Saturday, March 18, 2017

Plein Air Painting for Beginners, Part 2- Panels and Wet Panel Carriers

Panels toned and ready for plein air painting!

When painting outdoors most plein air painters use panels. These can be hardboard panels, aluminum composite material panels, linen/canvas covered panels, or Ampersand Gessobord. Some artists will use stretched canvas but this is usually for large paintings used in combination with a French Easel. For most plein air painting, panels are the support of choice.

Sizes can range anywhere from 4" x 6" to 11" x 14". This depends on your preference but my advice is to go no larger than 10" x 12". 8" x 10" panels are a good choice to start out with and you can increase the size of your panels in the future. Smaller panels such as 4" x 6" and 5" x 7" can be used to create nice, small studies especially sunset and sky/cloud sketches. These would be perfect for a cigar box pochade box.

When selecting a panel size to work with there are several things to consider. Make sure that your pochade box can handle the size of your panel. Even the smallest boxes except cigar boxes can hold panels up to 15 to 16 inches. Second, your panels should fit the your wet panel carrier. Some panel carriers can be adjusted or inserts added to accommodate smaller sizes but most only accept a specific size.

Types of Panels
Many panels can be purchased, ready to paint on. If you want control over the ground used you can prime a panel yourself. Here are some of the options for panels.

Ampersand Gessobord- Ready made, acrylic primed panels. I use these for 5" x 7" and 6" x 8" studies. These sizes come in packs of three. It does have a texture to it which I'm not crazy about. The texture reminds me of a paint roller. Regardless I am content with panels and they are not expensive to have as a supply for studies.

Speedball Gessoed Hardboard Panels- I recently discovered these while shopping for supplies for students I was teaching during Experiential Learning Week. They are cheaper than the Ampersand Gessobord and the surface is not comparable. It has more of a texture and the ground is weird, slick, and shiny. I'm not sure how that would work with oil colors. However I think they would be useable with several extra coats of acrylic or oil ground. I'm a currently experimenting with them. What I did was lightly sand the board's primer with 150 sand paper. I did this gently, scuffing the surface. The purpose of this is to provide some tooth for the next acrylic ground layer. I used Golden Acrylic Gesso.

Raymar Panels- These panels are MDF and covered with primed cotton canvas or linen of various textures. They are primed either with acrylic or oil ground. They are available in standard 1/8" or lightweight 1/16" thickness. I have tried 6 samples at 9" x 12" and they are a pretty good product. If you like to work on canvas or linen these panels are a nice choice. Myself, I prefer smoother panels especially for smaller plein air studies. In my opinion the canvas texture combined with a smaller scale is distracting. Overall I'm happy with the quality and I like the oil primed linen-

Cotton and Linen Raymar Panels

1/8" Panel in the front, 1/16" in the back

Make your own panels- This option is economical but labor intensive. If you are familiar with priming your own panels this should be no problem. Various articles on the internet and in artist's materials manuals cover this topic. Choices of substrates include MDF, hardboard, birch, oak, and any other suitable wood. Options for grounds are oil grounds, true gesso, and acrylic "gesso."

Aluminum Composite Material Panels-This is my choice for larger studio paintings but I do have a few 9" x 12"s and 6" x 8"s among my supply I have reserved for plein air painting. These panels are superior to any other substrate. They will not warp and priming them is easy. Check out Painting Stuff to Look Like Stuff. This material is not available in most hardware stores or art stores and must be bought from a sign supply company. In the Seattle area I buy my panels from Sun Supply. You can either purchase a an entire 48" x 96" sheet and have the supplier cut it down for you ( at an additional cost) or get scraps if they are in stock. The last supply of panels I bought a month ago cost me $128 which included tax and the cutting fee. I did give the guy who cut them for me a $10 tip because I appreciate his service every time I buy panels.

Lots of ACM Panels- 4" x 6" and larger

I now have a supply of panels for landscape paintings in the following sizes and quantities-

  • 4- 4" x 6" 
  • 6- 6" x 8"
  • 4- 10" x 16"
  • 2- 12" x 16"
  • 1- 12" x 20"
  • 4- 14" x 24"
  • 2- 17" x 20"
  • 1- 18" x 24"
If I was to buy these panels or equivalent sized wood panels from an art supply company I would have spent three two to three times as much. If you've never tried ACM panels there are several suppliers who have them ready cut- Natural Pigments and Amanda's Panels. Amanda's Panels is owned by Seattle Artist realist painter Amanda Teicher. She's a proponent of ACM panels and she often beats me to the scraps from Sun Supply when I go there looking for some.

Wet Panel Carriers
Once you figure out what size panels you want to work with you will need a wet panel carrier. There are wood versions available on the market. These look nice but the panel sizes they hold are limited. The bulk of the boxes limits their use in the car or very short walks. Hiking with them would be out the question.

My recommendation for a wet panel carrier is Raymar. I have a 10" x 12" and 6" x 8" carrier along with an insert to carry smaller panels in each. They are lightweight and durable and cost a fraction of the wood carriers. I like these a lot and I have hiked with the 10" x 12" strapped to the back of my pack.
 At Lake 22

10" x 12" Carrier

 6" x 8" Carrier
This can also carry 4" x 6" Panels

6" x 8" carrier with insert to accommodate 5" x 7" panels

Making your life easier while handling wet panels
A wet canvas is easy to pick up if it's stretched on stretcher bars. Panels can be a bit awkward because there is nothing to grip. What I do is make a tabs out of Gorilla Tape (any duct tape will work) and stick it onto the back of my panels. This will make inserting a wet painting into a panel carrier much easier. Of course removing the painting from the carrier will be easy too. No need to worry about paint on your hands or smudging the edges of your painting.

My next post will cover the colors I use for plein air painting.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Plein Air Painting For Beginners, Part 1- The Easel/ Pochade Box

Thomas Cole, Self-Portrait, Detail from The Oxbow, 1836
Metropolitan Museum of Art

As Spring and great weather draws near in the coming weeks, especially here in the Pacific Northwest, I've been looking forward to painting outdoors. I plan to do a lot of plein air painting this Spring and Summer around Seattle, Mt. Si, Snoqualmie Pass, and Skykomish County. I also will be starting my own workshops and classes this Summer with a focus on outdoor painting. My classes will be geared towards those who are new to painting outdoors. I am writing this post for beginners who are ready to dive into plein air painting.

My kit, designed for hikes up to a 10 mile round trip (perhaps beyond that!)

There is a lot of information on the internet about plein air painting. Some of it can be overwhelming for beginners and they tend to buy supplies that are too much to carry and awkward to set up. I want to share my suggestions on how to keep your kit tight and light.

The Easel/ Pochade Box
When I started to become interested in Plein Air painting I thought that I needed a French Easel. Thankfully I did some research before spending my hard earned money.

You don't need one of these!

French easels are bulky, awkward to set up, and they weigh anywhere from 9 1/2 lbs to 14 lbs. This item is unnecessary unless you plan to paint large canvases within walking distance from your car. If you are going to hike with your painting kit this will not work out. Go for a pochade box with camera tripod instead.

What to buy?
With the variety of pochade boxes on the market this can also get overwhelming. Guerrilla Painter and Sienna are two brands which are widely available through art supplies stores such as Dick Blick. Many beginning plein air painters go for these. My advice- skip these too! The profile on some of the boxes is too bulky. There are slimmer versions of each brand but I'd invest my money in a better box if you're spending over $100.

If you really want to invest your money in a nice box and you plan to seriously pursue plein air painting then I'd recommend any of the following brands- Open Box M, Artwork Essentials, Alla Prima, and Strada. These are the professional brands. I have heard that Open Box M doesn't have great customer service and are slow to ship but I like the aesthetics of the box itself. 

Looking at all the options and box sizes for each brand here's what I recommend.
  • Stay small- You don't need the largest box of the brands. A box that measures 8 x10 or 10 x 12 will suffice.
  • A box that carries all your supplies is not needed. This is unnecessary bulk. Keep your closed box's profile low.
  • An integral Panel Carrier is nice but once again not necessary. Later I will talk about wet panel carrying options.
  • To sum it up, your pochade box is a support for your painting and holds your palette. Keep it simple. You can carry your supplies elsewhere.

Feeling handy and want to save money? Build your own pochade box from a cigar box!
This is what I did last Spring. I have three different pochade boxes I made using cigar boxes. See my older post on cigar boxes.

Basic boxes with hinges ready to be customized.

Your box can be really simple with tightening hinges, a piece of disposable palette paper in the bottom, and panel that fits in the lid pinned in place with push pins( a sheet of cork would be best to do this). Or if you're feeling creative and want more options for your box you can make an adjustable panel holder, hardboard palette in the bottom, thumbhole for a handheld box, or tripod mount plate for use with a camera tripod. If your box has a taller profile you can create compartments for paint tubes, brushes, and a removable palette. All this can be done for anywhere between $8- $30 saving you a lot of money while creating a nice box that suits your outdoor painting needs.

Small box for 5 x 7 panels.

 My box for Panels up to 10 x 12, with camera tripod

The tripod-for a tripod mounted box
If you choose to use your box with a tripod you will need one that's heavy duty. A lightweight one can blow over or not withstand that weight of your box. Mine is a Manfrotto 190xb which I bought used off of eBay for $99. In addition to the tripod you need a ball head attachment. I use a DMKFoto Heavy Duty Ball Head with Quick Release Plate. I bought it from Amazon for $16.90. So far it's durability has been perfect.  

Sketch/ Paint Box 
Not up for splurging on a tripod? Then an artists sketch box is a nice alternative. This is a larger box which can be fitted with a strap and carried over your shoulder. When you're painting you are seated and the box rests on your lap. The box carries your paints, brushes, and palette. Sometimes the lid can hold up to three wet paintings depending on the design. Smaller panels can be pinned to the lid using push pins. In order to use this box you will need a folding chair or camp stool. Most artists of the early to late 19th Century used this set up. Current artists Erik Koeppel and Lauren Sansaricq also use a sketch box with chair.
Albert Bierstadt sketching with his paint box

My next posts on plein air painting will focus on supplies such as paints, panels, brushes, and paint carriers. Please contact me if you have any questions.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Thomas Cole's "Ruins in the Campagna di Roma, Morning"

Two weeks ago I visited the Seattle Art Museum with Cheryl to see the current exhibit "Seeing Nature" which showcases landscape paintings from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection. It was a nice selection of work ranging from 17th Century Flemish Painting through the late 20th Century. My favorites were Jan Brueghel the Younger's "Five Senses" series, views of Venice by Canaletto, a Turner, two Thomas Moran paintings, and a Thomas Cole.

Ruins in the Campagna di Roma, Morning, Thomas Cole, 1842, Oil on Panel
 Paul G. Allen Family Collection

I especially loved seeing Thomas Cole's Ruins in the Campagna di Roma, Morning. The glow of light was inspiring to see and I thought of how I can paint Washington State's landscapes such as the Cascades and Mt. Si. Cheryl looked at this painting and understood the direction I am headed in my own work.

Cole's painting is on a panel. I'm not sure about the dimensions but it could be 14" x 20" making it one of the smaller landscapes in the exhibit. It's intimate scale combined with the wonderful soft colors in the sky, mountains, and glowing light make this painting extremely enjoyable to view.

I went back to the Seattle Art Museum three days later. I was with 5 middle school and high school students from my drawing and painting class which I taught during Experiential Learning Week at Academy for Precision Learning. I wanted them to see the "Seeing Nature" exhibit because I was teaching them landscape painting.

My Observations on Cole's Technique
Towards the end of our museum visit, my students were content using the large digital painting tablets and I had a chance to revisit Cole's painting. The paras that went with my group kept an eye on the kids.

I noticed quite a few things about Cole's technique during my second viewing that I didn't see before. The sky is luminous throughout and there are several factors that contribute to this effect. The pigments that Cole used had a grainy texture, even in the blue sky. I'm not doing any pigment sample analysis so I can only assume what pigments Cole was using based on my knowledge of the pigments available at the time. It's hard to say if his ultramarine blue is genuine Lapis or the synthetic version. When you view the painting the graininess of this paint is quite apparent. The grainy texture is also found in the pink clouds.

The texture may be attributed to the pigment which Cole used to tone his ground. Subsequent paint layers appear quite thin in the sky and this would have allowed the graininess of the toned ground to remain.

Another factor which helps make the sky luminous are the brush strokes Cole used. His sky was not blended smooth horizontally across his panel. Instead Cole used his brush to create strokes which radiate from the light. This is easily seen in the sky. He painted the sky and when he was finished he used a dry brush to create radiating strokes. These strokes combined with the grainy texture of the paint catch the light in the museum and give sky it's glow.

It looks like Cole toned his ground pink in the sky. This appears to be a combination of Venetian Red and lead white. The pink shows up in his cloud formations, the area of light and surrounding blue sky, and within his mountains. On the mountains the pink ground which is revealed serves as highlights from the light of the sun. I didn't observe the pink ground in the foreground landscape or within the cracks of the architecture( Not sure what that is called). Thus it seems that Cole toned the ground only within the sky and mountains. I would need a third look at the painting to see if the pink was used throughout the rest of the painting.

Because this painting is on panel, it's preservation is excellent. The only areas which show cracks are within the architecture. This was probably painted with asphaltum which tends to shrink as it dries and ages. This was a common pigment used in the 18th-19th Centuries favored for it's rich, dark, transparent qualities.

For those in the Seattle area who love painting I highly recommend see the exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum. The variety of paintings showcase how different artists interpreted nature over the centuries. If you're a fan of Hudson River School painting you will enjoy Cole's painting and Thomas Moran's masterpiece showing the Grand Canyon.