How to plein air paint on the cheap(er)

If you’re trying painting for the first time, it makes sense to use less-expensive equipment and supplies. Here are corners you can cut.

Above Lake Champlain, by Carol L. Douglas
My friend Catherine is thrifty. When she took up plein air painting, she did it with softwood tripod easel—which you can get at Michaels this week for $7.99—and a TV table. She set a good example for those who want to try plein airpainting without breaking the bank.
The worst beginner error is to buy super-cheap paints and brushes. There are good student-grade brands out there in all media:

Cath setting up to paint with her inexpensive easel. Its limitations are fewer than you’d expect.
The difference between professional and student grade paints and pastels is the amount of pigment and the quality of the binders. In some cases, more expensive pigments will be copied with “hues.” Cadmiums and cerulean blue are often mimicked; check the label to see what you’re getting. A hue mimics (badly) the color of a single-pigment paint with less-expensive materials. For example, “cerulean blue hue” is often a combination of zinc white and phthalo blue.
A better solution is to avoid pricier pigments in the first place. There are modern pigments that do the job equally well at a lower cost. That’s what I aim for in my supply lists for oils, watercolor, acrylics, and pastels. (They’re directed to the serious amateur/professional, so the paint brands are not student grade.)
An expensive kit that I no longer use. It’s just too heavy.
I started painting on the same kind of tripod easel that Catherine bought. I still have mine. My father used a handmade version of the same easel for his whole life. It was the standard for outdoor painting in the mid-20thcentury.
I’d rather you bought one of them than a French easel. These are heavy, inefficient, and often badly-made. I gave mine away years ago. Pochade boxes are the most versatile field easels, but they’re expensive. If you’re handy, you can make one like I did. Or, there’s the classic cigar-box pochade.
The best value for money in a better easel is Mabef’s Universal Tripod Field Easel and its big brother, the Giant Field Easel. I’ve had one for decades. Even with a cracked leg, it still gamely stands up.
Mabef’s Universal Tripod Easel can be used with oils or watercolors, and is flexible enough to fit in small spaces.
Brushes don’t have to break the bank either. Even though I have a slew of fine watercolor brushes, I still often reach for my Princeton Neptunes. Oil and acrylic are trickier since cheap brushes sometimes drop bristles in your work. Jerry’s Creative Mark are fine, and Princeton also makes good, inexpensive oil/acrylic brushes, especially their 5200and 5400series. If you want a synthetic brush, make sure it imitates hog bristles, not sable. A softer brush isn’t meant for direct painting.