Sunday, June 21, 2015

Channeling My Inner MacGyver

I decided that it was time for me to try plein air painting, or painting in the open air.
Painting outdoors is the best way to capture the true essence of a landscape.
You witness the lighting and sense the atmosphere in a way that a photograph of the same scene cannot communicate.
The typical studio easel is not suited for use in the outdoors, so I began to research the options.
I spoke with artists I know, read plein air art message boards and looked at different setups in plein air videos on YouTube.
(Alla Prima Pochade)
A small selection of easels kept appearing as artist's favorites, and from that small list, the one that seemed most appealing to me is the Alla Prima Pochade.
This is a beautifully designed easel, crafted by a plein air artist who knew exactly what features should be included.
Every Alla Prima review I that I found raved about the craftsmanship.
I have no doubt that one of these easels would be a great investment, but at around $350.00, that's an investment that I can't make right now.
Time to become MacGyver.
I'm always looking for repurposed items to improve my holiday show jewelry displays and I buy interesting cigar boxes when I find them at thrift stores. 
The boxes are used to add some needed elevation to make my display more visually appealing
Cigar boxes are also used by some artists as portable easels, so I went through my stash and chose the most likely candidate.
I had already purchased a lightweight tripod with a quick release connection.
The center of the cigar box bottom was located and I drilled a hole to bolt on the tripod connector plate.
I was nervous about stressing the wood with the central bolt and nut, so a large washer sits below the nut to help spread the pressure.
I normally use a pad of disposable palette sheets but knew I would never find a pad to match the dimensions of my box, so I went to the local glass supply place and had them cut a piece of thick glass to match the box dimensions.
Then I realized I needed to support the glass at the four corners to keep it level and to avoid a tension point at the central nut.
I spent time at four local hardware stores, wandering through the hardware sections as I tried to figure out the details of my paint box.
The four corner support was done with rubber gaskets that weren't quite high enough to clear the nut, so two washers sit under each gasket.
The string?...the simplest solution to easily set down/lift up the glass palette.
Solving the issue of securing the top in an open position stymied me for a little while.
The ideal solution would have been a piece of hardware allowing me to change the lid angle.
Apparently, just because I can see a piece of hardware in my brain does not mean that I'll find it in any hardware store. 
In place of my fantasy fixture, I bought a pre-drilled metal plate.
Holes were drilled into the top and the bottom of the box.
Bolts with wing nuts secure the plate in place, keeping the lid open at a good, working angle.

My cigar box had hinges connecting the top and bottom, but I didn't trust that they would last for long.
Two new hinges, with four screws each, were added.
Copper pipe clamps were screwed on to the front of the box so that I would be able to hang my container of medium.
I plan to also have a container for my brushes and palette knife, but that detail is not yet solved.
One important detail that kept me confounded was the issue of securing a painting panel.
The plein air easels available for purchase have great methods of securing panels and canvases which I could not figure out how to replicate with my humble cigar box.
I kept plowing ahead, knowing that I would somehow figure out a solution.
I did figure it out....I talked to the talented Martin Campos.
He had already figured out that problem with a box that he had made for a friend.
He suggested setting magnets in a board and gluing metal washers on to the backs of my panels.
I drilled a grid of holes into a top board, glued it to a solid bottom board and filled nine of the holes with small magnets.
Metal washers set on the same dimensioned grid were glued to the backs of my prepared gessoed boards, and
I was ready to paint.
Everything easily fits into my backpack which I hang from the easel with a carabiner to hopefully keep the whole setup secure and steady.
Is this as good as the Alla Prima Pochade?
Absolutely not, but my cigar box paint box is definitely more than good enough to get me started in plein air painting.
Plus, my MacGyver skills are honed and the price was awesome:
cigar box: $1.00
glass: $9.00
gaskets: $4.50
hardware: $6.00
magnets: $3.50
panels for magnets: $3.70


  1. Nice work, Cynthia. Very nice. MacGyver would be impressed.

  2. Thanks Mike. Nothing blows up, so MacGyver would probably be bored with my efforts.