My Painting Equipment – Part I

EaselI promised in an earlier post that my articles would not be exclusively based around technical information or website development and this post is going to be the first to deliver upon that promise. In this first installment of a four-part series I plan to discuss the painting equipment I use as an artist and address the reasons for my selections while comparing some of my previous choices.

An artist’s selection of equipment is as individual as the artist themselves and mine is no exception. My watercolor painting setup was designed based upon several key criteria and as my style and techniques have developed over the years, my criteria have changed as well. Currently, I have opted for a very sleek, streamlined, and portable configuration that works equally well in the studio as it does outdoors in a plein air situation.

This particular post’s primary focus is specifically on my choice of easel configurations. Part two of this series will address my choice of paper stretching devices and why I use them. Part three will speak about several of the brands of paint that I use and their unique characteristics and Part four will talk about my limited choices of brushes and why I use what I use.

My past easel configuration choices have ranged from simple fixed A-frame styles to table top varieties to fancy pochade boxes. Non-adjustable A-frame styles didn’t give me enough control over the way watercolor paint moves on the paper and every pochade box on the market felt awkward because I was constantly reaching over the supply section of the box to paint. French easels felt awkward as well although I did find a version that I think is no longer available that offset the easel’s desk from the storage section and was a bit more comfortable. Oddly, it was available from Art & Stone Products, Inc. but is no longer listed in their available products. This particular easel would have been more than adequate except it weighed a lot which limited its portability. The storage box had plenty of capacity but it was inaccessible unless a leg was removed or it was completely set up. This made it difficult to even grab an eraser without going through a bunch of awkward steps. Even with those issues, that particular easel configuration was pretty nice and I would recommend it to anyone who likes a French style easel but isn’t comfortable with the standard varieties on the market.

For pochade-style boxes, I have tried several varieties and for strength and durability, the Guerrilla Painter brand are definitely the most durable I have used. They make a great product but the pochade box format is definitely more suited to oil and acrylic painting since watercolor paint is much thinner and wants to quickly move downward with gravity’s assistance. If an artist painted mainly with relatively dry paints then the pochade box would be a perfect solution. I, however, paint with the desk nearly horizontal which makes it uncomfortable to continually reach across the supply section of the box to reach the top of a painting. I have had better luck using pochade boxes turned sideways but then I can’t adjust the vertical angle to effectively manipulate paint flow.

The Joe Miller Signature Field Easel was a pretty decent design as well but the build quality was not great and storage was pretty limited. I would have expected a lot more quality for the price but mine had several stripped screws, the latching system was inadequate and would continually fail, the wood was cracked in multiple locations, and the legs were just not sturdy enough for what I do even though there were four of them.

Ultimately, I needed to look for an easel solution that suited my painting style. After years of experimentation with equipment, my current list of easel requirements includes the following:

  • Portable
  • Infinitely Adjustable Desk
  • Very Stable
  • Adequate Storage
  • Compact

In my research, I came upon a watercolor easel desk design that totally fit my painting style. It was called the The Kosvanec Twister and allowed the easel to twist and rotate into absolutely any configuration. This would allow the ultimate control of the flow of watercolor paint and completely mimicked my painting style. The only problem was that the system was pretty expensive and required additional pieces depending upon the size of the media an artist was using. Additionally, a camera tripod was needed to be purchased in order to use the easel attachment. The product’s website had an awkward ordering system which really dissuaded me from purchasing the product but did encourage me to create my own alternative.

Ball HeadI knew there had to be a better solution and it dawned on me that a ball head tripod could supply the same unlimited adjustments that I needed at a much better price point. Coupling the ball head with a tripod receiver and a quick release plate attached to either a board or paper stretching device would create the unlimited range of mobility for which I was looking.

After searching for several weeks, I found a ball-head tripod from Sienna Plein Air that was a four-section variety and allowed for very compact portability. I have since found much cheaper versions but this one came with a zippered case and shoulder strap. The ball head could support up to 13.2 pounds (5.987kg) and had a nice lever to adjust tension on the ball. It could be locked in place or adjusted to be slightly loose which would allow the head to be rotated in a full circle as well as any degree of positioning between horizontal and vertical.

Over time, the ball developed an aggravating squeak that would wake my wife while she was trying to nap in the evening. Although I found this to be somewhat humorous, I ended up lubricating the ball in order to maintain household peace. Initially I tried a little graphite dust but found that it didn’t last long and the squeak would return. Ultimately I ended up using a little 3-in-1 oil and a single application has kept the squeak at bay for nearly 2 years without disturbing the ball-head’s functionality.

Once I found a tripod that was going to work effectively for me, the next order of business was to find a way to attach my watercolor paper stretching boards to the tripod. Although a couple I own have tripod adapters, not all of them do. I ran across the perfect solution from Judson’s Plein Air Outfitters. It is called the Guerrilla Painter No. 17 Flex Easel and allows one to tightly grip a board or canvas while supplying a tripod adapter. Attaching a quick release plate is easy and instantly the ball head tripod becomes an easel with unlimited rotation and adjustability while being able to accommodate virtually any watercolor board or paper stretching device.

Now that the adjustable easel configuration had been perfected, the next step was to determine what to use with it. The system really need to have a shelf so a watercolor palette could be easily accessed. Surprisingly, I was only able to find a couple of options. I purchased a plexiglas version from SunEden Artist’s Gear that slipped over the easel legs and had two supporting legs that clamped to the tripod. This worked very well but it couldn’t support a lot of weight and obviously offered no storage. I added the SunEden Side-Mount Accessory Box that SunEden offered at the time but it had difficulties staying adhered to the shelf and had pretty limited storage. I eventually ran across a nice supply box offered by Sienna Plein Air that now appears to be available through SunEden and several other sources as well. It was a simply designed box with the ability to clamp to a variety of easel leg widths. It allowed me to have a small amount of storage while keeping weight to a minimum and portability to a maximum.

Bucket HookThe only thing remaining for completing this easel setup was to find a place to put a water bucket for rinsing my brushes, etc… Conveniently, the tripod itself actually had a small “D” ring on it that would allow me to have a hook to attach to a collapsible water bucket. I bent a piece of 1/4″ (6.35mm) brass rod-stock with a vise into an “S” shape. I polished it and sprayed it with lacquer to keep it from tarnishing over time and it has worked perfectly ever since.

I have gone through a couple different styles of collapsible water buckets over time but I like the Holbein Bellows Brush Washer which is available from Dick Blick. There are several suppliers for this style of bucket though.

Obviously this type of portable easel system isn’t the least expensive option available and isn’t going to satisfy the needs of every watercolor painter. However, I was looking for something that would work well with my painting style and there aren’t a lot of options out there. This particular setup allows me to paint sitting down or standing up, is very stable at nearly any height, folds down for compact transportation, and is way more light-weight than most pochade boxes on the market.

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Comments (6)
  • Dai Wynn September 16, 2012

    Another great ‘blog Ken. My watercolour painting equipment is positively rustic by comparison.

    Of course I understand that many of the art equipment suppliers are based in the USA and measurements are all Imperial rather than metric. Nevertheless, the gist of the ‘blog is very relevant to your international readership.

    One little niggle is that my email user agent cannot handle your fancy opening capital letter. It simply displays the HTML un-rendered.

    Cheers,

    Dai

    • Ken Powers September 16, 2012

      Dai,

      Thanks again for taking the time to stop in and read another one of my extremely long and convoluted articles. All of the suppliers are located in the USA although parts 2, 3, and 4 will mention some international suppliers I use as well. I am sure there are manufacturers in other parts of the world who can provide similar products to what I am using but shipping is such a nightmare these days. There is a watercolor stretching board that I absolutely love and had purchased about 7 years ago. I tried to order another last year and discovered that the shipping was going to be as much as the product itself. I find it hard to believe since I ship framed paintings overseas all the time but this particular vendor, who was the only one to carry the product, was firm about the shipping cost. Alas, I had to source something local that was okay but not exactly what I wanted.

      As per your suggestion, I have added a metric conversion to each of the imperial measurements in the article. I definitely need to be thinking with an International frame of mind in the future.

      I apologize for the problem with the initial block-cap letter of the posts appearing incorrectly in e-mail. I really like the polished look of it on the website. I imagine it looks a bit bizarre in an RSS feed as well. It is unfortunate that all technologies and viewing formats can’t be equal. I may need to get rid of the drop-cap to accommodate all viewers…..especially since I keep touting the importance of multi-device accessibility. 😉

      • Dai Wynn September 16, 2012

        Ken, to round off my comments on this ‘blog, may I compliment you on your excellent writing skills. I would suggest that your ability to communicate via the written word, coupled with your painting and programming prowess, elevate you well above the milling crowds. In my opinion, good journalism is becoming a rare commodity in online forums, and it is a delight to discover well-written articles composed by an artisan prominent in the visual arena. Oh, and did I mention your technical proficiency?

        • Ken Powers September 16, 2012

          Thank you very much Dai! I appreciate the encouraging words. I find that my spelling and typing skills continue to erode as I get older but I hope the content of the text makes up for it. I have also noticed the decline in writing skills that seems to be plaguing our society. I have always felt that every article I write reflects directly upon my reputation and I am surprised others don’t feel the same way. I suppose that content is considered to be as disposable as modern purchasable products in today’s world. Oh well, I hope I am doing my part to correct that mindset by creating quality content. Only time will tell.

          By the way, I added metric equivalents to my latest article as per your comment. I keep forgetting that today’s world encompasses a global readership and marketplace. Thanks again for taking the time to read my articles. I appreciate your comments and insight.

          • Dai Wynn September 16, 2012

            On the subject of Imperial versus metric, I read somewhere recently that there are only three nations in which the Imperial system is enshrined in law – Liberia, Burma (Myanmar) and the United States of America. Having said that, there are still large numbers of people in the “Western world”, young and old, who are comfortable using both systems of measurement. For example, my children would quote their own height in feet and inches, while giving their weight in kilograms. We talk about being “hit over the head by a piece of four by two”. Films and videos are grouped under the collective title “footage”. We still have a few “miles” to go before metrication is complete, and some folks won’t budge an “inch”.

          • Ken Powers September 16, 2012

            Cleverly stated Dai! We are very resistant to change in the USA when it pertains to our measuring system. We learn about the metric system in school but have to fully adopt it. In our defense, at least we know how it works! 🙂 I plan to keep a more international view with my articles from this point forward. Thank you for reminding me.

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