Sunday, 23 March 2008

Painting 'En Plein Air'

Still dreaming of warmer sunny days to come when I'll be able to get out of the studio and do some plein air painting. Last week the sun briefly showed his face and I packed my bags and headed for the hills. After a short while I was frozen stiff and staggered back home for a hot toddy to warm my cockles. The drawings I made are not worth talking about and the streaming cold I brought back is just a pain but I will soldier on without moaning about it! This sortie into the great outdoors got me thinking again about painting direct from life when the weather improves and when my regular catalogue from Ken Bromley Art Supplies arrived the other day I found myself as usual looking at and contemplating getting a new box easel for my birthday in July. People are asking what they can get me for this frighteningly large numbered compleanno and in an effort to help them out I am looking for things that I would use rather than gifts I won't use, like the watch I recieved on my 50th even after letting it be known that after I left full-time working I no longer had need of a time-piece! (my mobile phone tells me the time if I really want to know). Anyway I digress. I have often wondered if a box easel would be a good idea except I am always put off by the quoted weights - a full sized box weighs about 7Kg, and even a half box about 5 or so Kg. Can you imaging lugging that up the side of a mountain? And these figures don't even include your paints, brushes, turps or water, sandwiches and a flask! [passing thought - perhaps I should get a quad-bike as well!]. Also I often think the legs look too fragile and a real pain in the butt to set up with these wicked wing-nuts which really are painful to tighten.

These musings got me on a quest this morning trawling through internet art supply sites to see if I could find anything of interest at a good price, ie: cheaper than KB's. And lo, I did. A site called The Art which is based in Iowa, USofA, offers a good looking pochade box and lightweight at only 2Kg. It's small and it requires a tripod to support it but it looks just the thing. Now, and where all this is leading, I decided I want to find out more about this box so I Google the name - Guerrilla Painter Pochade Travel Box - and stumble upon another artist blogging about this very subject and in particular about this very box. What a co-incidence! Must be meant, I wonder? Her name is Jennifer Young and can be found here: . I'll let Jennifer speak for herself. Enough for me to add that I am indebted to her for her coverage of this topic and that I learned a lot. Thanks Jennifer!

All of this got me thinking about my own efforts to make a lightweight easel for working outdoors. I bought an artbook many years ago by the artist Ted Goerschner called: "Oil Painting, The Workshop Experience" [see TG here: ]. Ted's plein air set-up uses what he calls a "Russian Easle" which looks like a back to front French Easel with the addition of an "Easel Pal" - a fold-out box that sits on front and supported by the easel box which supports his palette so he doesn't need to hold it, thereby keeping his hands free, and places to lay brushes and paint tubes. Unable to find either of these items, even on the wondrous internet, I decided to make my own. Here's what I came up with:

My Outdoor Easel and DIY Easel Pal - Front View: The easel is about the cheapest I have every bought, and more importantly the lightest. It is made of something like Obechi wood which feels and looks something like balsa (ha!) but is in fact quite sturdy. I have modified it to get the painting support bars at a higher level, and also added a longer bottom cross-piece because the ones that come with all of these easel types are far too narrow and paintings occassionally fall off. Ok if you want grass and soil embedded in the paint surface but not generally acceptable!
What you see under the easel set-up is one of these rucksac/stools which I lay my finished painting box holder (takes about four paintings each 30x25cm) which also acts as a solid surface for paints.

My Outdoor Easel and DIY Easel Pal -Rear View: Kind of speaks for itself.

My DIY Easel Pal: This is a simple hinged narrow box affair which folds in on itself. The central area is, obviously the palette with a piece of hardboard with two circles cut in it to hold the turps and white spirit steady, and brushes to one side and anything else on the other. Brilliant, but- the big problem is how to keep the Easel Pal in one place and steady. It is hooked on to the two sliding lower lugs that come with these easels at the back but it also needs supporting at the front. What you can only see here partially is a length of broomstick dowelled onto a crossbar to form a 't' shape which runs right across the front of this damned contraption. It kind of works but I am even exhausted here talking about it! All together it is much lighter than just about anything else I have contemplated but it is still a burden when carrying it any distance and major construction works when you get there when what you want to do is paint! Needless to say I haven't used it very much recently.

And that brings me full circle back to the Guerrilla Pochade Box-on-a-Camera Tripod ( I even love it's name as painting outdoors can sometimes be just like guerrilla warfare - especially the way I do it!!!!

Heres a wee picture of it just to remind ourselves of the future in a box:

Thats all Folks for now, and btw it's trying hard to snow here today so painting outdoors will have to wait a little longer!


Jennifer Young said...

Hi David,
Thanks for the mention. I'm glad you found my ramblings helpful. I posted my final (for a while) thoughts on the subject today. Nice job on your "easel pal"! I'd think with a couple of alterations you could have it working for you quite well.

daviddrawsandpaints said...

Thanks Jennifer. The big problem with all of this is that it takes far too long to construct out on location. I really want to be able to press one switch on the side of the box and it puts itself up in a flash!
Regardless, the important thing is to get some painting done. That's all that matters.

Andrea Kobayashi 小林アンドレア said...

Nice post David. My friend Kesha Gelbak said to me "art is a blood sport", so a guerilla box sounds very appropriately named. Plein air is always so full of these considerations. Good luck finding the perfect outdoor easel!

Anonymous said...

Your easel setup is so perfect. I've been looking everywhere for some plans on how to build something similar but can't find anything nearly as elegant as your solution. I wonder if you would be willing to post some close up shots of the tripod and the easel pal so I could make one of my own.
Nice job!

Gesa said...

Hi again,
stumbled in again by way of Eardley post - and end up looking at the guerilla construction. i'll be in the us next week for work and am thinking very hard about getting one. I like the studies you do as prep for painting - the on with the trees as ink and wash, but also the ones with the drying rail (sorry, don't know word) - there's a great abstract quality to them, flatness and space works very well.

daviddrawsandpaints said...

Hi Anonymous AJ,
Thank you for your comments and appreciation. I will be very happy to post some close-up pictures of my DIY "Easel Pal" just for you! In return you must lift your cloak of anonymity! Is it a deal?
Waiting with bated breath,

daviddrawsandpaints said...

Hi Gesa, and thanks for stumbling by again and leaving your comments - I appreciate them very much.
I am really much happier creating the colour studies rather than the final artwork, which too often become stiff and self-conscious unless I paint 'alla prima'. I was, however, quite pleased with the Winter Garden with it's orange horizontal and verticals (these were part of a simple construction I made to support my peas last summer!) From my visit to your blog I can see your interest in the abstract with your study of Nicholas de Stael whom I also admire very much. And I must also thank you for the link to one of your commentators, Casey Klahn, who creates wonderful pastels in a semi-abstract manner.