Archive for October, 2010

 Emily Sargent, giving watercolor lessons en plein air.  Notice the hand-held palette and the brush in her mouth.  I imagine her brother (John Singer Sargent) heard from her about depicting her that way.

Henri Merke after Thomas Rowlandson “An artist traveling in Wales, 1799”

The above from a show of caricatures at the Metropolitan Museum called “infinite jest”.  Rowlandson and a caricaturists by the name of Henry Wigstead ( probably pictured above) toured Wales in August 1797 and had a miserable time — constant fog and rain, rough roads, poor lodging, spartan food, and wild country folk.  They were probably inspired by William Gilpin’s book “Observations Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty (1786), an influential romantic movement book.  It was impossible for English artists to get to the continent because of the protracted Anglo-French conflict (1792-1815) which got them out doing what we would call “plein air” paintings (but the French term would probably be considered unpatriotic.)  In any event it’s interesting to see the “Gloucester” easel type and the standard studio palette.

Here’s an interesting setup for watercolor from long ago.  It’s by Winsor Newton but the cloth that holds all the stuff was called by the name of Colonel Gunter whom ever he was. The tin palette went into the pocket between the brushes and notice the little pocket for an eraser.  The pocket next to it is for a sponge.  The tin holder in the lower left corner was for water..  The flaps folded over and were buttoned.  The whole thing was folded again and  there were leather buckles and a handle.   The point is it wasn’t a pochade box.  It was specifically designed for the needs of the watercolorist out of doors.  It went for over $500 on Ebay the summer of 2012.

Col. Gunters Sketchers Folding Waterproof Holdall.


A pochade box was designed to do a color oil sketch in the field and ONLY an oil sketch.  The best review I’ve found of these wonderfully crafted boxes is here. This post is about designing a watercolor specific traveling/outdoor equipment/box for the watercolor artist.

For an artist using oil or acrylic there is a need to make compromises and reduce what is carried predominantly because of the weight of the paint tubes and the sturdy photography tripod used to hold the beautifully crafted wooden pochade boxes that are currently marketed for upwards of $300.  The question that must be asked is do these compromises apply to the watercolor artist who wants to paint outside.  Compromises, of course, must be made if one is traveling very light and for some particular circumstances that requires a very small kit like camping in the wilderness for weeks on end.  But this is not a common occurrence  and doesn’t apply if you are leaving home specifically for a day of watercolor painting “en plein air”.

For some unfathomable reason the sellers of these granted beautifully crafted oil/acrylic-specific boxes think that by placing a plastic watercolor palette in the box it makes it useful for the watercolorist.  What they do not seem to understand is that the palette is not and has never been the weight problem with working out of doors in watercolors, and the flat palette they have designed to lay in their boxes doesn’t resemble the most sophisticated watercolor palettes. In fact, it is generally agreed that watercolorist do not use a palette.  They have a tin for holding pans of paint (dry or tube paint) which also serves as a palette.   The plastic palette sold with pochade boxes is only a contrivance to make the box sell to naive watercolor artists.  What they don’t seem to know is that there is a vast “literature” on equipment specifically for the use of watercolor out of doors.  Watercolor was for centuries the predominant outdoor medium used by surveys, explorers, naturalists, and travelers centuries before the oil paint tube and the ferruled paint brush were invented (the tube in the 1840’s by John G. Rand, an American portrait painter living in London) that allowed outdoor oil painting.

Sun Eden here supplies an arm that can clamp a watercolor block and attach to a tripod and a shelf that can also be attached.  They have other accessories like umbrellas.  It seems more appropriate for watercolor than the pochade boxes.

There are several sites on the internet explaining how to convert a cigar box or a candy/cough drop box into a watercolor specific pochade box of some sort.  These turn out to be cheap versions of the old pochade box with a plastic palette in them.  They all seems to repeat that a pochade is “quick sketch” which it is not.  It is a color study made out of doors to use in the studio for a big painting.   In the Metropolitan Museum there is a big Corot (Hager in the Wilderness) which is next to his pochade study of an oak outside of Paris.  The fact that he put this oak into a dessert scene in the Middle East has amused quite a few critiques.  Here’s

Corot pochade

his sketch.  It ain’t a quick one.  I have an additional post on the derivation of the term pochade and how it fit into the French academic process of making a studio oil painting here.

More to the point, these sites don’t ask the question I am asking here which should be considered before making cheap pochade boxes or buying expensive ones.

A watercolor palette can be easily held in one’s non-dominant hand and is more comfortable and convenient there.  In fact most of them are designed with this in mind because they come with thumb loops on the bottom (I actually use my index finger) to help balance them on the hand.  They are used, ironically, just like the big wooden oil palette is used in the studio (in the hand) but are much smaller and lighter with all the advantages of having the paints close and easy to see at the same level as one’s painting instead of looking up and down all the time.

a large hand-held palette in my right hand

Since you can set, carry, and use in the hand a palette with many paints (see above) a limited palette which is usually forced on the plein air oil painter is not necessary for the watercolorist.   Want to take along some turquoise just in case there some tropical-looking water or because it makes an interesting green?  Go right ahead.

The equivalent of the $300 and up oil pochade box in the watercolor field is Craig Young’s beautiful brass palettes see here. They are expensive ($300-400) and there is a one year delay in getting them, but as Charles Reid has remarked, they are no more expensive than a fancy tennis racket.  Joseph Zbukvic has designed a portable table available as far as I know only from Australia where he lives.  See here for picture and price (about $400).  There are camping tables for considerably less money.  The very lightest is here and might be all you need in addition to a chair to paint outside.

Here is a very well received handheld palette for watercolor that has specially large wells that hold a 15ml tube of paint.

Spanish metal palette

It is specially useful if you use big brushes like the Susie Short brush:

the susie short brush

It is used extensively by Spanish watercolorists because it is made in Spain (or is it China, see comment).  However you can order it from Spain here (it helps if your e-mail is in Spanish):

See this post  for more detailed information about it. here.

The bottom-line is that adding a plastic palette for the paint to the current crop of pochade boxes does not address the real, serious problems of doing a watercolor painting en plein air, and shows a remarkable lack of knowledge on the part of these suppliers.  I can’t see how they can be recommend for the watercolor artist even if they  are some of the most beautiful boxes made today.

There is another post on this blog describing a pochade box for watercolor sold in France and England and probably made by cigar box makers in China. which suffers from all the pochade box problems here.    There are several other posts on pochade boxes here

There are also some plastic covered palettes usually designed for acrylics that have a cover and a sponge covered with palette paper in  them that help prevent acrylics from drying. See here.  This is necessary because once acrylics dry they can not be reconstituted like watercolor.  These also don’t address the watercolor problem.  Homer and Sargent, both of whom worked out of doors most of the time,  preferred dry pans of paint and would add water as necessary.

There are also some recent watercolor palettes that have an air-tight seal which I don’t think serves much of a function. The problem, again, is not that the watercolors dry too fast and become unusable.   I have found them very useful at the beach where the tight seal is excellent for preventing sand getting into it and the heat from drying the paints out when they are stored.  I usually spray the paints to wet them before going out to the beach and they are moist when I eventually settle down to do a painting.   In the old days (Victorian times) I understand that watercolor pans tended to be rock hard and required a lot of work to dissolve.  So the issue has something to do with the quality and technique of making the paints.  I made some genuine vermillion from pigment and couldn’t dissolve it no matter what I did — even leaving in to a glass of water overnight.  ( I have no idea what I did wrong.)  If you have a paint that doesn’t wet easily, you should probably try another manufacturer. Most watercolors made today have water holding additive (humicants) and can be rather gummy to the touch, but they don’t dry out for a long time (earth colors excepted like Burnt Umber).

Finally many of the up-scale watercolor paint manufacturers sell a palette already set with their paints that sometimes have some bells and whistles on them like a place for brushes or in one case a small plastic water bottle.   The problem is that the emphasis is on making these items small rather than useful.  It’s not common for someone to be on a public transportation, at work, or walking down the street and suddenly get the urge to make a watercolor.  In this case, it would be useful to pull something out of your back pocket (but what would you do for paper?)   This is a different problem which I have addressed in the blog post about absolute minimum palettes make from cough drop boxes, etc. here

The real palette problem for watercolor artists is that, if the palette designed for watercolor is stored on the side  when the paints are very wet (like when you’re done and heading home), they will run into each other .  This is particularly a problem with a palette that folds and has paint wells on both sides, top and bottom.  There is no way that you can store it except open until the paint dries enough not to run.   It is a particularly dumb idea and should be avoided.  One work around, mentioned by Charles Reid,  is to have only earth colors on one side because they dry faster.  However, there are canvas bags that have  a double bottom  making a separate flat section in which one can store one’s palette flat.

There is a system somewhat like a pochade box designed specifically for watercolor.  It’s called pleinairpro.  The website is here.  The pink object in photo below is a collapsible plastic water bucket.

So what are the real problems for using  watercolor out of doors?

1.  Water is the heaviest thing one has to carry. (Paint is the heaviest thing for the oil/acrylic painter because he carries big tubes.)  The watercolorist “sets” his palette before he goes out and usually doesn’t carry tubes unless he sneaks in a gouache white somewhere.  (Traditionally the oil painter could also set his palette before he left the studio, but I’ve never known anyone to do so with the exception of Marcia Burtt, an acrylic artist. See here.)

So how to carry water is a significant question particularly if you use a lot and want to work with very clean brushes.  One can often find water on location, but it can be difficult.   I have been experimenting with a cheap, generic water bladder replacement insert used for backpacks.

2.  You need to transfer your water supply from where you store it to carry it to three smaller water containers (ideally) to keep your brushes clean.  Some of these containers fit inside each other and there are some single ones that are made with a fabric-like plastic that can be squashed down flat making it convenient for traveling.

3.  You need a support for your paper to rest and be stretched on.  When full, juicy washes are laid down on anything less than 300 lb. paper cockling (English word for it) or buckling will occur.  The wash will accumulate in the valleys and run off the hills.  This is avoided by stretching wet paper beforehand often by using gummed packing tape on all four sides.  Gummed tape often doesn’t seem to hold, so people add staples.   There have been several designs recently for stretchers.  One that is at the high end of the expense range but well designed can be see here at Dick Blick.  A much less expensive one by an order of magnitude is available from Arthur Brown in England via e-bay is here.

This problem has also been solved in the past by the  use of watercolor blocks, but some slight cockling or buckling can occur with them.  Homer and Sargent used blocks, and one is tempted to say, “If it was good enough for them . . . .”  It is easy enough to make a block yourself with Elmer’s glue or pad binding glue which is widely available (like here from Amazon) if you’re one of those people who buys rolls or large sheets of paper and cuts them up.

4.  Watercolor has to dry between washes.  In the studio one can use a hairdryer.  What would help out of doors?   There is actually one portable, battery run hair dryers but it is expensive. See here .  However, small portable personal fans can cost about $7 and might be helpful.  I think that more absorbent paper might also dry faster, that is paper with less sizing, which is usually a less expensive even student-grade paper.

6.  As already discussed, at the end of an outdoor painting session closing a palette and carrying it on its side may cause the paints to run into each other with the attendant saturation costs (muddying of the paint).  What are the solutions here?

7  If the palette has wells which slant, water tends to pool at the bottom and keeps the paints wet which can cause running when stored.  It can also make the paints a bit too wet so that it is hard to pick up a color with a brush that has not been completely cleaned without polluting the first color too much.  The obvious answer is to only buy a palette with flat wells.

8.  Some watercolorist want to mix large puddles of paint or use very large brushes which requires a larger mixing area that some of the smaller hand-held palettes.  If you have a table there’s no problem.

9.  Then there’s the question of whether you want to work on your lap which requires a chair or standing up which requires and easel or tripod and attachment. (I sometimes sit in a chair AND use a tripod).   It really isn’t much of a problem to carry a well-made and light roll up chair and table (but beware of the cheap ones.  They are made with heavy metal rods and are much heavier than the better ones.)  The one I have and like very much is made by Camp Time with special aircraft aluminum.  See it here.    If I work while sitting down, I tend to hunch over and eventually my back complains.  Still I like the option.  However, the Sun Eden (see reference above) has a clamp for watercolor blocks that is for traveling in the sense that it comes apart for storage.  It’s plastic and therefore too heavy.  It should probably be made from aircraft aluminum like the chairs and tables.  Instead of using that I’ve tried just cutting a piece of thin plywood the size of my watercolor block, cutting a hole in the middle, and hammering what is called a “t nut” that accepts the tripod’s camera attachment bolt on what is called the post.    Remember  the t-nut has to fit the “screw” on the post.  You can take the post by itself to a hardware store.When done, I have a table on which to put the block.  For a steadier system see Judson’s hardware specifically for this purpose here.

You would need a tripod.  My advice would be to NOT buy a “head”.  That’s the piece that attaches to the tripod that allows lots of repositioning of the camera attached to it.  It is often expensive.  You can do that by changing the length of the legs. I would, however, spring for a quick release attachment  and put it on the plywood.  This allows you to just pop it on the tripod without having to screw it on (most are under $10).

Perhaps you’ve been wondering about that picture at the top of this post. It is by Sargent and is of his sister Emily, who was a painter as well, giving a lesson.  You will notice that she had a board attached an easel with a hand-held palette.  I can’t find the water supply, but that’s artistic license.  She’s sitting on the ground.   She’s using more or less the equipment I just discussed.  It’s nice to have an assistant hold the umbrella.  (Sargent actually had a man servant to set things up and a huge umbrella).  it’s a great painting, indicating rather than illustrating.  I love the background.

10.  There can be a need for an umbrella or something else to shade the palette and the paper.  For any sort of consistency in judging color the palette and the paper should be the same color to start with and in the same light (both shaded by the umbrella if it is used.)  Dick Blick has a collapsible plein air umbrella here for $45.66.  It us also sold by  Judson’s Art Outfitters (the Guerrilla Painter guys) for what is probably list price of $59.99 .  It weighs less than a pound  and folds to 12″. It opens  to 36″ canopy and 34″ high.  It is vented to avoid wind lifting it and the fabric is silver on the outside to reflect heat and light and black underneath to reduce glare.  Most non-collapsible umbrellas as just too long to store.  You have to have a long umbrella bag for it.  This one doesn’t need that.  It works well, but its light weight seems to have been achieved by using very flimsy metal, and being rather heavy handed I worry I’m going to bust it.  If it gets popular enough as I think it deserves, perhaps it can be made from aircraft aluminum.

collapsing plein air umbrella

I’m going to post this as is and develop it some more as I experiment with various ideas.

One of the first critical decisions is whether you want to stand to paint or sit to paint.

If you stand to paint, you can use larger paper and step back to see what you’re doing. You need a tripod and a flat surface that attaches to it like the pleinair pro system mentioned above.  You hang a water container from the flat surface.  You have to hold your paints in your hand and that determines the size of the palette you use.  You are in general more conspicuous.  It’s harder on your feet.

If you sit to paint, you need a portable chair and you can work with a block of paper.  Your handheld palette can be larger.  You’re less conspicuous.  It is easier on your feet.

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