French (Box) Easels, Field Easels and Other Plein Air Painting Systems

French (Box) Easels, Field Easels and Other Plein Air Painting Systems

This post is an adjunct to my extensive article on pochade boxes. In it, I will showcase some alternative outdoor painting systems and portable easels.

While plein air painting goes back further among individuals, it was with the invention of tin paint tubes and the portable “Box Easel” in the 19th century that painting en plein air, or “in the plain air” became the practice of significant numbers of artists.

Together, the new, easy to carry tubes and easels made it much more practical than it had been to carry what was essentially a compact artist’s studio into the field.

Today, amid the renaissance of plein air painting that has taken place over the last 20 years or so, modern pochade boxes have become the outdoor painting platform of choice for many plein air painters, but box easels and other types of painting systems have their adherents.

I’ll attempt to list some of the major types and variations.

 

French Box Easels

Jullian French Box EaselThese are modern versions of the 19th century box easels, now often referred to as French easels or sketchbox easels. They consist of a tilting panel or canvas holder hinged to a painting box.

For transport, the easel folds down to become the top of the painting box, which also usually has a drawer insert that acts as a palette holder in use. The entire arrangement is supported by wooden legs that are adjustable in length with wingnuts and fold against the sides and bottom of the box for carrying.

Jullian, a long standing French manufacturer, likes to take credit for the invention of the box easel in the mid 19th century by its founder, Roger Jullian. It could be true, but I think it remains unproven.

French box easels come in full and half sizes. There are a number of brands and configurations — as well as custom variations from some manufacturers — most ranging in price from $80.00 to $200.00 or so (USD). Painter Michael Hodgkins gives a nice introduction and overview of how they are set up in the this video.

Advocates of pochade boxes and other portable easels and painting systems are often critical of French easels as bulky, awkward to set up, and prone to breaking. However, they handle many thing well — like supporting relatively large paintings and carrying lots of supplies. They can also double as a studio easel.

Jullian makes several variations (along with field easels). You can get them through Dick Blick, Jerry’s Artarama and other suppliers.

Blick also carries this Bamboo model, and Richeson sells a “half” French easel.

Jerry’s Artarama carries French easels and half easels by Jullian, Mabef, Monet, Creative Mark and several names that appear to be in-house branding, some of which feature built-in wheels.

Mabef makes the Mabef French Sketch Box Easel, and Sketch Box Backpacker Easel, which is essentially a half French easel.

Cheap Joe’s has a house-branded model, as well as a field easel.

Amazon has an Art Alternatives Sonoma Sketchbox Easel.

Artist’s Loft is sold by Michaels craft stores.

Jullian also makes a variation called the Rexy Watercolor Easel, that is configured to allow form a more horizontal painting surface, and comes with a removable paint box.

EaselAir is a metal variation on the French box easel; they have a video demo on YouTube.

Anderson makes an unusual Swivel Easel, a variation on the French box easel that is used in a seated position.

 

Gloucester Easels (Anderson Easels)

Take It Easel Gloucester Easel (Anderson Easel)The Anderson Easel was used in northern Europe in the early 19th century, but unlike the box easel, it did not have a built-in provision for holding supplies. It experienced a revival in the U.S. in the service of American painter Emile Gruppe and his Gloucester School of Art, where it became known as the Gloucester Easel.

It consists of a wooden tripod with adjustable legs — much sturdier than those of a field easel — that are held together with crossbars when in use. The height of the canvas holder is adjusted by setting its pegs into holes set into the legs at intervals. While not as simple to set up as a pochade box or field easel, it seems easier to deploy than a box easel.

The wide tripod stance gives Gloucester Easels exceptional stability, and they are well suited to holding very large canvases and working in windy conditions. They provide room for a large shelf area inside the legs when set up, with plenty of space for a palette and supplies at that level. When you see painters working at a large scale on location, they are often using one of these.

Take It Easel is the leading manufacturer of this kind of easel. Stapleton Kearns has an article about them on his blog. Bill Guffey sets one up and breaks it down in this YouTube video.

The Beauport Easel is a variation on the Gloucester easel. Jerry’s Artarama has a YouTube video in which they test the easel’s resistance to wind with both small and large canvases.

 

Lightweight Field Easels

Lightweight field easelProbably the simplest and cheapest outdoor painting easels; they are also the least sturdy option for holding panels or canvasses for outdoor painting.

Field easels consist of lightweight tripods of either wood or metal, with extendable legs and an attached panel holder. They usually offer no shelf for a palette without an add-on of some kind.

In most wooden versions, the panel or canvas holder is a separate hinged arm, adjustable in length, set into the top of the tripod. This can be adjusted from vertical to horizontal positions, the latter allowing the easel to be used for watercolor.

In some versions — usually the most inexpensive of the metal ones — the panel holder can be a simple brace across the front legs that holds the bottom of the canvas or panel, along with an extendable arm that adjusts to hold the top. These can only be adjusted in angle by setting the back leg lower than the others, but the configuration allows for holding larger canvasses or panels.

Field easels collapse down to a size a little longer than the length of one leg section, usually about 24″ (60 cm) or so, and many come with a carrying case.

Wooden field Easels come from a variety of manufacturers — too numerous to list here — most ranging range in price from $16.00 to $130.00 USD.

Field Easels also come in metal versions in a similar price range.

These metal Creative Mark Napoli metal field easels are more expensive than some, but look like a quality version of the concept.

Dakota Art Pastels makes one with a dedicated design for pastel painters.

[Addendum: Dedicated plein air painter Marc Dalessio has been kind enough to comment on this post and point out: “For tripod easels, the metal ones are vastly superior to the wood ones. The wood ones are really terrible and should be avoided.” See this post’s comments.]

 

Tripod Based Palette and Panel Holders

That’s just my loose term for several variations in portable painting systems. The most prominent of these are known primarily by their brand names, rather than being identified with a classification of portable easel. They are usually in the $200.00 to $400.00 range in price.

These systems are hybrid arrangements, usually consisting of a collapsable photographic tripod — like those used with pochade boxes — combined with a rocking panel holder like those in high-end field easels or an extended vertical arm with a panel holder that can also be adjusted in angle.

They often incorporate a tri-panel folding palette that attaches to the front legs. (Larger variations of these folding palettes, when used with French easels, are sometimes called “French Mistresses”. I don’t make this stuff up, folks.)

Unlike pochade boxes — on which the palette and panel holder are part of the same unit and therefore close together — the separation of palette and panel holder allows for the palette to be as low as below the waist, and the panel or canvas to be at eye height if desired. The fold-out palette generally offers more mixing room than other outdoor painting options.

Coulter Easel, plein air easelThe Coulter Easel was designed by painter James Coulter and is manufactured by Art Box and Panel. A wooden panel holder and fold-out palette are mounted to a metal tripod.

 

Soltek plein air easelThe Soltek Easel has a paintbox and built-in tripod legs a bit like a metal version of a box easel, combined with a panel holder that extends up on a vertical arm that can be adjusted in angle, including flat for watercolor. As of this writing, their website is still partly unfinished. There is a (low-res) promo video on YouTube.

 

Daytripper plein air easelThe Daytripper Easel comes with a metal fold-out palette. Painter Patrick Saunders demos one on YouTube. They also make a smaller “Fly on the Wall” version that can be used with or without a tripod (for painting in your lap or on a table).

 

En Plein Air Pro, plein air watercolor easelEn Plein Air Pro offers several variations, including dedicated watercolor easels (video demo on YouTube).

 

Sun Eden plein air easelSun Eden makes several versions, with adaptations for oil/acrylic, watercolor and pastel, for which they provide a comparison chart.

 

Sienna Canvas/Panel Holder, plein air easelSienna makes a variation they call a “Canvas/Panel Holder“, in which the wooden fold-out palette incorporates a tempered glass palette surface (more info here).

 

Guerrilla Painter Flex Easel and Campaign Box plein air sytemGuerrilla Painter makes a separate Flex Easel to which you can mount their Campaign Box, a trifold palette and storage box combination.

 

For comparison, see my posts on pochade boxes, DIY Pochade Boxes, DIY cigar box pochade boxes and James Gurney’s How to Make a Sketch Easel.

 
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How to Draw a T.rex Cartoon Dinosaur

How to Draw a T.rex Cartoon Dinosaur, how to video
As some long time readers are aware, in addition to writing Lines and Colors, I’m also a designer, painter and cartoonist.

I’ve just taken my first run at creating an instructional YouTube video in support of my book, Dinosaur Cartoons.

How to Draw a T.rex Cartoon Dinosaur is an 11 minute step-by-step tutorial in which I go through the process of drawing a cartoon in the manner most often used by professional cartoonists and illustrators — working out the drawing first with simple shapes and construction lines in pencil, creating the finished drawing over that in ink (or marker) and erasing the pencil out from under the ink as one might do with a drawing intended for reproduction.

When the book was originally released, I did a number signing sessions in Barnes & Noble stores and independent bookstores in which I taught kids how to draw cartoon dinosaurs. I’ve tried to adapt that approach here.

Though I’ve created a dinosaur cartoon drawing tutorial before as a web animation, this is the first in what I hope to be a continuing series on how-to videos, that will have their own YouTube channel.

My first video is a little rough around the edges (perhaps I went a little too “Bob Ross” in my soft spoken voice-over), but I’m just learning how to make instructional art videos. As I go on, I’ll try to report back with some of what I’m learning about that process.

I will say that the first thing I’ve learned, unsurprisingly, is that it’s a lot of work to try and do something like this right.

There are any number of art instruction videos on YouTube with poor production values, low quality sound and little or no evidence of editing.

I’ve tried to take my cue from artists who are producing their own art videos, but putting in the effort and attention necessary to bring them up as closely as possible to a professional level (a prime case in point being James Gurney, whose self-produced videos are wonderfully done).

As I go on, I’ll announce new videos in the series in the Lines and Colors sidebar, and when I have enough information about the process of creating DIY art instruction videos, I’ll try to collect that in another post.

 
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Eye Candy for Today: Peder Mønsted woodland interior

A Woodland Stream, Peder Mork Monsted landscape painting, oil on canvas
A Woodland Stream, Peder Mørk Mønsted

Link is to Wikimedia Commons, which has a high res version of the file. The original was sold through Sotheby’s in 1987 and is presumably still in a private collection.

As far as I can tell, the majority of Mønsted’s paintings seem to be in private collections. He is one of my favorite painters, based solely on seeing images of his work; I’ve never seen an original in person.

If anyone is aware of Peder Mønsted paintings in public collections here in the U.S. (particularly on the mid-Atlantic states), I would love to know about them.

 
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James Gurney: Flower Painting in the Wild

James Gurney Flower Painting in the Wild
Flower Painting in the Wild is the latest full length (hour-long) instructional video from author, illustrator and plein air painter James Gurney.

As Gurney points out in the introduction, the approach to painting flowers he takes here is different than the usual flower arrangement in a vase common to still life or the traditional garden subjects found in landscape painting, in that it focuses on individual flowers, or small groups, in the natural environment of botanical gardens or as wildflowers along a stream.

Gurney focuses on what he terms at one point as “portraits” of living flowers in their natural setting, with four major sections, each following the process of a painting from start to finish.

He is painting here in casein and gouache, two underutilized painting mediums of which Gurney has long been an advocate, and there is discussion of their strengths and limitations, as well as plenty of demonstrations of technique. Most of the techniques would be applicable in other mediums in which you can work both opaquely and transparently, like acrylic or oil.

Like many of Gurney’s instructional videos, and particularly those in the recent “…in the Wild” series devoted to painting on location, there is considerably more to Flower Painting in the Wild than the title might suggest.

Throughout the course of the video, you’ll find lots of close-ups of brush loading and handling and paint application, as well as insights into painting plant forms, handling greens, controlling value ranges, simplifying complex backgrounds, painting shapes by both subtraction and addition and many more topics of general interest to painters.

He even gives a demonstration of the age old but infrequently taught method of using a grid sighting system to accurately transfer outlines and key points of a scene to the paper or canvas.

Flowers are a great subject for tackling one of the most daunting challenges artists face: complexity. Gurney devotes a good deal of attention to the process of simplifying complex subjects, and picking out the essentials needed to represent detail without trying to paint every petal and leaf. These same techniques can be applied to other complex subjects.

Gurney produces and films his own videos, and he has gotten adept at delivering a relaxed but polished instructional presentation at a lower cost point than most professional level art instruction videos.

He is sensitive to what makes a video like this useful to the viewer, with lots of cuts from the painting to the subject and back again, augmented by split-screen comparisons of them side-by-side, which I particularly like.

He also devotes attention to the palette and color mixing, a glaring omission from many how-to painting videos.

I’m not always fond of the use of time-lapse in painting instruction videos, because it can make it difficult to tell how the paint was actually applied, but here Gurney uses compressed time sequences to advantage by preceding them with normal-time sequences of painting the same passage, giving them context in terms of actual paint application.

The commentary throughout is dense with information on technique and the choices and decisions made in the selection of subjects, medium and painting approach.

Flower Painting in the Wild is a valuable resource not just on painting flowers, but on painting plants and landscape in general (the last segment, though it concentrates on wild roses, is essentially a full landscape), as well as a continuation of his instruction on using gouache and casein. It is also the kind of art instruction video that will reveal more on repeated viewing and study.

Also, perhaps in response to the experiences of painting in beautiful environments like botanical gardens, this video seems to have more of a poetic quality than Gurney’s previous efforts, with attention given to the cinematography of the subject flowers and even a philosophical quote from Victorian artist and critic John Ruskin.

Flower Painting in the Wild is currently available as a digital download (roughly 3GB) for $14.50 USD from Sellfy or Gumroad or Cubebrush, or as a DVD for $24.50 from Kunaki (the manufacturer) or Amazon. (I chose a digital download from Gumroad for my review copy.)

There is a trailer on YouTube, along with a ten minute sample, and more information on Gurney’s blog, Gurney Journey.

As always with James Gurney’s instructional videos, there is a wealth of supplementary information on his blog, which you can access with a search for “Flower Painting in the Wild“.

 
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Gurney Journey at 10

James Gurney's Gurney Journey art blog at 10
Congratulations to James Gurney for 10 years of authoring his superb blog, Gurney Journey.

What started as a modest intention to chronicle his travels on a book tour — in a way mirroring the journaled adventures of the character Authur Denison in Gurney’s popular illustrated adventure series, Dinotopia — has grown over time into not only a superb blog among art blogs, but one of the most in-depth and useful sources of art information and instruction on the web.

Gurney has been unstintingly generous in sharing his experience as an illustrator, author, plein air painter, instructor, model maker, videographer, and restless experimenter and investigator of artistic topics.

Over the course of time his posts on painting techniques, equipment, paints, color theory, drawing, and related topics have been turned into instructional books, YouTube videos, and most recently, a series of full-length instruction art videos.

Gurney has been a proponent of misunderstood and often overlooked painting mediums like gouache and casein, and Gurney Journey remains one of the definitive sources on the web for information and instruction in their use.

Long time readers of Lines and Colors will know I’ve long enjoyed Gurney Journey and recommended it often, along with Gurney’s other projects.

For those who may be new to Gurney Journey, I will recommend that you take a look at the post he did in 2016 on the landmark of 4,000 posts. In it he links to a quick overview of some of the most prominent topics. You can also explore using the list of topics in the blog’s left column, or the search feature at the upper left of all pages.

If you take the plunge, I will issue my Timesink Warning, and point out that I fell down that rabbit hole myself for a couple of hours while preparing this post, bookmarking along the way numerous articles I had forgotten about for future reference.

 
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DIY Pochade Boxes – make your own cheap pochade box from simple materials

DIY Pochade Boxes - make your own cheap pochade box from simple materials

As I pointed out in my previous post on making DIY pochade boxes out of cigar boxes, the cost of a commercial pochade box can sometimes be prohibitive, particularly for those on a tight budget or who are as yet uncertain if they want to commit serious resources to plein air painting.

So blog posts and videos in which artists share their designs for Do It Yourself pochade boxes are becoming more common. Though the cigar box conversion is the most common, there are also more ambitious designs either built from scratch materials or from larger found wooden boxes, as well as some unorthodox starting points like office form holders and even a laptop computer shell.

I’ve gathered a few of them here — certainly not comprehensive, but hopefully representative and useful. Some are quite detailed and extensive in their descriptions and instructions, others are a bit sketchy, but I’ve tried to include those that have techniques of interest. Some even offer printed plans, either for free or for a reasonable fee.

Though there are some exceptions, most of these posts and videos are less than professionally presented. For an alternative with details and high production values, see my recent post about James Gurney’s new video on How to Make a Sketch Easel.

Look around with a search engine (particularly by using image search) and you will likely find more posts and videos on DIY pochade boxes; even those without details can offer food for thought. For those who have accounts, you may find additional resources on sites like Wet Canvas or Pinterest.

I’ll follow up this post in the next few days with a refreshed version of my original post on Pochade Boxes, that offers an overview of commercially available options.

Blog posts

Jim Sterrett - Sterrett Box, DIY pochade box Jim Sterrett
This influential 2009 post on how to build a “Sterrett Box”, as it came to be called, was the second DIY pochade box I remember seeing on the web, after Ellie Clemon’s cigar box pochade box post in 2004 (see my previous article on DIY Cigar Box pochade boxes). Sterrett also published a post on diy pochade boxes by others inspired by his design, and another on his plans for making a wet panel carrier.

Sketchin Dan, DIY pochade box Sketchin Dan
Not really a blog post, but a series of annotated photos on Flickr, this is also one of the older examples I’m aware of in which an artist shares their home made pochade box design.

Darrell Anderson, DIY pochade box Darrell Anderson
Made from cut lumber, this box will take panels up to 18 inches and includes a camera mount for taking time-lapse shots of paintings in progress.

Jeremy Sams, DIY pochade box Jeremy Sams
This 9 1/4 x 11 1/2″ box, meant to handle 8 x 10 panels, features a tip-out hinged brush holder.

David Gluck, DIY pochade box David Gluck
This box starts out with two 12×16 cradled birch painting panels, and provides a large mixing area. Directions are fairly extensive and it looks like the size could likely be easily reduced by using smaller panels.

Carol L. Douglas, DIY pochade box Carol L. Douglas
In this unusual metal design, the starting point is an aluminum form holder and the end result is very lightweight.

YouTube videos

Hugo Dolores, DIY pochade box Hugo Dolores
In this two part video (part 2 here), the artist starts out with a found wooden box (larger than a cigar box, eBay maybe?), but gives worthwhile ideas and details for the hardware and compartment adaptations to make a pochade box suitable for either oil or watercolor.

J Geekie, DIY pochade box J. Geekie
Geekie has apparently gone through several iterations of his design, and you may find additional details, as well as alternate designs in other videos. Videos are hand-held and a bit shaky, but I thought the designs interesting enough to be worth sharing.

Karen McLain, DIY pochade box Karen McLain
In this unusual bit of recycling, McLain takes the screen and components out of a defunct laptop computer and turns its case into pochade box without a tripod mount, simply held on a lap, table or stool.

Larisa Carli, DIY pochade box Larisa Carli
In this annotated time-lapse video, Carli starts with a found wooden box, but gives enough information to be useful in building a pastel-specific pochade box.

, DIY pochade box Mustafa Jannan
Video is wordless and annotated in German and English, with enough interesting ideas to be worthwhile.

Richard Kooyman, DIY pochade box Richard Kooyman
In this basic design, panels are held in place with a simple spring clamp, but the box looks sturdy, has double brackets to hold the lid in place and features panel storage.

Scott Ruthven, DIY pochade box Scott Ruthven
Ruthven’s video is more an annotated demo than instructions, but the box is quite nicely designed. Tension for the panel holder is provided by a bungee cord.

WBarts, DIY pochade box WBarts
A short, wordless annotated video, but the details are in the Comments area — Click on “Show More” under the video. Includes links to additional detail photos on Flickr.

Blog posts & videos with printed plans

Bob Perrish - Artist Easel Plans, DIY pochade box Bob Perrish – Artist Easel Plans
This long running site started with a set of plans for a pochade box that the author called “The Ttanium Easel” (at left). It features slide-out shelves and a lift-out under-palette tray for either panels or materials. Perrish has expanded the offerings over time to include plans for a dedicated pastel box, a watercolor box and a lighter variation pochade box without the storage compartment but with a detachable side tray. He also offers plans for actual in-studio easels. He describes the plans here.
As of this writing, his pochade box plans sell for $20.00.

Christopher Clark, DIY pochade box, with plans Christopher Clark
In addition to his blog post, on which he offers free PDF plans, Clark also has a YouTube video about his DIY pochade box.

Howard Lyon, DIY pochade box plans Howard Lyon
In an extensive post on the Muddy Colors group blog, Howard Lyon gives detailed instructions, a parts list and free diagram images with materials and sizes. The box features extra strong hinges, and an adjustable panel holder system using magnets to position the base and an extendable top holder tensioned by rubber bands.

Zan Barrage, DIY pochade box Zan Barrage
After some initial versions and revisions demonstrated in YouTube videos (and here), Barrage outlined his DIY pochade box process in a blog post, and now offers downloadable plans for $2.99 through Lulu.

 
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