By Cori Dyson
Plein Air is a french term used to describe painting outside, in the open air. This is where you take your easel, all your paints, all your brushes and mediums, all your palette knives, the kitchen sink, and… Well, taking your entire studio out of doors is quite impractical. Even taking a french easel while hiking is impractical. Some artists take light weight pochade boxes that can be attached to tripods. There are a variety of types, makes, materials for these boxes. They generally range from about nine by twelve inches to twelve by sixteen inches. Their depths can range from a slim one to two inches to a chunky six to eight inches. The weight ranges from a few ounces to several pounds. Materials range from aluminum to wood. A quality set up which will last for years runs between $300 to $800. What if you just want to try the plein air experience out at a lower cost? A smaller pochade thumb box would be the ideal way to try plein air painting out.
I’ve found only two companies who make pochade thumb boxes, namely Guerrilla Painter and Utrecht. Thumb boxes have a thumb sized hole in the bottom so the box can be held on the hand similar to a palette.
Utrecht’s Jullian thumb box is 7 1/4” by 9 1/4” and holds a six by eight canvas panel. Guerrilla Painter makes a 5x7 pocket box and a 6x8 thumb box. These are the only two types that I’ve run across so far, and I have the Guerrilla painter 5x7 pocket box and the Jullian thumb box.
I prefer the Jullian thumb box over the Guerrilla Painter. It is a little better thought out in it’s design. It is easier to paint the panels as they are slide in a wooden groove. The Guerrilla Painter’s advantage is that it easily holds a palette cup and the guerrilla painter’s brush cleaner, so most everything can be put in one box. The way the Guerrilla painter box holds the canvas panels in place is clumsy and requires some adjustments. You can order a palette extension that also has brush holder. This is nice to have added space for mixing colors.
Now what paint to put in your box. The room for paint in the guerrilla painter is so small that I started off with the Williamsburg Landscape oil set of 10ml tubes. They all fit snugly into the box along with palette cup and brush cleaner. The choice of oil colors was rational and well thought out, but I don’t use Williamsburg paints in my studio so it’s a bit like learning how to mix color all over again every time I use those paints for plein air painting. Not the ideal situation.
With the Jullian thumb box, if I choose 20ml sizes, I can get quite a few paint tubes in the box itself. I try to use a limited palette, but I can carry the extended primary palette plus white, or two reds, two yellows, two blues, one white and one umber. I also add a green, which when painting most landscapes that include grass, trees, bushes, green is very helpful. The guerrilla 5x7 thumb box could hold about five to six of 20ml sized tubes of oil paint. This would be a fairly limited palette, but very doable. Kevin McPherson paints with only four colors, so five or six colors is definitely doable.
In thinking of colors to use, I would prefer to use the manufacturers that I use most in my studio. Since discovering the Art Tree House, colors like Hansa Yellow and Red 254 have become staples on my palette. Now that I’ve made the switch from cadmium yellow to Hansa, I’m completely hooked and wonder how anyone could paint without this beautiful color.
The only companies I found that carried 20ml tubes are made by Charvin and Holbein. While these companies make quality paint, they are both expensive and I’m not sure if the quality justifies the price. I also don’t use those manufacturers on a regular basis and again would want to make the plein air experience as easy as possible, because it’s hard enough dealing with the wind, sun, bugs, temperature changes, precipitation, and of course, the ever changing light. Why make the already difficult plein air painting any more challenging?
I emailed Robert at Art Tree House and simply asked him if he could put his paints into a smaller tube. He was glad to oblige and pretty soon I had a collection of 20ml tubes in the same paints I use on my studio palette. The same paints I’ve become familiar with and use on a daily basis. Now I can take these paints with me on location in smaller sizes that easily fit into either of my pochade thumb boxes.
Now three companies offer 20ml tube sizes of oil paints. Art Tree House paints are less expensive than the other two options. More importantly, it is the same colors that fill my studio palette.
I have used this set up on several occasions now and I love it. I can paint pretty much anywhere. I can go out on location with a foldable stool, a thumb box, and I am ready to paint. As the seasons change, I will be replacing my thermacell and bug spray for gloves and a jacket, but the principle remains the same—make the experience of plein air painting as simple and easy as possible, because mother nature may not make it easy for you.