When I paint my plein air paintings, I stick with just one size — 11′ x 14″. I got this advice from Stefan Baumann’s YouTube videos. It makes things so easy. I have an EasyL Pro pochade box and a RayMar wet panel box that cater to these dimensions. I still have my old French Easel if I ever choose to work larger. My wife, Tammie, has suggested I also try painting small paintings, but neither easel works well for them.
This calls for a new pochade box!
Ladies and gentlemen, meet Ashton, my new portable easel created solely to paint 5″ x 7″ panels! I made him myself after checking out a few links on Google on how to convert a cigar box to a pochade box. Sure, I could just buy one, but that could set me back at least another 70 bucks. No thanks. I’m too cheap, plus building my own easel gives me a feeling of accomplishment and, yes, even a sense of it truly belonging to just me.
First I went to a local liquor store that also specializes in cigars, They were selling empty cigar boxes for only 2 dollars each. (Later, I found another store that gave them away free. If you plan on building your own, call a local cigar seller and see what it takes to get an empty cigar box.) I had my measuring tape with me to investigate each box they had. It was important to me that the box lid was recessed and could hold a 5″ x 7″ panel vertically and horizontally. I wanted the wood to be relatively thicker and sturdier. I wanted a nice deep bottom to hold paints. I couldn’t choose between 2 boxes and bought them both. Once I got home and did more measuring, I realized that the Ashton Churchill box would probably work better.
I then made a trip to the local hardware store for a few supplies. The hardware that comes on cigar boxes can be flimsy. Cigar boxes aren’t meant to be used permanently. I also bought a thin strip of wood.
Once I got home, the first thing I did was measure the insides carefully and cut the wood strip down to smaller lengths that would fit inside the base. I attached them to the sides using wood glue. After clamping the strips to the sides, I let the cigar box sit overnight to dry. The purpose of these strips was to add a lip for a palette to sit on top. Also, the wood on a cigar box isn’t very strong and not that thick either. Adding this strip would allow the sides to take on any hardware I would attached later.
The next day, I cut another small strip so its length and width would work well to the bottom of the inside top lid. It also a little extra wood to take the small screws I needed to attach the hinges with. Again, I clamped the strip and let it dry overnight.
The arrows point to the pieces of wood strips I glued on to help secure the screws later on. The strips on the bottom of the cigar box also provide a lip for the palette to sit on.
After all the glued on wood was dry. it was time to replace or augment the hardware on the cigar box itself. Cigar boxes are obviously not meant for any kind of permanent use. I marked where the holes of the new hinges would go. Then I drilled small holes at the markings. Then, I screwed the 2 new, stronger hinges to the back. I finished by prying off the flimsy, old hinge in the center.
The cigar box now opens and closes more securely, but I needed to secure the lid so it stayed open at whatever angle I wished. I put a bolt in the middle to hold the 2 mending bars together. Then I attached the mending bars to each side, screwing them directly into the cigar box. I finished it by adding a metal washer and then a black screw cap. Now by turning the black screw cap, I could loosen or tighten the bars allowing me to open the cigar box and securing it to whatever angle I liked.
The hardest part for me to figure out what how to keep a panel in place in the top lid. The solution I came up with was drilling 4 holes in the top lid and inserting 4 small bolts. On top of each bolt, I added a larger washer and then a wing nut.
When it’s time to insert a panel, I loosen the wing nut and insert my panel under the washer. Then I tighten the wing nut to keep the panel in place. By measuring the holes carefully, this setup will accommodate a panel placed vertically or horizontally.
I confess I’m not crazy about this solution. I’ve used the easel 3 times and it’s not working as well as I’d like. I’m going to revisit the links to investigate a better way to keep the panels in place.
To finish the pochade box itself, I drill a hole in the top right of the bottom of the cigar box. This way, I can insert my fingers and let the box rest on my left wrist while I paint.
Lastly, I need a palette itself. I found an old palette that I cut down to size so it would sit on top of the lip I made earlier perfectly. I kept the rounded edge, so it would be easy to lift out. I prepped it for painting by brushing 3 coats of linseed oil, letting each layer dry overnight.
Done! Now I can fill the bottom with the supplies I need to paint. I have a few smaller tubes of paint, narrowing them down to just 6 or 7 tubes. I bought a small bottle of Terpenoid. I found a few half decent brushes and cut their handles so they’d fit into the box. I couldn’t fit a rag or a little container for the solvent, so I did have to have a secondary small bag.
Time to paint
I was very eager to try Ashton out (yes, I calling my pochade box by the name branded on the top lid) and I had my chance last weekend. I took it with me to Mud Creek in the tip of the Lower Peninsula Michigan Thumb. Though, I normally paint with wood, I thought I’d do my first 5″ x 7″ as a brush painting. It’s been years since I painted in oils with a brush that I was eager to see how it would work for me. I actually found it difficult. By thinning the paint with a solvent, it also removed any opaqueness. I found it very frustrating trying to cover up paint with another color. The first layer would seem to swallow it up.
When I finished, I encountered another problem. From what I’ve read, once I’m done painting, I scrape the leftover paint off and wife the residue. After many uses, the residue dries to a nice sheen that will take future paint nicely. Until then, the paint has been absorbing a bit into the wood. When I wiped the palette clean, I got paint all over my hands and clothes. I’m thinking that in the future, I’ll go back to my method of wrapping my palette in foil. Then I can dispose of the leftover paint without the mess. I also didn’t like having to use solvent to thin the paint and clean the brush. I miss my painting knives. As such, my next two paintings were done with painting knives.
When I was done painting, I needed to be able to transport the wet painting back. I don’t have a wet panel carrier for 5″ x 7″ panels. Artist Rob Kulas gave me a great idea on using inexpensive frames with removable backs for panel carriers. Remove the glass and you’re set. I found this hinged double frame at Michael’s that works perfectly. At less than 10 bucks, I bought two of them, allowing me to transport 4 wet paintings. Plus I get to see what a painting looks like when it’s framed.
So now that you’ve seen Ashton, maybe you’re intrigued to build your own mini pochade box. The end cost for making it ended up maybe $15 at most — a far cry from the $70 an online art supply store was offering for theirs. You can’t get a better pochade box deal than that. It’s easy to transport and use. It takes me about 10 minutes or so to set up my EasyL. This box can have me painting a minute after I open it. The only set up is squeezing paint onto the palette. Another bonus is that I get get a painting done in only an hour. With a box like this, there’s no excuse to get a painting done, even if you don’t have a lot of time.
And the results…
Here are the 3 paintings I’ve done with it so far. The first two all done at Mud Creek, between Bay Port and Caseville, Michigan. The last was done at the boat launch in Bay Port, Michigan.
Dressed and refreshed after a hectic Quick Draw morning, I huddle with the rest of the artists near the entrance. After we turned in our paintings, our juror, Peggi Kroll Roberts, went through the exhibit to choose the prize winners. Now we’re about to hear the results. Fellow painter, Pam Siegfried, was trying to hide, but I made her stand in front of me. I told her, “It’ll be easier to get your award when you win first prize if you’re in front.”
Pam replied, “You’re the one who’s going to win first prize.”
“In that case,” I said, “I’m going to bowl you over when I run to get it!” We both laughed.
There were two categories for the artists participating: Emerging Artists and Professional Artists. To get in the Professional section, you had to be juried in. The Emerging Artists seemed to be first come/first serve. Since this was my first Paint Out and I wasn’t sure what to expect from it, I entered as an Emerging Artist.
Peggy announced the various winners in various categories. Then she announced the Emerging Artist prizes. Third Prize went to Pam! I was thrilled for her. She does beautiful paintings with nice atmosphere. I wish she had a website I could link to so you could see her art, as well. 2nd Prize went to Ronald Farrington Sharp for a very stylized painting of the Dairy Queen in downtown Dexter.
Then Peggi announced the First Prize for Emerging Artist. It was my painting of an apple tree I’d done the evening before! I was dumbstruck. I went up, received my ribbon, thanked Peggi (who told me my painting was charming) and Victoria, and took a couple photos. Tamara Ovall gave me a thumbs up from the crowd. Pam leaned over and said’ “They gave me Third Prize so you wouldn’t bowl me over.” We both laughed again.
What an amazing feeling. I never dreamed I’d win any prize. The other artists’ work is so top notch. To have my work shown with them is a thrill on its own. But winning First Prize is incredible. After the ribbon was attached next to its painting, I took a photo of the ribbon and texted it immediately to my wife, Tammie. She responded back very enthusiastically.
2017 Award winning artists!
Here’s the complete list of the winners, along with links to their sites, if possible:
Best Sky in a Landscape or Cityscape Award Mary Dice, “Southern Exposure”
The display wall with the 5 paintings I selected from the group I painted throughout the week at the 2017 Paint Dexter Plein Air Festival..
One of the display walls with a few of the Quick Draw Plein Airs. Mine is the top center painting.
As if the evening couldn’t get better, my Quick Draw painting I did in the morning sold within a half hour of the show opening to the public. Unfortunately, I stopped out for a quick bite to eat, and I missed the person who purchased it. She didn’t take it right away, though, so I was able to have it shown for the rest of the weekend.
I spent the rest of the night as a volunteer at the tent, mostly watching the front entrance to greet people, answer questions about the art, and keep people from leaving with wine or beer. I went back to my hotel after a delicious Polish meal at the Whitmore Lake Tavern. What a great day.
Saturday, August 19, 2017
The morning was spent volunteering at the tent some more. I enjoyed hanging out with the devoted volunteers. A lot of them are not artists but give up their time to hang the displays, register the artists and their art, take care of sales and questions, serve, watch the tent, and do a lot more I probably have no idea about. I had a great time hanging out with Victoria, Courtney, Justin, Sanam, Wa, Donna, Angie, and quite a few more whose names I wish I could remember. I also enjoyed some of the best barbecue I’ve ever had at Hotel Hickman Chuckwagon BBQ. And, of course, I walked through the exhibit multiple times. I tell ya, the paintings in this show were really top notch. I am extremely proud that my work hung alongside art of this caliber.
By the afternoon, I started getting visits from dear friends, my wife, and my mother-in-law. After they left, the evening was spent volunteering.
My plan for Sunday was to continue volunteering until it was time to take my art down and go home. But artist Priscilla Olson had a better idea. Last year, she did a plain air near the tent, even though the painting would not be featured inside the tent. It was just a way to get more painting in. That sounded great to me. I still had panels left and would love to get one more plain air in. Victoria asked if we’d do it close to the entrance of the main tent to help draw more visitors in. That sounded great to me! The tent closed for the night and I went back to the hotel, exhilarated from another great day.
Sunday, August 20, 2017
I’m a morning guy. Like I did most of the week, I got to the tent early. Priscilla was already set up inside the tent.
Artist Priscilla Olson already hard at work on her last plain air of the Fest. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get a photo of her finished painting.
I didn’t want to paint the same scene she chose, so I set up near the entrance outside the tent. Here’s what I ended up with.
I finished it about the time, the exhibit was closing. About that time, Victoria bought one of my paintings. Her daughter was admiring the first painting I did for the Paint Out of the solitary, gnarled tree surrounded by wildflowers, so Victoria bought it as a present for her. A perfect ending for one of the most perfect and unforgettable weeks I’ve ever had.
So will I ever do another Paint Out? The answer would be yes. I had my second one already scheduled the next weekend. I’ll tell you about it next time.
Busy morning! I head back to Monument Park in downtown Dexter to turn in the 5 framed paintings I chose to submit. Then I get a gessoed panel stamped on the back for the Quick Draw. The Quick Draw requires the participant to go to a location within the Dexter School District, do a plein air painting, frame it and have it ready to hang, and submit it back to the main tent between the hours of 9:30 am through 1:30 pm today.
I don’t know why I was so nervous about this. I typically spend about 2 1/2 hours on a painting, so the timing shouldn’t be a problem. Still, I decided to work slightly smaller to help guarantee getting a finished painting done. I have a nice 8″ x 10″ panel I bought from Black Art Supplies the day before. It was till early at this point (around 8:15 am) and I wasn’t allowed to start until 9:30. I took advantage of this time by scouting for locations.
What to paint?
I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to paint. Dexter has a lot of inspiring locations. After driving around the downtown area, I go back to two locations I’d painted at already First, I go to the old barn. I’d gotten 2 paintings done there already. Could I coax a third one out? I take some photos to study later, then head to Haley Mechanicalwhere I did my first painting on Day 1. I recalled there was a neat large rock surrounded by wildflowers next to a wooden fence. I checked in for permission to paint and the crew there was most enthusiastic about my return. I looked at the rock again and knew this would be my subject.
At this point, it was 20 minutes until I could start. Plenty of time still. After the easel was set up and the panel attached, I squeezed my paints on my palette and set the timer on my phone for exactly 9:30. I didn’t tone my panel this time, opting to try a painting on a white background.
I passed my time looking at the scene through my viewfinder. I knew it had to be a vertical composition because I’d already rigged my frame for that format. Most of my paintings that week have been done that way, so I figured that would be the composition I’d be more comfortable working in. I was trying to make the mechanics behind the Quick Draw as simple as possible so I could concentrate on the painting itself.
Time to paint!
My phone timer beeped. 9:30! I got out my acrylic paint marker and carefully did my sketch while looking through my viewfinder I held in my left hand. When I was happy with the sketch, I put the marker away and got out my trusty palette knife.
I don’t remember anything really after that. The right side of my brain kicked in and my hand seemed to move with a life of its own. A week of painting multiple paintings a day honed my skills to this point where I didn’t have to think about what I needed to do. The colors got blocked in quickly all over the panel, and then the values, forms, color temperatures, etc. got modified. In the last 15 minutes or so, I added detail and made corrections where I felt it needed.
Then I finished. I looked at my painting and didn’t see anything I wanted to change. I was happy with it as is, so I signed it. I looked at the time. I’d worked on this only 1 hour and 45 minutes! I signed it and took this photo of it.
Then I quickly moved it into its frame. I took down the easel and put all the painting supplies away. When I was cleaned up enough, I fastened the panel into the frame and wired it for hanging. Halfway into my painting, a couple of the Haley Mechanical employees stopped by to see my progress, so I was eager to show them the finished painting. They were very complimentary of it and a few of them posed with me for this photo.
The wonderful and friendly staff at Haley Mechanical posed with my Quick Draw. From left to right: Stephanie Meier, Linda Slater Cooper, me, and Shelbi Polidori. Thanks again for letting me paint at Haley!
I returned to the main tent and submitted my Quick Draw. The volunteer staff were already hanging the rest of the paintings. I wasn’t needed until 4 or so for the awards ceremony. I went back to my hotel to change and grab a quick nap. The painting part of my Dexter week was over.
I was happy with it, for the most part, except for the cloud on the upper left. That’s okay. It was still only around noon and there’s lots of daylight left for more painting.
Wednesday afternoon, August 16, 2017
After a quick lunch, the next stop was a pasture with beautiful Belted Galloway Cattle. I’ve been driving past them quite a few times the days before and was thrilled I had a chance to paint them. At the show on Friday, I saw my feelings were shared by the other artists, because there were quite a few paintings of these distinctively-patterned cattle. Below is the group of the 4 talented artists I painted with.
Hard at work painting are (l to r) WanChuan Kessler, Pam Siegfried, Janice Dumas, and Tamera Ovall.
Here’s the painting I ended up with. I think it’s my personal favorite of all the ones I did in Dexter.
Wednesday evening, August 16, 2017
But two paintings weren’t enough for me. This would be my last day to paint for the Dexter Paint Out, aside from the the Quick Draw. Tomorrow, the weather calls for rain and I have to get my work framed for submissions. If I want to do any more painting, it would have to be today.
I went on my own, this time, back to the abandoned barn I painted on Tuesday morning and scoped it out again. I settled on an apple tree with ripe and semi-ripe fruit throughout its branches, as well as quite a few that had fallen to the ground. By this point, the sun was on its way to begin setting, so I knew I better get my initial shadows in the painting set. Painting the apples themselves with their blends of yellow, tree, and pink was a lot of fun. Here’s my finished painting on my easel.
I felt a thrill that I was able to get 7 paintings done to choose from. Now to narrow my choices and get them framed. I was emotionally exhausted, as well as very hungry. All that would wait for tomorrow. Time to pack up, get a late dinner, and then rest.
Thursday, August 17, 2017
And the Lord smiled upon the Paint Dexter Plein Air Fest. And He granted perfect weather for the week. The sun has shone throughout my painting week, except for rain on Thursday, which was perfect timing. Thursday is the day I committed to staying in my hotel to frame the paintings I’d done the past 3 days.
I signed up to submit the maximum of 3 paintings and I made sure I was prepared with the proper amount of frames I picked up at Frames Unlimited in Troy. At the event, I was reminded that I was also allowed to submit 2 more paintings as reserves. That meant a quick trip to Frames Unlimited in Ann Arbor. Once I was back in the hotel room, I assembled my favorite 5 out of the 7 paintings I had so far. The task was made quite easy thanks to the Logan Frame Fitting Tool I bought at Dick Buick. (I can’t rave about this tool enough.) I pack my car with the paintings still wet, but framed.
I then prepare for the Quick Draw. Since I have to submit that ready to hang, I get the frame assembled with the D-rings with one of them wired. I settled on assembling it as a vertical frame, so I have no choice but to do a vertical painting tomorrow. I put my frame fitting tool with the pack of point inserts. Even though I shouldn’t need it, I pack my drill and tools I used to do the framing throughout the day, just in case. The easel, panel, paints, umbrella, tripod, etc. are all checked and packed, as well.
It’s another beautiful morning. After looking yet again at the list of potential private residences to paint at, I zoom in on a barn and farmhouse that’s no longer being lived in. I strolled the grounds and found quite a few subjects to paint. It’s such a striking barn and silo, I decide to make it the main subject. I set up on the corner of the property so I could take in as much of it as possible. Below is the sketch I made to start using a thin version and thick version of brown acrylic paint markers on my toned panel.
The next 3 hours were spent painting the beautiful old barn surrounded in multi-colored weeds and wildflowers. I scraped and repainted the silo a few times. Getting a cylindrical feel to it turned out to be difficult using just a knife to paint with. Here’s my finished painting on the easel.
I used the rest of the afternoon to grab some lunch and drive around Dexter to scout out future locales to paint the next day.
At the end of the event, Jill invited me to join her and a few artists to paint a nocturne. This is something I’d never done before but was very eager to try. In fact, I bought a reading clip lamp from Barnes and Noble just for this purpose.
I quickly drove to my hotel to change and head back. The other artists had already started and I needed to catch up. In the middle park square was a statue of a Civil War soldier partially illuminated by a streetlamp. I didn’t have time to be too choosy and no one else was painting it, so I picked that. It was already pretty late when I started so I only painted it for about 90 minutes. By the time I finished it, only one artist was left, and he was already packing up. I knew I had to wake up extra early the next day for breakfast with the artists, so I stopped. In the dim light, it looked finished. When I brought it back to the hotel to sit in my drying rack, I was surprised that it looked better than I thought it would.
With that, my second day was over. It was great painting alongside other artists. Tamara Ovall invited me to join her and a few other artists to paint the next day. The camaraderie would be most welcome.
The Dexter Arts, Culture & Heritage Committee held its 5th Annual Paint Dexter Plein Air Festival. Artists from all around the Midwest come to Dexter to paint plein air works within the borders of the Dexter School District. You register as either a Professional Artist (which entails getting juried in based on your past art experience, or as an Emerging Artist (which is not juried). Since I’ve never participated in a Paint Out before, I entered as an Emerging Artist. It was one of the most unforgettable weeks of my life. Let me tell you all about it.
Monday morning, August 14, 2017
This gnarled tree surrounded by magenta wildflowers became my first subject for the Dexter Plein Air Paint Out.
I got up extra early to get to the city of Dexter, Michigan. My car is packed with clothes for a week, my EasyL Pro and umbrella from Artwork Essentials, oil paints, panel boards, my trusty painting knives, and anything I can think that I’ll need to turn out as many plein air paintings in the time allotted. Friday morning, I have to turn in no more than 3 submissions, plus 2 reserve paintings, framed, wired, and ready to hang and sell. I’m not allowed to start or paint any of them ahead of time. When I arrive around 7:45 am, I go to Monument Park where I meet Victoria Schon, the organizer of the event. She and her assistants stamp the backs of my panels with the name of the event and the date. I can get as many stamped as I like, but these are the only panels I can use to paint on to submit for the event. I probably got 13 stamped, knowing that would be more than enough. Now I’m free to paint through Thursday.
But where do I start? I don’t know the town at all. Happily, they gave all the artists a packet containing the rules of the event, as well as a list of private homes and businesses that welcome painters. I scoured through it and came across Haley Mechanical. When I showed up to confirm it was okay, they were thrilled to let me paint on their grounds. Behind their building was a field filled with beautiful wildflowers. I came across a gnarled tree in a meadow surrounded by magenta wildflowers and chose it for my first painting.
This is the moment I’ve waited for for weeks. I’ve been rather nervous the past couple weeks about this paint out. I know a few of the other artists who are also participating and they’re incredible talented. Time to set that aside. Looking at the subject, I draw my composition on my panel with an acrylic paint marker. Once I’m happy with my rough sketch, I mix some titanium white, cadmium yellow light, and a touch of ultramarine blue and scoop it up with a knife. Here goes. I start scraping the paint into the sky area of my first painting.
Soon, the right side of my brain takes over and I no longer think about where I am, what time it is, or what obligations I need to meet. I’m in painting mode. I want to fill the panel with blocked in color first. It becomes fun very quickly.
I spend a lot of the time with the sky. I wanted it to capture the hot summer morning, so I made it a pale hazy yellow gradating lighter toward the horizon. Then, I started working on the blocked in areas, Increasing contrast, playing with color temperature, and working with the forms. I’m not worried about realism yet. I read somewhere that all plein air paintings are usually ugly until the last 10 minutes when the details are worked out. That sounds about right to me.
I forgot how long it took to finish. I’m guessing about 2 1/2 to 2 hours. Below is the finished piece. I was pretty happy with it. I liked that, even though I painted bright magenta wildflowers, I was still able to keep the trunk of the main tree the focal point.
Monday late afternoon, August 14, 2017
After grabbing a lunch downtown, I drove around the town of Dexter to scout out future locations. There’s lots of great places to paint, including a train depot, a couple nice churches, a cute downtown with a big clock, a creek surrounded by a boardwalk and marsh grasses and on and on. Outside the downtown area are lots of farms, barns, and beautiful houses. With all that beauty, I somehow decide to focus in on a cracking concrete wall with weeds, bushes, and trees growing all over it next to an old DTE building. Below, you can see the finished painting with my set up.
My plein air set up consists of an EasyL Pro poached box affixed to a tripod. Attached to it as an artists’ umbrella. It’s not keep the artist in the shade. It’s for the painting and the palette. You never want sun shining on your painting or your palette because it distorts the color. If the sun shines on it, an artist may compensate by darkening the colors. But later, when the artist hangs the work, the paint looks too dark because the lights inside aren’t as strong as sunlight. If I keep the painting in the shade when I work, the opposite happens. I may compensate for the darkness by brightening the colors slightly and that makes for a more pleasing final work.
Below is a closeup of the finished painting.
The sun was setting and my stomach was growling. Two paintings in one day and I don’t hate either one. I’m off to a great start! I celebrated with a swim in my hotel pool after a good meal. Then I studied the list of potential location in my hotel room and went to sleep.