“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

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