“You don’t get hung up on the scalple if you’re a surgeon. You get hung up on what the scalple will do.”Artie Shaw
All group painting activities I’ve been involved in has included discussions about equipment. Everyone is always checking out everyone else’s setup. We all face too many obstacles when creating art, so don’t add another one–especially when it’s under your control–by not considering carefully your setup. There are endless ways to configure your studio or plein air kit, and not everything I do will be right for you, but here are some things I’ve learned:
  • Consistent paint quality. Even while a student (I still am!), don’t buy the so-called “student grade” paints. They’re somewhat less expensive, but you’ll pay for it in frustration and poor quality results. When you’re learning, you need to learn with the materials that you’ll paint with for a life time. Whatever brand of paint you choose, when you know you’re happy, stick with it. Most of my paint is by Classic Artist Oils. They are incredibly cheap in large quantities (10 oz “guns”) and used by many masters, including Ken Auster and Ovanes Berberian. I do use Gamblin occasionally (especially their mediums, which I love). Their Permanent Alizarin is allegedly the only true permanent Alizarin Crimson on the market.
    • Are “Student Grade” Oils really cheaper? I did a quick price comparison using the Winsor Newton prices on Dick Blick vs. Classic Artist Oils. Even with a sale running right now at Dick Blick (far below retail prices), the high quality Classic Artist Oils rival Winsor Newton’s WINTON student grade. Eg, For Ultramarine Blue, the price per oz was: WINTON: $2.13/oz; Winsor Newton Artist Oils: $4.90/oz; and Classic Artist Oils: $2.40/oz. So even while on SALE, Winsor Newton’s Artists Oils cost double the price of Classic Artists Oils and comparable in price to W/N student grade WINTON oils. It pays to buy in larger quantity.
  • Your easel is your foundation. Easels can be the most difficult decision you’ll make for outdoor painting. I use OpenBoxM for small kits that I take hiking, and a Soltek easel for larger works outdoors that don’t require too far of a hike. Be warned, however, Solteks break constantly. I’m currently testing a 12×16″ palette OpenBoxM easel as my primary outdoor kit. So far, so good. I’m phasing out my Soltek due to technical difficulties. If I could afford it, I may buy two like Ken Auster, who assumes one will always be in the shop while one is in working condition.

OpenBoxM Easel
OpenBoxM 12×16″ Palette Pochade, Tripod Mounted

Soltek Easel
Soltek Easel, all-in-one, but unreliable

  • Brushes with body. Flimsy brushes without enough hair are frustrating! I use only pure hog hair bristles brushes, and sometimes the synthetic/natural bristle blends by Ultrect. Brands I trust include: Dick Blick Masterstroke; Robert Simmons; Winsor Newton Rathbone and Utrecht.
  • Painting surface is objective. Of all materials, I think the surface you paint on is the most personal. I prefer a smooth surface with just the right amount of tooth. For me, that’s a double-primed linen (naturally, the most expensive!). It just “feels right”. My advice is to try everything, every surface with every combination of preparation (gesso, primer, etc). I use RayMar’s double-primed linen panels (as well as their panel carriers for storage).
  • Studio light intensity and color must match the viewers. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve painted a work in my studio that I thought was perfect, only to see a dark, less intense version in the gallery or home of the collector. Just as you don’t paint in direct sunlight outdoors (because it results in dull, dark paintings when viewed indoors), you should moderate your indoor studio lighting. I tend to paint indoors with too much light, and when that painting is put in my living room (for example), it looks much less impressive. I try to get in the habit now of placing a painting I’m working on in my living room with typical nighttime “indoor light” to see how it looks.
  • Use anything and everything. One of my favorite artists to watch is Camille Przwodek. She’ll use anything and everything at her disposal to make a painting work: the end of a brush, a scraper, paper towel. No one is going to judge your painting’s quality someday based on traditional technique, it’s the end result that matters to them. So use the opposite end of the brush, your fingers, whatever you need to create the effect you need.
Here’s my “studio” set up in my garage. Someday, I’ll have have my dream studio with a crackling fireplace in the corner (far away from the solvents!), windows overlooking the Pacific ocean, spacious and with rugs and comfortable furniture. For now, it’s a cold garage I share with my jealous car.When I work indoors, I’ll usually work from either a small plein air study as reference, or from my digital photo library. When the latter, I connect my MacBook to the TV to project the image. This is MUCH better than working from printed photographs. You could alternatively paint from the laptop screen, but I prefer a larger reference.
What did I leave out? Let me know in Comments, and I’ll add to this post.

14 thoughts on “Observation 3: Equipment Matters

  1. Ed,

    As you know I have a Soltek also. I have heard the same complaint from quite a few others, mainly about the automatic telescopic leg mechanism. However, I have had my Soltek for 3-4 years, and have had no real problems. One leg did get stuck once, and it took me a little while to loosen it up, but other than that has worked pretty well. I am very careful not to let any dirt or sand get into the mechanism through the opening at the bottom. Kind of a poor design for outdoor work, but something I just live with.

    Am off to Yosemite tomorrow for 3 days of painting…in the cold…haha…can’t wait!

  2. janette jones says:

    Hi Ed,
    Just wondering what you do for venilation (sp?)…I too paint in the garage or outside in the summer months but have to move inside for winter (high temp yesterday was 19 and low -3) months. I use Gamsol but my eyes seem affected. Have you tried any water soluble oil paint? Also I’ve been using the Ott light, seems to help a little on color correctness.
    Thank you for all your info!

  3. Janette: i do have a window fan with forward and reverse speeds, so i can either exhale fumes from inside or inhale fresh air. So far, this has been adequate.

    I have tried tried water soluable oils, but hate them. they feel like painting with glue or acrylic…really “sticky”. Maybe it’s the brand. i spoke to Kevin Macpherson about them and know he uses them when traveling. I don’t think I could get over the horrible texture. i just love the feel of oil paint.

    Are you (or anyone reading this) happy with a brand of water soluables? I had tried a Winsor Newton product.

  4. Excellent information, Ed! I don’t have a Soltek myself, but I’ve seen a couple of students fight with them. I didn’t realize the easels had some other issues as well, such as unreliability. RE brushes, have you tried Silver Brush Ltd. Grand Prix? I love ’em.

  5. Hi Ed,
    I haven’t tried any water solubles yet, but heard that Holbein Duo was a pretty good product…thought I might give it a try just for the winter, inside painting.
    I did a workshop with Kevin in Scottsdale…the best teacher I’ve ever had and he’s a hoot! So generous and shares loads of info…he has a new book out on plein air painting that is great…
    I am using a little EasyL right now that I really like for traveling…everything fits in one duffel that is included along with a wet box…super for the 6×8 or 8×10 studies…comes with everything even the tripod and not too bad of a price. Just got back from Northern New Mexico…Wow what a beautiful place to paint!

  6. Barbara Houston says:

    Thanks a lot for the forthright comments about plein air equipment. I’ve been looking for some and it is hard to find candid assessements based on people’s experiences with various quipment.

  7. quote: “This is MUCH better than working from printed photographs.”
    I have been thinking of this much lately. I can’t get my heavy TV into my 11×11 studio (attached to the back of my garage) but I have been thinking of maybe buying an inexpensive digital photo frame for this. Never have used one– wonder if it would work?????
    Hope you get your dream studio someday soon, Ed.

  8. Hi Ed; I can really relate to “This is MUCH better than working from printed photographs.” ie working with a TV. I can’t get my heavy TV into my small 11×11 and crowded studio but have been considering purchasing a digital photo frame but have no clue as to whether this would work well. Ever heard anything about using them? Perhaps other members have?
    Hope you get your dream studio someday soon. Must be a challenge in the garage!
    Thanks, Dolores

  9. Hi Ed, Congratulations on the FINE American Artist piece! I am soooo proud of you. I actually bought the magazine, only because I recognized your work on the front page …. so of course I snapped it up! 🙂

    I forgot that you used your TV to paint from…. so I went back into your archives and looked it up. Question: I have an older g4 power mac….. (about 8 years old) and it has an older apple flat 15″ screen. I moved it into my studio, and ocassionally paint from it, but …….. in the same room I have a 26″ lcd hdtv. I purchased a vga cable. TV accepts PC signals via vga cord. I cannot get the image of the computer screen up. If I disconnect the monitor, it works, but I cannot use the mouse or keyboard. Any ideas?

    One of your ‘group’ies’ 🙂


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