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How to Pack Ultralight for Oil Painters on the Go

Jim Mott Demonstrates How to Pack Ultralight for Oil Painters on the Go

Packing to Paint

A determined oil painter can haul a whole studio's worth of supplies into the field. But when traveling light is a premium, it's worth considering how to reduce your painting kit to a functional minimum. My conversion to ultralight painting was prompted by a trip to southern France several years ago. I needed everything for the trip in one backpack, which barely left room for art supplies. Yet I wanted to do a small oil painting every day for a week and a half-and to be able to travel with wet paintings. The resulting innovations are fairly obvious in retrospect, but have made fieldwork more convenient than I'd previously imagined possible.

My travel painting checklist is shown at the bottom of the page.

Some painters will notice the absence of an easel or chair. I typically paint standing up, holding palette and panel in one hand, or sitting on the ground or in my car, with the painting on my lap. The top of a paint box can provide some stability and support. A friend of mine props her panels against the open lid of the cigar box that she carries her paints in. For a less minimal laptop approach, DANIEL SMITH sells a fairly small paint box designed to double as a mini-easel (item #679 010 002).

Drying Box and Panels
The largest critical item for the traveling or backpacking oil painter is a drying box, a time-honored system for keeping wet paintings safe that many painters have never heard of. A basic drying box does not have to be a work of art-just sturdy, light, and as compact as possible, with opposite sides of the inside compartment slotted to allow painting panels to slide in and out. A basic model has one compartment, with enough slots to give paintings time to dry before all the space is used up. And enough distance between slots to keep paintings separate.

A drying box introduces two constraints: panel painting and using panels of uniform size. Manufactured drying boxes are no doubt available, but making your own (or having one made by a woodworking friend) allows you to customize it to your interests and requirements. If all else is equal, it makes sense to build the box for a standard size panel, such as 8" x 10", with the slots wide enough to accommodate hardboard, canvas panels, or some other material of choice.

For my travels, I made a flattish box divided into two compartments, each holding four 6" x 9" panels (a size I prefer for travel painting). My field paintings usually dry within four days, so eight slots allow me to store two per day. After the box fills, I remove the driest paintings and wrap them in paper towel or cloth to make room for fresh work.

My panels are conservation board or 1/8" plywood primed with a variety of colored and tinted gessoes. I find that the right colored panel makes possible a more economical and more enjoyable painting process in the field.

Paint Box and Supplies
Compact, manufactured paint boxes (wood or plastic) can serve well for travel. To get more minimal, check out garage sales for small boxes to customize, or use a cigar box. For my travels, I constructed a slim box out of gator board (heavy-duty foam core) and duct tape. The box includes three compartments for paints, divided only to have a platform for the palette, and a long side compartment for brushes.

The specific size (about 5" x 12" x 2") is designed to hold a cut-in-half paper palette. Most of my favorite brushes fit, but a few of the larger ones have an inch or two sawn off the handles. I limit my paints to nine colors plus white, taking half-used tubes or transferring paint to small tubes (available from DANIEL SMITH). I also fill a few small tubes with my standard "black" mix (Burnt Sienna and Ultramarine Blue) blended with various proportions of white for a range of grays-this simplifies mixing and reduces waste in the field. There's always room for a small rag and a pencil or two. Rubber bands hold the box closed. My box has held up for five years-backpacking in Provence and on the road 15,000 miles for my Itinerant Artist Project.

I save a little space and weight by working without solvent or painting medium. In the field, I use paint from the tube and clean brushes using cooking oil and then soap and water. If I won't be near a kitchen, I take soap and a small bottle of linseed oil. If you have space and energy for more than the bare minimum, it's always good to have a few extra paint colors, media, and so on.

These suggestions are mainly to get you thinking outside the usual paint box. There are plenty of alternatives, and having a lighter load makes it a lot easier to get out and paint. You'll be able to work in oil when and where you might not have previously thought it possible.

Jim Mott

About the Author
Jim Mott paints and draws in response to the visual environment - urban, suburban, rural and natural landscapes, favoring modes of representation that emphasize both sensitive observation and subjective experience of everyday surroundings.

Of note: The Itinerant Artist Project: over 15,000 miles of painting and exchanging art for hospitality across the USA. Jim has stayed at 45 homes in 23 states and painted over 250 small landscape studies. Integrating painting, art outreach and performance, this ongoing project has been the subject of several articles and is described on his website as well as the original support site: www.edteck.com/jhmott.

Jim's art is found in private and institutional collections in the US, Canada and Europe, including the collections of film director John Irvin and singer/songwriter Ani DiFranco.

Materials List

  • Drying Box
  • Primed panels that fit in drying box (number of panels depends on length of trip)
  • Paint box
  • Paper palette cut in half (12" x 4 1/2")
  • Small rag


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