Take the ’30 Day Plein-air Oil Painting Challenge’

Last month, I was able to oil paint at least once a day for 30 consecutive days. Once I knew I had the right resources and systems to be able to paint everyday, I was confident that I could take on a 30 day plein-air (outdoor) oil painting challenge.  The image below is a snapshot of my outdoor paintings from the last 30 days.

I also show my outdoor painting set-up, and how I was able to complete the challenge. If you want to learn how to do it for yourself, scroll down to read more.

“30 day plein-air challenge”, began Sep. 11th, 2012.


– How to Take the 30-day Plein-air Challenge –


Plein-air and landscape painting in oils is not easy. The challenges of the medium, travel time and unfavorable weather conditions can make outdoor painting even more difficult. Despite the effort, the benefits of being out in nature and gaining expertise in color is invaluable. In fact, it was this need and desire to improve my color skills that motivated me to commit to painting everyday. To begin the challenge, I had to first assemble the right tools.

My Set-up

Oil painting can be very tedious and time consuming for many artists because of the time it takes to set up, take down, clean up, etc. Because it can be so tedious, it is often the #1 excuse to not paint. For me to complete 30 day consecutive days, I knew that I had to first eliminate this excuse.

To eliminate that excuse, I had to have a very portable and versatile set-up.  I needed something that was light, small and  can be set-up and taken down easily.

My plein-air set-up in action @ Laguna Beach, circa March 2012.

The pochade box plus tripod combination has been very popular among outdoor painters for many years now.  My pochade box (pochade is fancy word for a detachable paint box) is homemade and made from aluminum which means it is extremely light. My tripod is carbon fiber which means it’s also extremely light, slim and portable. The tripod’s ball head has a quick-release plate which means fast, simple set up.

Here’s a description of the separate components:

  1. Pochade box = handmade from aluminum clipboard
  2. Tripod = 60″ carbon fiber, Giottos brand
  3. Tripod head = Ball head with quick release plate (13 lb capacity), Manfrotto brand
  4. Steel brush washer, sealable with built in wire handles (for holding solvents)
  5. Small container, sealable with built in metal clip for holding walnut oil
  6. Art supplies = brushes, oil paints (see below for palette), small canvas panels, Gamsol, paper towels, masking tape
  7. Canvas carrying bag

All these supplies fit neatly into the canvas bag. The total weight is around 15 lbs.


My Art Supplies

After about 1 1/2 years of painting experience, I’ve found a good set of paints and brushes that fit my painting style.  The image below is the outdoor palette I’ve been using lately. It is relatively minimalist with an Impressionist’s influence, meaning there is a warm and cool of each primary. To this I added white plus 2 earth tones and a green.

My oil painting palette from left to right:

  1. Titanium White (M. Graham brand)
  2. Hansa Yellow (Gamblin)
  3. Yellow Ochre (M. Graham)
  4. Napthol Red  (M. Graham)
  5. Alizarin Crimson  (M. Graham)
  6. Burnt Sienna (Gamblin)
  7. Burnt Umber (Gamblin)
  8. Cerulean Blue  (M. Graham)
  9. Ultramarine Blue  (M. Graham)
  10. Pthalo Green (Gamblin)

If you don’t recognize any of these colors or get confused, dont worry. Just remember that each primary has a ‘cool’ version and a ‘warm’ version. The earth tones are optional. Cerulean blue, is very close to a generic ‘sky color’, which makes mixing sky tones very easy for me. Phtalo green is a very rich and punchy green that’s also very transparent. I like to use it to quickly shift a color to a saturated green without dramatically effecting the value.

The brand M. Graham, has become my favorite paint company because of it’s buttery texture. M. Graham uses Walnut oil as the medium which makes the paint really juicy to work with. It also means the paint stays wetter longer. Since I like to pre-load my palette before painting sessions, the longevity of the paints is crucial.

The sectioned canvas panel divides the canvas into smaller 2″ x 3″ squares. This technique I learned from Nathan Fowkes who is a prolific landscape painting expert. Nathan often paints in small rectangular sections in his sketchbook when he is painting outdoors.  The smaller size means that I can complete the painting faster and more importantly, I can paint more of them, and paint more often. This means more starts, which equals more mileage and faster growth and development.

The brushes I use vary, but I typically like a range of flats and two rounds for drawing and detail.

Here are the brushes I use:

  1. Flat, bristle hair, #6, Robert Simmons Signet brand (for sky panels and large areas of foliage)
  2. Flat, bristle hair, #4, Robert Simmons Signet brand ( These are my ‘workhorse’ brushes, so I like to have 2 of these)
  3. Flat, bristle hair, #3, Robert Simmons Signet brand
  4. Flat, bristle hair, #2, Robert Simmons Signet brand (for smaller marks and detail)
  5. Round, bristle, #2, Robert Simmons Signet brand (this brush is for the initial drawing)
  6. Round, sable, #0, Roberst Simmons Titanium brand (this brush is for small details and line work)
  7. Palette knife, #3, by Holbein

Other supplies:

  1. Gamsol for thinning paint and cleaning brushes
  2. Walnut oil as a medium for dried or thicker paints
  3. Viva paper towels
  4. Masking tape for sectioning canvas and mounting canvas to pochade box.


General Tips on How to Take the 30 Day Plein-air Challenge

Painting outdoors is such a tremendous growth experience. I recommend it to any artist who wants to dramatically improve their sense of color and observation skills.  If you’re ready to take the plunge and try the 30 day challenge, here are some general tips:

Decide, commit and prepare to sacrifice. If you’re working or have other time obligations, making the time to paint can take a lot of mental discipline. Because it is so easy to make excuses and quit, the first and most important step is to commit to the 30 days. Then, come to terms that you may have to sacrifice other activities (ie. TV, videogames) and possibly sleep. Having a ‘do whatever it takes’ attitude is key to your success.

Have your set-up with the paint loaded ready to go at all times. Every evening before bed, I make sure to have my easel and paints set-up facing out the window. When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I see is my easel loaded with paint. This eliminates the ‘setting-up is a hassle’ excuse and subconsciously prepares me for a day of painting.

My set up ready to go in the morning. The image on the left is facing West. The image on the right facing East. Having everything ready to go allowed me work consistently and be able to capture the same scenes at various times of the day.

Work small.  Although working big is considered more sexy and prestigious,  when you want to work outdoor and you want to paint easily everyday, it may be a good idea to scale down.  I’m able to complete a 2″x3″ painting in under 30 minutes. This not only keeps painting fresh, but I can also more accurately describe light and color since the light and shadow patterns change so quickly and dramatically.  Since light noticeably changes approximately every 15-20 minutes, being able to work fast is very useful.

Try the sectioned off canvas approach. There’s something about seeing empty sections every day. It creates a strong psychological pull that motivates to keep painting to finish off the canvas.

Pre-load your palette. Having a pochade box means that I can load up paints ahead of time before venturing out to a location. This eliminates the need to carry more tubes of paint around which makes my set-up significantly smaller and lighter. This is how I eliminate the ‘oil paints are so heavy’ excuse.

Try an oily medium like Walnut Oil. Since I pre load the paints, they obviously dry out much faster. Having walnut oil in a sealed container, allows my to quickly ‘re-wet’ any paints that may have dried.


Where to Buy Art Supplies and Gear

If you’re interested in my oil painting set-up and want more information, or if you want to purchase your own supplies, I’ve included links below to various online retailers:

1. Pochade box

An artist named Tom Brown offers a pdf on how to make an aluminum pochade box. Visit his webiste here: http://tombrownfineart.blogspot.com/ 

2. Paints

I’ve come to really enjoy M. Graham paints, especially as for portable, outdoor painting situations. Gamblin is also a quality brand that is very reasonably priced. Click the links below to buy paints online.

M. Graham Artists’ Oil Colors
@ Blick.com

M. Graham oil paints @ Amazon

Gamblin Artist’s Oil Colors
@ Blick.com

Gamblin oil paints @ Amazon


3. Brushes

Robert Simmons Signet Brushes (bristle hair) @ Amazon

Robert Simmons Signet Brushes (bristle hair) @ Blick.com

Robert Simmons Long Handle Titanium Brushes (sable hair) @ Blick.com


4. Tripod

Giottos Professional Carbon Fiber Tripod (Model MT8340) @ Amazon

Manfrotto Pro Carbon Fiber Tripod (Model 190CXPRO3) @ Amazon

Manfrotto Ball Head with Quick Release (Model 496RC2) @ Amazon


5. Other Supplies

Canvas panels, 8″ x 10″ (pack of 12) @ Amazon

Canvas panels, 5″ x 7″ (pack of 6) @ Amazon

Blick Economy Canvas Panel Packs (various sizes) @ Blick.com

Gamsol Odorless Mineral Spirits @ Blick.com

Walnut Oil, by M. Graham@ Blick.com

Stainless Steel Brush Washer (10 oz) @ Amazon

Stainless Steel Brush Washer @ Blick.com


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8 thoughts on “Take the ’30 Day Plein-air Oil Painting Challenge’”

  1. Hi Chris,

    I came upon this post and decided I wanted to build my own pochade box. I would really like the ability to paint easily and quickly every day. I really do need to do more landscape painting. Instead of emailing Tom I figured out on my own what materials were being used and ordered them.

    I just have one problem, I don’t know how the aluminum box is attached to the tripod. Could you please explain in more detail what you did?

    Thanks you!

  2. Cool! A box is important. For the mount, it’s a simple “T screw” or “T washer” or something like that. I had to drill a hole in the aluminum box and also there’s a piece of wood glued to the bottom as well.

    The guy that I learned this from has a youtube video somewhere.

  3. Hi Chris,
    Thank you so much for your great post and for sharing your ideas, I have an aluminum clipboard and tripod…am excited to made this box. Looks like the video is no longer available on modifying it, so hope you don’t mind a question or two.
    What did you use to hold top of box open? Wire?
    Do you use a tear-off palette pad, can’t seem to find one that fits as well as yours appears to?
    Thanks again!

  4. Hi Janet,
    That’s great! The box is held open by a wire. I use the wire that was in the hinge of the clipboard. As for the palette pad, it’s freezer paper, which works exactly like palette paper except it’s 1/10the the cost.

  5. hi Clhris,
    talking from Brazil! great tips, will help me a lot your 30 days of no matter what it takes, thanks for your beautiful paintings and for sharing your experience and materials. Best wishes, thank you a million times

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