Painting on the Move

*disclaimer* This post will only be interesting to you if you’ve tried to travel with your painting gear and/or like to paint outside.  Or are interested in that sort of thing.

Packing your painting kit for a trip away painting is never ‘easy’.  Generally speaking, easels are unwieldily, paint tubes heavy, things leak, and finished paintings can arrive scratched or damaged.  That said I’ve gotten used to it over the years, and come up with systems that work for me.  This year though, things have changed a bit- we have a 7-month old, and he requires a lot more gear than I do.  Traveling with a stroller and diaper bag puts things in perspective when you’re packing. So I needed to put a bit more thought into my kit this time.

We’ll be away for a month and I was able to bring with me my whole portable studio- paints, brushes, medium, palette knives, 24″ brushes, spill proof turp jar, rolled canvas, canvas panels, canvas pliers, canvas tacks, tripod easel, cigar box, palette/canvas lights.  Without overage fees.

About the easel first- If I don’t have the space to bring a box easel I use what is often called the Italian Field Easel.  It’s a steel tripod easel that is inexpensive, lightweight but very sturdy, and most importantly gets up to my eye level.  As long as you buy the steel version, these are very long-lasting easels, and have a sturdy middle portion from which you can hang your backpack or a bag of rocks from if it gets windy.  They make aluminum versions, I broke a new one 7 days into a 10 day painting trip in Spain years ago.  I always buy the steel one now.  The only steel one I’ve ever broken while painting was from thermal shock high in the alps.

Here’s a link to Blick – they’ve started making a version of the tripod I use.  I got one on sale the other day for 29 dollars.  You really can’t beat that.  It’s slightly lighter weight than the version by Richeson, but I’ve used the Richeson ones for years-  That’s probably the one I would recommend, but it weighs a pound or two more.  Either are slightly too large for my suitcase, so I cut the mast down an inch or two with a hacksaw to get it to fit.

I like the design of the pochade box/tripod systems I’ve seen, though to be honest, I don’t really like being limited by the tripod.  I paint standing most of the time- At my height, to get the painting up near eye level either the tripod mast or mounting starts to wobble.  It’s bearable but annoying, especially in the wind.  What I really dislike is that when you raise a pochade box on a tripod you raise the mixing area as well.  In short, what I want is to have my palette area near my hand, and painting near my eye.  I hate painting hunched over.  Makes sense, no?

For years, my smallest/lightest kit has been my cigar box setup- just a reinforced empty box of cigars that you can get for free from a tobacconist.  Someone figured out how to attach them to the tripod easel in the studio, and there it was, a cigar-box-easel setup that costs nearly nothing, and worked better than the very expensive pochade box I had just bought.  Marc has a nice in depth post about his on the blog, with pictures of how they attach to your easel or how it looks on your lap.  My friends and I all built them in the old studio in Florence, and they’re a great piece of kit as they are long lasting and only cost your time and the price of hinges and screws.  I built my first one in 2009 and it finally got half crushed during my trip to Russia last year.  Here it is:


As you can see above, my old box setup worked fine, but I never liked having such a small mixing area- even for small sketches.  Also (like the modern pochade kits), this limited how large I could work outside- besides the mixing area, the painting size maxed out at 16×20″/40x50cm.  That’s a good size, but I do paint larger than that outdoors at times.

Below is my new cigar box- its smaller than the old one, but has a much larger mixing area as both the box bottom and lid are used as a palette.


This is the whole new kit put together– the lights are the Mighty Bright Duet 2 lights, with 2 LEDs in each stem



Here’s the new box, hand for scale.  The tape covers the outside edge of my palette cups, which I cut a hole for and put through the box.

As you can see bottom left in the photo above, this box has a different mounting system- my friend Joe Altwer had them made, it affixes to the easel with a winged screw like the easel’s mounting brackets.


Closeup of Joe’s box mounting bracket glued and screwed into place


This new small box design leaves double the palette space for mixing and frees up a lot of space on the mast- it can hold 24×30″s as easily as as 8×10″s.  I really like Joe’s solution- super simple, and probably inspired by the trucks on his skateboard.  Here’s a link to a clip of Joe skateboarding (that is not Joe with his tongue out), and here is another link to Joe’s website.  I think he may end up selling similar boxes on his site at some point, I know he was selling his boxes in Florence last couple of years.  Write him an email and ask.

This is much more about finding a functional, lightweight kit that works for me than being frugal or anything else- and there are some beautiful lightweight kits on the market, they just don’t exactly measure up to what I want.  It is still worth mentioning though- this new box setup cost me in parts less than four dollars at home depot the other day, and maybe a couple hours of my time.


Some of the panels I brought with me this trip.


The other thing that weighs down your bags is your supports, of course.  To find a lighter solution, this fall I bought a used dry mounting press for making canvas panels.  Having your canvas mounted makes travel a lot easier – for years, I had been making them with LineCo acid free glue in the states or ph-neutral wood glue in Italy, but often you’d end up with bubbles or the canvas adhering the the table.  It’s not a perfect system.  Dry mounting canvas solves those problems- making them myself offers me a lot of options: I can mount to acid free Foamcoare or Gatorfoam if I need to pack light, and Aluminum DiBond if I need something that could survive a nuclear blast.   Some of the panels in the above picture are foam core or lightweight birch, and altogether that stack weighs much less than my gesso panels.  This system also quickly uses up all the spare odd shaped pieces of canvas around the studio and the panels I had laying around unprimed.

The only thing that I was concerned about was the amount of paint I was bringing and if anything was going to put me overweight it was those- also, I’ve had them take tubes before.  As usual, I got one of their notes stuffed in my bag and they ripped apart my bag of paint, though thankfully I haven’t found any paint on anything.  Yet.


Links to this sort of stuff-

This is a link to Vincent Giarrano’s cigar box pochade boxes.  Different than what I wanted, but very nice design/build.

Here is another link to someone making a modern pochade/tripod setup out of a cigar box.

This is a YouTube video on dry-mounting canvas.

BEVA 371 is the glue that restorers recommend for mounting canvas to rigid supports.  Make sure to get the 2.5mm glue, not the 1.0.

David Gluck and Kate Stone’s post about making mounted panels.  David was nice enough to answer a couple of questions about what size press to get last year.