Buzz about that Fly on the Wall

April 15th, 2019

Earlier this year I reviewed a French box easel, which I had found heavy and awkward to tote.  So in February, after looking for a lighter, smaller alternative for oil painting, I placed an order from the ProlificPainter.com website for a “Fly on the Wall” easel.  It arrived almost exactly a month later.  That’s a lot longer than most larger mail-order companies would have taken, but I understand that the Prolific Painter is a very small company—a sideline for Joshua Been, who is a plein air artist himself—so I allowed for the fact that easel sales are undoubtedly lower on his priority list than his own painting outings.  That being said, he’s probably not the best choice to order from if you need the easel for the following week’s painting adventures.

The easel itself is indeed a very compact box, 8¼” x 8¼” x 1¼”, when closed.  It is accompanied by a separate panel holder, which can attach either to a tripod (not included) or directly to the easel box with a specially designed coupler.  When using a tripod, the easel box has a pair of hooks that swing out to lightly embrace two of the tripod legs to hold it in place, while the panel holder is attached directly to the tripod head (with, it is assumed, a quick-release attachment – not included).  The coupled configuration, on the other hand, allows the artist to hold the entire setup in his or her lap or set it on a table without any need of a tripod.

The panel holder consists of a 14” vertical piece and two adjustable (detachable for transporting) 8” horizontal bars, which grip the painting panel by way of four small screws.  The screw heads fit over and under the top and bottom edges of the painting panel, respectively, allowing full brush access to the painting surface.  Unfortunately, because of the extra bolt needed to connect the panel holder to the easel box coupler, in the coupled configuration even when the gripping bars are as fully extended as possible above that, they were still ½” too close together to fit my 12”x9” vertical panel.  (By making some hardware substitutions and redrilling the screw holes, I was able to fit the 12” panel in.)  If the horizontal bars are both left attached but are turned to align with the vertical bar for packing, the minimum length is 16”.  The length may be reduced to the vertical’s original 14” length by turning the crossbars at an angle, which widens the combined width (though still less than 8” depending on the angle to which they are turned).  The coupler adds an additional 3” to the length when left attached.  Or all the pieces can be disassembled for repacking.  However, the bolts used are long, so are not particularly quick to assemble and disassemble.

The easel box itself consists of a 6½” x 6½” palette with a wing on both left and right sides that fold out for use as either equipment shelves or palette extensions (as I decided to use it).  I ordered it with a gray Plexiglas palette-proper, which came hot-glued around the edges to hold it into position in the palette box.  The beads of hot-glue usurped an additional ¼” or so of the already limited palette space.  But the gray background does make it easier for me to judge paint color than against the black of the box.  The Plexiglas does not extend onto the wings (which lap over the palette-proper when closed, allowing sufficient space for moderate piles of paint to remain in place for subsequent use).  I adapted both my wings for use as supplemental mixing areas by repainting the surface a mid-value gray to match the gray Plexiglas section between them.  That way, I still have the option of using them either as shelves or as extended mixing areas for my paint.

This is the coupled, tabletop configuration.  To maintain color harmony for the painting I was starting in this outing, I used only 4 tube colors and white. Unblended colors and their tints and a mixed neutral are in the center palette. I decided to use the wings for mixed secondaries and any chromatic variations.  I’d like eventually to make a practice of keeping warms on the left and cools on the right, but at this time I was still working out the best layout strategy. In case you’re wondering, the tripod-gripping arms have been extended here to anchor a trashbag behind the panel holder.

The Fly on the Wall, coupled, tabletop configuration.

To maintain color harmony for the painting I was starting in the outing shown above, I used only 4 tube colors and white. Unblended colors and their tints and a mixed neutral are in the center palette. I decided to use the wings for mixed secondaries and any chromatic variations.  I’d like eventually to make a practice of keeping warms on the left and cools on the right, but at this time I was still working out the best layout strategy. In case you’re wondering, the tripod-gripping arms have been extended here to anchor a trashbag behind the panel holder.

 

A lanyard is provided to hang both a half roll of paper towels and a can for medium (not included). Unlike the larger French box easel, there is no storage space within the easel itself for transporting paint tubes, brushes, palette knives, canvas or panels.  So a supply bag of some kind is needed to haul all the other miscellany most of us want along on a painting excursion.  I found that when set on a table, the coupled configuration was top heavy and tended to tip backwards.  Perhaps the weight of the medium can and paper towels is expected to offset that.  I don’t use a medium can so hung both the paper towels and my supply bag from the front (which effectively put the bag in my lap if I was sitting) to compensate for the weight distribution problem.

The written directions for setup definitely helped with the initial setup, but the accompanying explanatory photos are not easy to interpret if you’re not sure what you’re looking at in the first place.  A good editor for both the photos and the text would be beneficial.

Upon putting away the equipment after using it the first time (with a panel on which the painted surface extended to all edges—unlike the taped, unstretched canvas shown in the illustration), I realized belatedly that it’s important to immediately wipe down the gripping screwheads and the surfaces adjacent to the panel’s top and bottom edges to remove any paint that may have gotten onto them.  Otherwise, you’re almost guaranteed to pick up smears of paint on both hands and clothes.

I expect I will use the easel box as a supplemental alternative to carry with my watercolor easel on plein air outings.  The box attaches to the watercolor tripod the same way as to any other, and the tripod’s pre-attached panel support is at least as sturdy as the Fly’s, so precludes any need for either the Fly’s tripod panel-support setup or the coupled configuration.  Because of its size and shape, the easel itself is no problem to pack (though the panel support and coupler pieces aren’t as space efficient).

Recommendations:  Face it:  The concept behind the Fly on the Wall is cute.  It’s lightweight, the easel box is small and easy to handle, and it can be used in very confined spaces.  The wings appear to be solidly attached and allow space to leave piles of paint on the palette between setups.

This system is passable if you can be content with a very small palette, don’t mind being limited to smallish paintings, and can find a way to pack the peripheral components.   It could be a good option if you use straight tube colors requiring minimal mixing, as some of my plein air friends do.  … Or if you want to force yourself to control your color mixing tendencies.

On the other hand, despite its “cuteness,” the Fly is certainly not ideal for everyone.  I found that I needed to make several adaptations to be able to cope with its quirks.  It is also probably not the best choice to order if you need to receive it quickly.  And if your style is to mix high and low values of warm and cool variations of all your hues, as well as a plentiful supply of colorful grays, the Fly is unlikely to meet your spacial needs.

Evaluate your painting style, space requirements, and adaptability before selecting which easel is appropriate for you.

Busy, busy, … but on the right busy-ness?

April 1st, 2019

Hmm!  Did someone pull an early April Fool joke on me?  How did that happen?

It seems I got roped into working on some community projects these past few weeks, which are taking up an incredible amount of time … and unfortunately sidetracking me from much of the painting that I’d really rather be doing.  Sure, these projects are important and appreciated, but they seem to multiply, leading from one project to another, and requiring that I learn new computer programs to support what needs to get done, thereby utterly devouring my time.

I know that these are jobs that do need doing.  And we have a scarcity of volunteers.  (Perhaps because any potential volunteers know that, as in my case, once the job is “owned,” others don’t feel a need–nor may dare–to take it on.)  So it seems that, like the US Supreme Court judges, once you’re in position, the job is yours for life.

What to do?   How to get back to what’s important to me?  I’m sure I’m not the first person to get caught up on this merry-go-round.  What do you do when you find your time usurped in the wrong directions?  How do you reclaim control?

For me, it has meant scheduling more conscientiously to keep my priorities in place … and sticking as closely to that schedule as possible; carving out painting and personal time, cutting out some R&R time, and strictly limiting acquiescence to others’ demands and sense of priorities.  It hasn’t been easy.

I learned a long time ago the need to say “no.”  But occasionally there’s also a need to pull our own weight and contribute to society.  So then we need to say “yes!”  Where’s the balance?  Have you found it?  I welcome feedback.

Pursuing possibilities — Watercolor pencils

March 15th, 2019

As I look ahead to our spring and summer “seeing America” travels, I’m trying a different approach to quick, plein-air watercolor sketching–exploring the potential of watercolor pencils in lieu of using a full watercolor or oil setup.

I began by practicing with watercolor pencils in my studio, working from photos I had already used for previous paintings, just to get a feel for the process.  After creating the sketch and massing in the colors with the pencils, I used a moist brush to blend the colors to give the sketch a more traditional “watercolor” appearance.

From there, I graduated to doing some simplified sketches from life.  And now I take a small kit of pencils with me when I go out in the car so I can stop along the way to do a little plein air work without having to to get out an entire painting setup.  It’s also easy to use at our kitchen table or on our lanai for a spur-of-the-moment sketch to catch the atmosphere over the pond behind our house.

"Still Water and Riffles" by Charlotte Mertz  (5.5"x5.5" watercolor pencil, #190215wcp)

“Still Water and Riffles” by Charlotte Mertz
(5.5″x5.5″ watercolor pencil, #190215wcp)

My kit, which is roughly the size and form of a book (adapted from another less useful, commercial colored-pencil kit), includes a set of 16 (my own selection) of Derwent watercolor pencils, sharpener, Pentel waterbrush (with a reservoir in the handle), small piece of toweling, and either a 6″x6″ or a 4″x6″ cold-press watercolor pad. (Though hot-press paper would probably be better to use with the pencils, it is difficult to find HP in such small pads.) The pencils are held in place in groups of three with an elastic band and a fabric pocket to protect the tips.  Another piece of toweling wraps over the outside edge and top of the pencils to keep them from slipping out when the kit is being carried.

My watercolor-pencil travel kit

My watercolor-pencil travel kit

I may or may not use the brush on location, depending on how much time is available to complete the sketch.  If I haven’t time to use the brush, that part can be completed later.  The important parts are getting the sketch on paper and massing in the critical colors, either singly or layered, keeping in mind that they will blend more fully once they are moistened.  The resulting study may be a not-yet-ready-for-primetime sketch but is certainly sufficient for reference purposes or even personal souvenirs of a trip.

Learning the comparative strengths of the different colors and how much to apply of each pigment, particularly when layering, is my greatest current challenge and I expect it will become an ongoing study.

So far the process seems to be working well, providing a viable limited-fuss painting alternative for our upcoming travels.

Using a French Box Easel

March 1st, 2019

Having decided that I wanted to use oils in the field as well as my usual watercolors or (more recently) watercolor pencils, last month I indulged myself with a Blick Noir French Box Easel.  I’d never used one before, so figured I’d give it a try.  Here’s what I learned….

First, I was surprised at how many supplies could fit into the box, both in and underneath the sliding drawer.  Not only a fistful of brushes and palette knife, more than half a dozen (37ml) tubes of paint, and cleaning rags and bags, but also bulldog clips, pliers (for removing stubborn paint caps), mini containers of oil and medium, sketch pad, gloves, and more.

Like the black (“noir”) box, the palette was also black, which I found too difficult to work on. I prefer a mid-value gray to judge the value of my paint against. (I later painted the palette to both seal it and make it more compliant to my needs.) In lieu of using the black wood as a palette on that initial outing, I still took it as a lid for the box’s drawer, which also served as a tray when the drawer was extended during painting).  Because there would be no need for a no-smear-paint-gap above the wooden palette when repacking to go home, I could also fit in a pad of disposable palette sheets and a couple 9″x12″ panels, to which I’d taped loose canvas, measured out for smaller paintings (in this case, 6”x8”).

Of course, all this added to its weight, which wasn’t a feather to start with. It’s easier to carry around by car than on foot!  And even then, larger supplies, such as paper towels, insect repellent, drinking water, and umbrella must be carried by some other method, such as a duffle, shoulder bag, or backpack.

Though I practiced setting up the easel at home, doing it in the field felt more awkward and took longer than I’d anticipated, due to all the wing nuts that had to be loosened and retightened for virtually every component of the box.  The box should be laid flat, top down, to position (into designated slots) and extend the legs when setting it up and again to retract the legs while taking it down.  That could pose a problem if the ground is muddy or particularly unsanitary or if the palette isn’t used to hold the drawer contents in place.  This time I also mounted a separate umbrella on it for shade, which I hadn’t done at home.  So deciding where to attach it and how to angle it appropriately took some additional time.

My French box easel setup with umbrella, on location

My French box easel setup with umbrella, on location

But the light was good, the paints were laid out, and my loose canvas (taped to a panel for stability) was prepped. Fortunately, since the wind began to play games with my disposable palette sheets, I had brought various types of clips “just in case.”  Once the palette was anchored sufficiently I used another clip to position a trash bag and a wipe cloth for easy access. Since the easel didn’t have a place to stash used brushes, I also mounted an independent brush gripper so I could switch brushes without dropping them or making unintentional contact with their business ends.  Yes, despite having tried “rehearsing” with the setup at home, I still had quite a bit of fiddling to do before everything was ready to use.

(By the way, because I find my brush hand doesn’t tend to get messy but the other one does as I wipe the brush bristles while working, I wear a latex glove on my left hand for easier cleanup.  For using toxic solvents, nitrile gloves are recommended to protect both hands, but since my solvent is walnut oil, and I avoid using most toxic pigments, my gloves are more for convenience than for protection.)  When I was finished with the composition, with my gloved hand I gripped my clutch of used brushes by the messy end, then stripped off the disposable glove, inside out, which wrapped it around the used brushes for the return home—quick, neat, and easy.

The painted panel itself was protected from smears by turning it backwards on the grooved canvas rack of the easel box before carrying it back to the car (the grooves help maintain a space between the painting and the box proper).  When carrying two wet panels, I can clip them together back-to-back and carry them the same way, though must be extra careful not to smear the outward facing one, which isn’t protected by the box.  However, it should be noted that, as the top brace for the panels is stationary at the top of the box lid (when set upright), the size adjustment to fit smaller panels is made by raising the lower bar, which shoves the support brace well above the top of the box, making it awkward (though not impossible) to carry in that position.  The box has both a hand grip for carrying and an adjustable/removeable shoulder strap.

Closing up and packing away the umbrella and easel were once again more time consuming than I had anticipated.  With lots of wingnuts to loosen and retighten, and being still unsure of which wingnuts belonged to which component of the box and how the other leg fasteners snap into place, more practice is called for both setting up and taking down.  But I’m sure the setup and removal will become easier and somewhat faster as I become more familiar with the equipment and establish more efficient step-by-step procedures to follow.

It’s not a setup most people would want to lug around very far on foot.  But it’s a convenient most-in-one easel for car jaunts or to leave set up, for instance, on a covered porch for ready access.

 

Pausing to observe the roses

February 15th, 2019

The more familiar an artist is with the subject and the nature of the depicted environment and weather conditions, the easier it is to incorporate credible alterations from what might be viewed in the original scene (whether in life, a photo, or a plein-air sketch being used as reference material).  This familiarity comes from continual close and ongoing observation of everything of particular interest in the artist’s world.

"Edna's Rose" by Charlotte Mertz  (5"x7" watercolor, #180908w)

“Edna’s Rose” by Charlotte Mertz
(5″x7″ watercolor, #180908w)

Observational skills are arguably one of the most important skills for any artist to develop.  They include recognizing subtle changes in hue, value, and levels of saturation; compositional balance; perspective; proportions; even aberrations of human vision, which we can use to feature focal areas or to create special effects; as well as typical shapes and relative sizes of individual subjects.

Careful observation helps us see the world more richly, to appreciate it more fully.  When is the last time you “stopped to smell the roses” … and considered the shape, curvature, and variations of color in their petals?  I encourage you to take some time today to more fully observe the little things, as well as the greater environment around you.