Wednesday, March 23, 2011

It's Plein Air Season! Looking for an Easel?

Recently I have received many questions regarding supplies and gear for painting en plein air.  Your first big investment will be a portable easel. I'm not talking about one of those little three-legged jobs that can barely hold a display poster. I mean a "big girl (or big boy)" easel or "pochade" panel/palette box with tripod that can withstand at least a little wind and many years of use.

The difference between an easel and a pochade box or panel/palette box is basically this... an easel is a stand-alone thing based similar to equipment you might find in your studio but typically smaller, collapsible, and portable.  A pochade is a panel holder and palette in one that needs some sort of additional support for its "legs" (such as a tripod with camera quick-release plate). The top "lid" portion holds your panel while the hinged lower section is used as your palette.

Rather than show images of all of these here, I am including some links to a few examples. If for any reason these links do not work, just do a search online and I'm sure you will find them. The standard French easel and it's little sister the smaller half-French easelSoltek; Anderson Swivel easel; Guerilla Box; Artwork Essential's EasyL; Open BoxM; Coulter Plein Air System; *Beauport Large Format Easel; The Stonefield Easel; the Alla Prima Pochade; Strada, and many, many more! There are even websites with building plans so that you can make your own. With so many choices, it can be totally overwhelming.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself when considering which easel to purchase:
  1. Will I be walking more than a few feet with my easel and plein air gear?
    This is important to know because the weight of all of your supplies adds up really quickly. Think about carrying a big wooded box (like the French easel), paints, mineral spirits, brushes, sun screen, water, painting panels, extra mediums, your camera, a sketch pad, snacks... you get the idea. Unless you plan on painting within a few yards of your car, pay particular attention to the overall weight of the easel or pochade box.
    (Note: As long as I'm talking about French easels here, if you DO prefer this style, consider a Soltek instead. Wooden easels are sometimes prone to swell in humid environments making them difficult to close when you break down at the end of the day.)
  2. Will I be traveling by air to painting destinations?
    If so, everything will need to fit into a suit case for air travel. That is different than just throwing it into your back seat and trunk! Think about the outside dimensions and consider how many other things you may need to do without in order to pack a large easel. If you choose a pochade, you will also want to make sure that the tripod collapses short enough to fit as well.
  3. Will I paint larger than a 9x12 or 12x16?
    This one is super important because there are painting size limitations to each of these easels. If you are pretty sure you will never paint large, however, there is no reason to super size your order. If you see yourself tackling enough canvas to sail a boat, take a look at the Beauport.
  4. Are you a backpack person or a roll-cart person?
    Keep in mind that you cannot roll everywhere. Think of your roll-cart the same way you do a piece of luggage. While it may be easier on your back, you will find some painting locations will not work for you. But if backpacks or satchels are not your style, you may want to look into a Fold Away Cart, Rolling Plein air Packer, or even this combo roll-cart-chair called the ArtComber.
  5. What is your budget?
    Notice this is not the first question because, although cost has to be considered, it is not the most important answer. A good easel will cost a good penny. The great news it it should last you a life time. So rather than buying several cheap versions that fall apart quickly, go ahead and bite the bullet and put a little extra money into your easel.
What do I use and why?
Although I have tried many of these or friends of mine have them, it seems I always come back to my Open Box M. I have two different sizes. The smaller one works well if I know I am flying with limited packing space. I can still paint up to 16" wide on it so really, I'm not sure why I have a larger one except that I bought the larger one first.  The larger one is called a 10x12 and will accommodate panels up to 18" wide. The palette/mixing area is 10"x12" (hence the name). Just for the luxury of the extra mixing space, I use the 10x12 most of the time. 

The Open BoxM is light weight and it fits into my back pack with all of my other gear stuffed around it. After I attach the palette/panel holder to my camera quick release plate on my tripod, I can tilt the palette at an angle (see image below). Also see that the palette (bottom portion) is not very deep. I much prefer both of these attributes as opposed to paining on a horizontal surface or into a deep-lipped lid like some other brands have. Tilting the palette helps me keep the sun off of my mixing area (which tends to mess up the accuracy of my values). Unlike the Soltek, Anderson, Beauport, Coulter Plein Air or Stonefield, there is no open space between the panel holder and the palette so no extraneous light seeps through (again... messing with my values and color mixing ability). 
So, that's a lot to chew on and you need to know that for every product out there you will find an artist who loves it and and one who hates it. I realize that isn't much help, but my opinion is all I can offer. 

If I could add an additional easel to my collection, it would be one that would allow me to paint slightly larger. Maybe I'll get one of those when I grow up.

*Since this post, I have had a prototype of a new type of paintbox made. More on that as it develops.  Also, I have been been contacted by someone who would like to submit the following for your consideration... Thank you Tobin!

Please consider posting a link to my website, (maybe even replace your Beauport link with a link to my site!) I build the Take It Easel, after which the Beauport was terribly ripped-off/copied overseas! please take a minute to check out our site!

Happy Painting!

Tobin Nadeau
Owner, Builder, Take It Easel

    Tuesday, March 8, 2011

    Painting the Still Life in Modern Impressionism

    Urning for You, 14"x11" demonstration
    Last week I taught a three-day workshop on Painting the Still Life in Modern Impressionism. The participants painted four simple set-ups the first day in order to learn to see masses of value and color and large shapes that hold together. The second day they painted four slightly more difficult ones incorporating different types of lighting ideas. Day three we worked together to design and set up larger, more complex still lifes and everyone created a final, large masterpiece.

    Learning to ignore labels like "vase," "apple," "doughnut," "rose," and instead seeing connected shapes is a huge step in painting this way. Even once you can see it, there is a huge temptation to start painting "things" way too early in the process. For long periods of time, the painting basically looks like little of nothing. You are painting "through" objects rather than outlining them and filling them in. Slowly and methodically these large shapes can be broken down into slightly smaller shapes until, in the final 10% of the process, just the right amount of information is divided into the smallest pieces and, wah-lah, the image appears.

    I remember one of the first demonstrations I saw painted this way. It was a little like magic. It was a portrait demonstration and I could not imagine that this artist was actually going to pull a person's face out of that abstract, juicy, paint mess. Last week, as I painted the opening demonstration for this workshop, the students looked eager but totally lost at what I was painting. In the end, the image did, indeed, appear, and I had them hooked!

    Viewing the painting close up, the painting still looks like random pieces of paint. But as you step back, it pops into focus. Similarly, images on my website tend to look more tightly rendered than the same painting when you view it in person. Here is detail from the painting shown above. See what I mean?

    Tuesday, March 1, 2011

    Cleaning Brushes

    Easy Commute, 30"x36"

    People often ask me about when I first became interested in art. All I can say is, as a little girl, I remember not liking dolls very much; I remember playing with Hot Wheels -- the same track I gave to my son to play with some 25 years later, and drawing the little cartoons in the back of magazines in the classified section. You remember, you sketched the pirate or the puppy or whatever, mailed it in, and you might get to take lessons at a "real art school" to see if you could be a "real artist."

    Another very vivid memory that I have which does involve playing with dolls, is one where I set my Mrs. Beasley doll and my Barbie doll side by side (Barbie must have thought Mrs. Beasley was a giant) and taught them how to clean paint brushes. I remember distinctly showing them how to "work the bristles gently in your hands, and clean the bathroom sink very well when finished."

    Today, I still actually enjoy cleaning brushes; although, I admit, I rarely do so. There is no sink in my studio, so it means taking them home when I feel they are just desperately calling to be cleaned. There are many ways my artist friends take care of their brushes that are extraordinarily elaborate. (NOTE: Most of these friends have assistants to do the work for them every day.) However, if I had a sink in the studio, I would certainly clean mine more often. Personally, I find that using the same brushes day in and day out, they really do not need much attention. Maybe that is because I am pretty hard on them on the canvas so when they wear out, they wear out, and it has less to do with my cleaning process and more to do with my painting process.

    Here is my process for taking care of my brushes --

    First of all, before I ever dip my brush in my odorless mineral spirits, I thoroughly pull all of the paint that I possibly can out of the brush with a paper towel or cloth. I do this between paint color mixtures to keep my color fresh. By pulling so much of the paint out before cleaning the brush, my OMS stays fairly fresh for weeks. At the end of the day, I make sure each of the brushes I have used is really swished well in the OMS. If I am going to be painting again the very next day, that's about it. If I am going to be out of the studio for several days, I go to the next step as well.

    I have a second can of OMS which is kept very, very clean. Actually, it is Turpenoid Natural. (I do not use this as my regular OMS because it is a little too oily for my preference). I swish my brushes around in this a final time to make certain there is no paint at all left in the bristles.

    Every few weeks or so, my brushes get a great cleaning. It is therapeutic for me and really conditions them. For this I use Ugly Dog Brush Soap found at It is all natural and not only cleans well but leaves the brushes feeling nice. Another great thing is that it comes in a little tub. You just put a little water in the tub and run your brushes back and forth similar to the way you might do it in the palm of your hand, except by using the tub, you are not scrubbing pigment into the palm of your hand!

    Once the brushes are very clean, I pull all of the water out of them with an absorbent cloth. Finally, I reshape the bristles and tame any loose hairs by applying either walnut oil or vaseline. While living in Italy, I used olive oil (although I am not suggesting that you do that). It seemed to do just fine.

    So the image at the top basically has nothing to do with this post.  I just wanted to share what is on my easel this week. Apparently I am still in St. Lucia in the quaint little village of Choisel.

    Happy brush cleaning!