Plein Air Painting with a DIY Pochade Box
Plein Air Painting
Plein air painting is about leaving your studio behind and experiencing painting out in the landscape (“en plein air” being the French expression for “in the open air”).
I regularly attend life drawing sessions to draw the figure from life, but I rarely go out and draw or paint landscapes from life. I rarely draw or paint landscapes at all for that matter.
But there is no doubt that standing in front of a wide borderless scene, forced to make strong, clear choices about what to paint from the vast amount of visual data can only improve your skills as an artist overall. I’m not sure I have the desire to be a landscape artist in any great capacity, but the benefits of plein air painting remain worthwhile.
For me though, to go plein air painting it would need to be easy – and by that I don’t mean the painting, but the effort required to cart gear in and setting up. It would have to be something where I could just grab my bag and go.
Maybe I’d needed something like a Pochade Box.
A pochade box (“pochade” derived from a 19th Century French verb, pocher, meaning “to sketch”) is a small portable painting box with a built in easel, allowing the creation of small alla prima paintings or sketches. There are many designs available on the web with many different features but they are generally pretty expensive. How enthusiastically I’d take to plein air painting I wasn’t too sure so I was a bit reluctant to fork out the cash.
Instead I’d build it myself.
This Pochade Box needed a number of specific features in my eyes:
- be able to store wet paintings safely within
- store brushes and paint tubes securely within
- contain a glass palette for mixing
- be able to pack down into a compact unit that would easily fit into a small backpack
Seemed simple enough.
Let’s get building
An unused spare 8″x8″ glass panel from a small frame would work nicely as the mixing surface. This set the size of the finished box which would suit canvas panels of about the same width. Some oak offcuts from building floating frames and my wall mounted easel glued together formed the mixing area, two fold out storage wings and a fold up lid. The lid was made with slots down either side to hold 2 panels. One slot for the current piece, and the second for storage space for an additional panel (either a spare blank one or a drying completed piece).
There were a few design issues I hadn’t resolved before I started building (namely how to keep the thing propped open when in use and firmly closed when not) which eventually ground the assembly to a halt. I felt guilty about the time I’d spent on this box rather than painting so I jumped back into the studio and the half finished box began to collect dust. I’d give it a cursory glance every now and then as I passed it when walking in and out of my studio, muttering to myself that I really should finish that one day.
School holidays were fast approaching and we decided to head up to the picturesque northern Flinders Ranges for a week. A missed opportunity threatened if I didn’t get this thing together before we left so with new found enthusiasm and a fixed deadline, I resolved the last remaining stumbling blocks. A piece of shock cord held the box closed or open depending on which way around it was hooked on, and a threaded T-nut was added to the underside to attach a tripod and it was all set and raring to go.
The day had come and with a spring in my step I headed out from the homestead on a remote sheep station to give it a try. I walked until I could see nothing but the vast landscape no matter which direction I turned – complete isolation, just me and the local wildlife. I’d startled a mob of 30 odd emus (yep, that’s what a group of emus are called), crossed paths with wild horses nonchalantly eating the grass in a dry creek bed, saw kangaroos bounding effortlessly across the landscape and even got stared down by a sinister looking wild goat.
Oh, and sheep. There were plenty of sheep.
So how did my first real plein air painting session go?
Well, the box itself was a winner and was simple and easy to set up, use and pack up again, no issues there.
Did discover a few things though that I’d do differently next time:
- I’d thrown in some cheap natural bristle brushes (and cut them down to fit inside the box) and packed a limited number of of water mixable oils (zorn palette). I went with water mixable oils mainly so I could fill a small jar from my water bottle to use as a brush washer rather than having to worry about mineral spirits etc. Turns out (and I had only read this recently but clearly forgot) natural bristle brushes don’t like water too much. The bristles tend to swell and it was like trying to paint small details with the side of a cat. Oh, and there was the obvious realisation that cheap brushes are clearly cheap for a reason.
- Watch where you stand. Trying to paint while continually slapping ants off your legs can break your concentration somewhat.
I might be all out of excuses…