Archive for March, 2019

Pursuing possibilities — Watercolor pencils

Friday, 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

Friday, 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.