Archive for the ‘Plein air’ Category

Palette types — pros and cons

Saturday, February 15th, 2020

Having written last time about how I tend to lay out a watercolor palette, I thought it would be appropriate this time to show you some of the actual palettes I use and point out some of the pros and cons of each type, along with how I have adapted them to suit my own purposes. There are many manufacturers and numerous variations of these and similar palette designs. My intent here is not to list or compare them all but to show you several possibilities and some of the benefits and drawbacks each design might have.

 

Palette---Tom-JonesA standard large table-top palette (like this one by Tom Jones), provides a good number of individual color wells. Many include a fitted lid to help keep paints from drying out. This general design is available from a variety of manufacturers in both plastic materials (some more prone than others to cracking and staining) and ceramic (heavy but durable).

Pros: The large mixing area allows for a lot of free-flowing color mixing and includes enough space that supplemental colors needed for a specific painting (such as the green-gold shown here) may be temporarily added.  I also like to keep a bit of kitchen sponge available for both cleaning the palette and to draw excess moisture from my brush.

Cons: The downside is that it takes up a lot of space on (ideally) a flat surface. Lightweight plastic lids may tend to crack.

Adaptations: If more well space is needed, the larger wells on some types may be divided with “walls” created by strips of hot glue. Paint names can be written on removable tape along the outer edges of the palette.

 

Palette-Cheap-Joes-piggybacCheap Joe’s version goes a step further than most tabletop models by providing a PiggyBack palette that fits into the lid of their large plastic table-top palette.

Pros: The PiggyBack can either hold additional colors or may be used, as I often have, as a slender travel palette, using the lid as the mixing tray. The palette and lid are not attached so may be used separately or set atop each other to save space.

Cons: This setup does not allow space for a sponge. The plastic stains from certain pigments (but is cleanable with isopropyl alcohol). When set on an easel tray, the lightweight plastic (particularly the lid) is subject to getting blown around in the wind.  Note that paint introduced into any travel palette should be allowed to dry flat before transporting or any pooling paint may migrate into nearby wells, as the yellow paint has done here.

Adaptations: I add paint names on slivers of tape between the wells so they can easily be replaced if I change colors. I have also added a spot of white gouache on the lid, and allowed it to dry, for emergency touchups in the field.

 

Palette-Cotman-half-pan-pocA more traditional travel palette is represented here by a Cotman half-pan field version. Alternative Cotman field palette designs may include a water bottle and attachable cup.

Pros: This particular pocket-or-purse-sized palette came with a small #5 round brush, which fits into a specially designed groove next to the paint wells. The half pans allow for a greater variety of colors, and the small mixing wells in the relocatable tray (shown here attached at the right), can double as supplemental color wells. With the exception of a flexible plastic thumb band around the hinge side (which gave out after many years of use), both the brush and the sturdy plastic casing have held up extremely well. Individual, half-pan cups for the paints are removable and can be replaced with half as many full-sized pans if preferred.  (But be aware that not all pans and half-pans are made to the same dimensions so may not be interchangeable among all manufacturers.)

Cons: Cotman paints are the student grade made by Winsor-Newton, so, though not bad, they aren’t my usual choice for colors.  Again, note that tube paint introduced into a travel palette should be allowed to dry flat before transporting. Even dry pan paints should be permitted to dry again after use to prevent spillage.

Adaptations: I unwrapped the individual pans and removed the dry blocks (pans) of Cotman paint, replacing them with tube colors from brands that I prefer, and allowing them to thoroughly dry.  I also modified the setup by adding a thin bit of sponge both under the brush tip to absorb any remaining moisture after use and by taping another piece into one of the mixing wells (thin enough, even when swollen with moisture, to allow the box to close). I also taped a list of paint colors to the underside of the removable panel on the right for reference.

 

Palette----En-Plein-Air-ProThe En Plein Air Pro Travel Palette is a somewhat larger travel setup with more wells, intended to accompany the En Plein Air Pro Travel Easel. (Their standard watercolor palette, which fastens onto a tripod, is similar to the large tabletop design shown above, with a generous central mixing area surrounded by individual wells.)

Pros: This palette has several more wells than most of the other travel palettes I’ve seen. It also provides a bed large enough to store several brushes. And it includes a thumb hole so the palette can be either kept in hand or laid on a flat surface, such as a lap or an easel tray. The well lid cover helps to keep any still-moist paints in place within their wells when closing up after use. And the mixing wells in the main lid have slight ridges between them to help separate individual puddles of paint mixtures.

Cons: This palette is larger than many travel palettes, so it won’t fit comfortably inside a pocket or purse. Although I haven’t used it much yet (it’s a recent acquisition), I do anticipate some leakage from well to well, despite the interior well lid, if the kit is closed up with still-wet paint and not packed flat. This can compromise the purity of the colors in adjacent wells. But that is true of any travel palette. (Staining from this kind of leakage is evident between the wells of the PiggyBack palette above.)

Adaptations: I’ve taped a list of the paints onto the well lid for easy reference, and have included a bit of sponge in the well provided for brush storage. Again, I’ve added a spot of dried white gouache in one corner of the well lid for emergency touchups in the field.

 

Palette-QOR-metal-storage-bAnother palette design you may encounter is illustrated here by the metal box provided with (the larger) QoR Modern Watercolor set. (The small sets come in smaller boxes with both fewer and smaller wells.)

Pros: An advantage of this type of box palette is that I can keep the tubes with the palette for replenishment as needed, along with a few other miscellaneous supplies.

Cons: The temptation with this kind of arrangement is to fill the (shallow) cups randomly with the colors needed for a specific painting. This leads to less efficient mixing and the need to clean off any residue for the next painting, which tends to waste expensive paint.  I find it more helpful to maintain a consistent arrangement, which is difficult to do when the cups are distributed as these are. This layout is also more conducive to developing the bad habit of mixing within or between the home wells rather than in the larger “mixing” well, which offers very limited space.

Adaptations: Note that this palette is currently in transition. As the pans empty, I will eventually move the blues in the second row from the left, up one spot, leaving the quinacridone magenta separate from the manganese blue, with which it now shares a well. The combination of the two colors is beautiful, but it is difficult to keep them from unintentionally blending when they are kept so close together—a situation that occurred when I needed to add magenta (a cool red) to an already full palette.  I have since eliminated one of the less-used colors to make room for the change. Overall, I feel that the disadvantages of this design outweigh the benefits.

 …

Conclusion: Of these designs, my favorite is the standard table-top (or tripod-mountable) style, which provides a generous, adaptable mixing area surrounded by a large number of wells large enough to easily accommodate at least an inch-wide brush.

For short travel jaunts and quick-sketch convenience, I usually prefer the Cotman pocket style palette.  For even easier painting, this palette pairs well with a waterbrush, whose self-contained water reservoir precludes a need for a separate water container and an extra hand or surface to hold it.

For longer plein air excursions, when I am likely to carry an easel and want a wider range of colors from which to choose, I expect to opt for the En Plein Air Pro Travel Palette.

Making the most of what we’re given

Wednesday, January 1st, 2020

In mid-December, while on a cruise in the Caribbean, my husband and I found ourselves in the custom-designed cruise port of Costa Maya, Mexico. This port, far distant from any major town, was designed specifically for cruise lines to use as a jump-off point for tours to the sites of several Mayan ruins. But for those of us who had already taken such tours or who didn’t look forward to spending several uncomfortable hours driving back and forth on a tour bus, our alternative options for ways to spend our day were to stay on shipboard or to browse among the gift-shops and bars in search of something revealing a bit of the Mexican “flavor” we’d presumably come to experience. We chose to wander.

Living in Florida, an easy drive away from Port Everglade, cruises and land tours are no longer a novelty to my husband and me, so my goal on this trip was to paint, or at least to make sketches of some of what we would see. In Costa Maya, the Mexican ambiance is as carefully designed and manufactured as in a theme park to entice tourists to “buy local.” This approach is not one that stimulates my creative imagination or inspires great artistic concepts. So I narrowed my focus, looking for individual features that might catch my eye—a heavily laden coconut palm, perhaps, or …

1912---Costa-Maya-FlamingoI had never had the opportunity, before, to really study a live flamingo. So when I saw a small flock of birds (no doubt with wings clipped to ensure their continued presence in their picturesquely designed setting), I took the opportunity to sketch one—or more accurately, an amalgamation of several, since they kept repositioning themselves.  I also took a number of photos for future reference in regard to overall proportion, various angles, attitudes, coloration, and neck and leg convolutions.

1912---Costa-Maya-Coconut-CSimilarly, a cartload of coconuts had been positioned outside a shop in a consciously staged arrangement. It was indeed picturesque, and I liked the variety of colors represented.  Fresh green nuts filled the cart, many with the “wild hair” of the inflorescence, like umbilical cords, still attached. Older, more dried nuts lay stacked on the ground.

But as I sat on a nearby bench to set to work, a continuous stream of cruisers meandered by, often blocking my view. So I simplified the scene, studied it sporadically when the human parade occasionally split to permit a clearer view, and freely edited the literal scene to establish a credible impression of it in my sketchbook.

I began each study with a light, exploratory pencil sketch. In the case of the coconut cart, I then restated it with pen, adding some hatching to mark shaded areas in case impending rain moved in before I could add any color. A few quick strokes of color with a waterbrush captured my basic color impressions.

Only after I was well into the second sketch did I realize that I’d been holding my sketchbook up-side down for both studies! Ha!

Ah well. The sketches still serve their purposes, reminding me of the experience and supplementing my written journal of the voyage, as well as providing plein-air (on site) reference material for future paintings I may make in the studio.

Through this coming year, I wish you, too, a fresh outlook when prospects may at first appear dim, insights into “old news” that enliven and enrich your outlook, and the ability to laugh at and find hope and enjoyment in your circumstances even when everything seems topsy-turvy!

The subject made me do it!

Tuesday, October 15th, 2019

Despite my recent resolution to stick with watercolor for a while, first thing this month the subject and atmosphere simply cried out for pastel.  So I heaved a sigh, collected the few pieces I’d set aside “just in case,” and some precut papers (ditto), and set out on a brief jaunt before the humid atmosphere should clear in the Florida heat and talk me out of working en plein air.

"Orange River Etude," by Charlotte Mertz (5"x7" pastel, #191001-sp)

“Orange River Etude,” by Charlotte Mertz (5″x7″ pastel, #191001-sp)

I suppose it could be justified as a study, not intended to be displayed.  And it could serve eventually as the basis for a watercolor studio painting.  (I’ve long avoided using pastel in my studio, due to the dust it creates.)  But after all, drawing on the claim of “artistic license,” I shouldn’t really need to justify it at all, should I!

It was fun to use pastels again, just for a change.  But they still don’t call to me full time, as watercolors do.

Casting light on the subject … and on the palette

Wednesday, May 1st, 2019

One of my recent plein air outings taught me a valuable lesson.  I had gone with a plein air group to a local livestock ranch.  The morning was bright, sunny, and promised to become uncomfortably warm by mid-day.

As I wandered around, looking for a promising vista, I entered an open barn and, from the dim interior, was taken by the view out the open doorway.  I set up my easel to capture both the frame of the barn’s entrance and the view to the pastures beyond.

Setup in the barn.

Setup in the barn.

But as my eyes struggled with the intense contrast between the inside and the outside lighting, I discovered that they couldn’t adjust sufficiently to compensate for the low ambient lighting where I stood inside the barn.

By location, I knew which pile of paint was which on my palette, but the balances of the various paint mixtures were not so clear.  And though the value differences were somewhat easier to judge, the chroma was not.  Polyisochromes all appeared neutral, as indeed they were all leaning increasingly toward a neutral gray the more I worked with them.

I knew I was in trouble but, rather than finishing with the interior aspects and then repositioning my easel into better light, I struggled to continue in the original position.  That was a mistake.

After closing down and putting away my equipment, I checked the painting in the sunlight and was appalled at the outcome.  I later made some revisions to it in a well-lit studio, which helped.

"View from the Barn" - original version

“View from the Barn” – original version

“View-from-the-Barn,” with studio revisions, by Charlotte Mertz (6″x8″ oil, #190401-o)

Lesson learned:  Be sure there’s enough light on the palette to discern and judge the colors clearly.

Buzz about that Fly on the Wall

Monday, 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.