come in 400 and 600 grit. Each piece of pastel paper comes with its own glassine cover. Cool right? I like to work small so I can work more quickly. For this reason, I also bring along some of the cutoffs of UART hanging about the studio. This means I also bring along a few extra small sheets of glassine.

Packing for a Plein Air Trip - Drawing board, foam core, paper, apron, and cap
Drawing board, foam core, paper, apron, and cap

Right now, I use a MABEF Field easel. It’s a bit chunky and weighs about 4lbs but it works so well. I have a case from my photographers tripod from way back when which, although bulky (ack!), means I can sling the easel over my shoulder for carrying. (Why doesn’t the MABEF easel come with a carrying bag??) 

There are times when I’ve travelled with only carryon luggage and in those cases, I’ve left the easel at home. But I do always miss being able to easily step back from my work.

Packing for a Plein Air Trip - Mabef easel with my photographer's tripod case
MABEF easel with my photographer’s tripod case

I used to use the wonderful Travellers box from Dakota Art Pastels but it’s heavy and I found I didn’t use/need all the space. So instead, I had a carpenter friend create a much lighter tray which slides under the “hooks” that attached the Travellers box to the easel. There’s space for my box of pastels, my styrofoam tray for pastels that are in play, my toilet paper roll, and pencils. 

Packing for a Plein Air Trip - My wood tray with assorted stuff: Styrofoam tray for pastels in use, tissue standing in for wet wipes that I need to go buy!, compact mirror, Body Shop Hemp cream, sketchbook and pencils, bungee cord, two types of tape, viewfinder.
My wood tray with assorted stuff: Styrofoam tray for pastels in use, tissue standing in for wet wipes that I need to go buy!, compact mirror, Body Shop Hemp cream, sketchbook and pencils, bungee cord, two types of tape, viewfinder.
All the other stuff needed when packing for a plein air trip!
  • Tiny sketchbook for thumbnails cos yes, I always make them even when painting en plein air but they may be pretty scrappy looking. They do, however, have everything I need to guide me 
  • A couple of pencils- 2B and 4B
  • A bungee cord to attach the sketchbook to the easel where I can see it as I work
  • My drawing board
  • A piece of foam core the same size as drawing board. I tape my finished pieces to the board and cover each piece with glassine. When it’s time to travel, I’ll tape the drawing board to the foam core to protect the work.
  • Artist’s tape for taping paper
  • Painter’s tape for taping all else!
  • A small tray for keeping pastels I’m using in a piece separate from the rest
  • Viewfinder – always handy!
  • A compact mirror – in case I need to touch up. Kidding. It’s for having a look at my work from a different perspective!
  • A small plastic bag for trash – leave the place as I found it
  • Small roll of toilet paper. Yes I’m sure I can get it where I’m going but it makes me feel better knowing I have some already there. And, it’s only a partial roll so not bulky.
  • An apron – oh yes!! Bulky but necessary. Apart from keeping my clothes somewhat clean, I love the pockets (for viewfinder, phone, TP etc)
  • Travelling package of wet wipes
  • Barrier cream (I like the Body Shop hemp cream) or “Gloves in a Bottle”
  • Hat or cap to keep glare from my eyes (shielding your eyes will increase the accuracy of your vision!) 
  • Sunscreen
  • Water bottle
  • Bug spray (I’m not sure I need this but awful to find out you do when on location!) 
  • A bag to carry it all in. Yes, one of these days I’ll sort out a back pack (it would be nice to walk hands free) but this actually works for me at this point.
  • I’m always hopeful to do more sketching so I’m considering bringing along my small grey-toned Strathmore sketchbook with a couple of charcoal pencils (black and white). I may ditch it at the last minute…

And that’s basically my packing for a plein air trip! I’d a longish list but most of it is small things.

I hope this helps and reminds you that you really don’t need to take everything with you! Simplifying what you take, lightening the load, taking only what’s absolutely necessary, and having it all packed and ready to go at a moment’s notice….This is what will get you out painting. And that’s what this is all about right??

Remember, the purpose of working en plein air is to learn to see better – to note value relationships and colour nuances that you only can only see when painting from life. It’s wonderful to be able to bring this knowledge into your studio practice. Painting en plein air is also about the experience of being in the moment in your painting environment. What it’s not about is a brilliant result! Nice by-product but not the purpose of painting en plein air. 

Paint Anything With This Set of Soft Pastels:
Gail Sibley, “Brown’s Island,” Unison Colour on UART 400, 9 x 12 in

So pack light and go paint!

In a couple of weeks, I’ll share some of my PACE experiences!

Until next time,


PS. Here’s the progress of the plein air painting above.

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6 thoughts on “Packing for a Plein Air Trip to PACE”

  1. OMG you take only 36 pastels with you ! You’re my hero ! I always take my 72 Unison box and thought it wasn’t enough so usually I take another small one along.
    Although now that I think about it, I am pretty sure that some of them are never used but always coming with me anyways 😅
    Thank you for this reminder 💗

    1. Hah hah!! Believe me Cindy, sometimes I wish I had more colours along with me but then I say, Gail, you can make it work. And it’s amazing what can happen with the restricted palette! I would suggest looking through your set and leaving behind any pastels you rarely use. The main thing is to have a good value range and primaries and secondaries in each value (dark, middle, light).

    1. Hey Ida, thanks for your question. The barrier cream protects your hands but even better, it makes cleaning your hands waaaaaaayyyyyy easier!!

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Gail Sibley

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My love of pastel and the enjoyment I receive from teaching about pastel inspired the creation of this blog. It has tips, reviews, some opinions:), and all manner of information regarding their use through the years – old and new. Please enjoy!

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