I 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:
- Infinitely Adjustable Desk
- Very Stable
- Adequate Storage
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.
I 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.
The 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.Tagged with: easel, equipment, ken, plein air, powers, setup, studio, watercolor, watercolour