7 Awesome Tips for Plein Air Painting from a Car

It is fun to get outside to paint or sketch. Staying inside your car is an option worth considering when circumstances like weather or health conditions make lugging your art gear around less appealing.

When plein air painting in a car, an easy setup for creating art in your car is to use a tray that attaches to your steering wheel to set your painting or sketching gear on. Keep your art kit small and compact with an art box or bag and park your car in a place with a comfortable and safe view.

Beyond that easy solution, there are additional things you will want to do to keep things simple and enjoyable while creating art in your car.

Use a steering wheel tray

The Steering Wheel desk by Cutequeen is a great option. Cutequeen Steering Wheel desk on Amazon.

You can obviously just sketch in a sketchbook directly on the tray but I prefer to keep my art gear in a box with a lid that doubles as an easel for a small canvas or art panel.

Steering Wheel Desk with Art Box on it

The other advantage of a rigid art box is you can simply set it on your lap just as you would if you were outside of a car sitting on a regular chair. If you aren’t’ in the driver’s seat this is a good option.

If you are in the driver’s seat, another option is this steering wheel gadget by James Gurney It hooks over your steering wheel and essentially converts your steering wheel to an easel. Pretty cool!

Steering Wheel Easel by James Gurney
Steering Wheel Easel by James Gurney

Be prepared with a well stocked art box or an art bag

Keeping your gear light and compact is key to painting or sketching outdoors. Portability is also key. I carry an art box that is easy to carry but also fits in a bigger backpack.

Do your own thing. You are the artist and only you will know what you like. I’m only sharing this tips to give you ideas for what you might want to carry.

In my art box I have the following things:

  • Zippered Pouches
    • I keep my pencils in one pouch, my brushes in another pouch. Miscellaneous items in a third. I love the pouches because I can have a different pouch for each type of pencils, pens or markers that I own and I can easily swap out various pouches depending on the day.
  • Magnetic Cup  for Water
    • Glue a magnet to the bottom of a lidded cup and another magnet to the bottom of the box. This will keep the water from spilling but keep the cup easily removable as needed. Until I did this I was always spilling my water!
  • Brushes
    • I carry several types of brushes. Water brushes which have water in the barrel and regular brushes that I use with the water cup. Both types have their advantages. It’s a good idea to have several sizes.
  • Miscellaneous items
    • paper towels
    • pencil sharpener
    • Erasers. I like my battery operated eraser best but I do have several styles
    • Scrap paper for testing colors.
Picture of water cup with magnet glued on bottom
Water cup with magnet glued on bottom

Bring easy mediums and smaller sketchpads

Dry or Water Soluble Mediums

I’m a pencils first artist. I think this medium works really well with mobility. Having said that, I do like water soluble pencils so I carry water and brushes.

If pencils aren’t your thing, watercolor or gouache is a very popular medium to travel with . Water Soluble media is the arguably the easiest to clean up in case of a spill,

Whether you are in the car or out on a walk or hike, make sure your medium easy to keep in a bag or box and make very little messes to clean up when you are done.

Canvases or Sketchbooks

There are two main reasons why keeping your canvas or sketchbook size smaller is a good idea. The first reason is portability and maneuverability. Inside of a vehicle, you need to make sure the size of canvas or sketch book fits in the space you have. When going outside, it is easier if you have something that stores well in a backpack or bag. My favorite size is 5×7. It is portable and it works well for the second reason you might prefer a smaller canvas size.

Smaller canvas sizes are quicker to work with. When doing art outside, the light is always changing. The sun is moving across the sky and clouds may be moving about. Working small allows you to work quicker.

Limited Color Palette

Similar to the size of your kit, it is a good idea to consider a limited palette. Don’t bring a hundred pencils. It’s clunky and you won’t use them all anyway.

Picking the right colors to bring can be tricky. Don’t let this intimidate you. Instead, make a point of going out often and trying different colors.

It is OK to start a painting or sketch in the field and finish at home where you may have more colors. I think it is a good idea to make your first excursions outdoors so if you forget a color or another art supply, you can either go back home without too much stress that you “came all this way and failed”

My recommendation is to plan ahead. If you are planning to sketch the local red barn, you’ll need different colors than if you plan on sketching that grove of trees at the local park.

It is OK to start a painting or sketch in the field and finish at home.

Park your car where there is a view (and its safe!)

Vehicles are designed to have great visibility and generally are comfortable to sit in.

Be aware of your surroundings outside of the car

Sketch on Side of Road in Autumn
Sketch on Side of Road in Autumn

Be considerate of others and park only in spots that don’t block traffic and are safe and legal. Also since you will likely be in your location for awhile, be sure you maintain the ability to drive off as needed. Try not to get blocked in at any time. Parking lots or designated pull outs on the side of the road are likely the best bet if you can find one with the view you are looking for.

Take note of the direction the sun is heading and be prepared to adjust to it

Ideally the view is in front of you since the windshield typically has the best view but a view out of the side window works too especially if the sun is an issue.

The visor typically works great for straight forward sun issues but is not always best for the side. A sun shade for the side windows may be needed to block the sun. Parking near a tree or building for shade is also a good option.

Be safe Off-Road

If you do go off-road, make sure you do so responsibly. Only take approved off-road routes that are suitable for the type of vehicle you are in.

Keep your vehicle comfortable and well stocked with refreshments

Painting and sketching can take time. Be prepared to sit for an hour or more.

Bring water and snacks as appropriate

I’ve found that the time spent can be more enjoyable and not cut unnecessarily short with proper self care. I often go at least an hour when sketching outside but it is easy to get lost in the art and if you have the luxury of time that particular day, 2-3 hours can go by quickly. Having water and even a snack makes it more enjoyable.
The added benefit of bringing water is if you use water soluble media. Having the extra water has saved me from needing to abandon a painting because I forgot water for my brushes. Just don’t drink out of the wrong bottle or cup!

Windows rolled up or down?

Depending on the time of year, sitting with the windows rolled down can invite bugs in with you. One time I sat with the window on the side of the road near a barn and the flies were unbearable but not as bad as the heat would have been with the windows rolled up. I didn’t feel comfortable getting out of the car due to traffic and a lack of place to safely stand so I persevered with the flies.

Consider dressing appropriately for the weather despite being inside the car. I often paint with the windows down so I can experience most of the natural experience.

Barn Sketch from Side of the Road
Barn Sketch from Side of the Road

Practice simplifying your artwork

Painting outside, from life, presents many challenges. One of the most difficult is creating 2 dimensional compositions from the 3 dimensional world.

Being outside requires you to go much quicker than when painting from references in a studio. The light is constantly changing.

I normally like to do a few rough thumbnail sketches to get a pleasing composition but sometimes it is hard not to jump right in.

Practice what works best for you.

Practice a lot so that it can remain a relaxing and enjoyable experience. I have many videos on my YouTube channel with more tips on how to enjoy the experience of making art. My most important message is to not worry about making a perfect painting in the field, just get the look and feel of it and feel free to finish it at home.

Take photos and video

My final tip is to feel free to use a camera to help you capture the moment.

Your smartphone camera can help with your composition. It is amazing how it can help frame an otherwise infinite view.

These photos you take can also be used as reference when you are touching up your art at home or for simply capturing the memories of the time and place.

Remember to take photos at the beginning and at the end of your painting outdoors. The light can change so much especially in the morning or evening hours. It is nice to have reference of the lighting and shadows that you first admired.

Also consider taking individual shots of different objects in your painting. Zoom in on a few of the more important elements of your composition. It may help you remember what you saw if you continue working on the art at home.

Don’t forget to take video. On my YouTube channel, I show the gear I used to do the video recording as well. You may want to consider doing the same as you share your art hobby with the world.

This article is just meant to help give you ideas on how you can get out and explore art and as part of that discover life and new places.


For more of my favorite Art Supplies I use the most visit this page: https://paintwithpencil.com/recommended-art-supplies/

*Disclosure: I only recommend products I would use myself and all opinions expressed here are our own. This post may contain affiliate links at no additional cost to you,  I may earn a small commission if you use my link.


Being an artist is not my day job. (I work in Information Technology). Making Art a great hobby for me though. I bet it can be for you too!

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