In my quest for a lighter and more portable plein air set-up I’m currently experimenting with a carbon fiber photography tripod and paint box.
My current camera tripod set-up.
The camera tripod I settled on is a Sirui T-025X with their C-10X ball head. It was originally recommended to me by plein air painter Paul Rafferty who has used one to great success for a year now. Sirui is a Chinese company who, apparently, used to make photo equipment for Gitzo (the very expensive Italian company) and are now making tripods with their own brand name. The tripod folds up to be tiny and weighs only 1.54 lb (0.7 kg) -slightly less than the Fome aluminum easel I’ve been using for a while. (For anyone thinking of getting the Sirui, you can find one on Amazon and support my site).
Sirui T-025x. Banana for scale.
To use sight-size one’s panel or canvas should ideally be at eye-level. This puts the surface quite high off the ground where stability becomes an issue. On the other hand, after years of working on canvas, I don’t really mind a little give while I’m applying paint. Even with my extremely light backpack hanging off the supplied carabiner, this set-up becomes stable enough for me to paint comfortably.
The mast bolted to the Sirui quick-release plate.
I also don’t like the pochade-box-on-camera-tripod system that most plein air painters use. With sight-size it means the paints are right under my nose. The solution for me is to use a mast to get the panel high enough, and attach the paint box to the bottom. For the mast of this set-up I picked up a pre-made carbon fiber slat, drilled a hole with a 1/4″ drill-bit, and bolted it to the quick-release plate of the Sirui. The Sirui quick-release plate has screw threads out, so one can switch to a longer bolt without permanently affecting the tripod. One could drill a hole in the aluminum or steel mast of the Fome easels and get an even stiffer design. I settled on a shorter mast to be able to pack it in a suitcase easily. With the taller camera tripod it is still big enough for my 11″ x 14″ (25 x 35 cm) panels in a vertical position, even if I have the easel set up downhill.
Carbon fiber ‘cigar box’ palette.
I’d love to be able to triumphantly declare that the carbon fiber painting box was a great success and is the future of plein air painting equipment. Unfortunately, after an annoying amount of time and money spent, I have to admit that a $5 dollar Ebay cigar-box works just as well. Leo Mancini-Hresko has written a good blog post on making one. The carbon fiber isn’t any lighter or sturdier, and it lacks the charm to boot.
Trudging through the snow in the Alps this February, I decided that my plein air equipment was annoyingly heavy and I resolved to lighten it. One major problem outdoor landscape painters have with regard to equipment is that we need it to be wonderfully light while we’re trekking around looking for views, and then we need it to be heavy and stable when we start painting.
I believe that some of this is also just a question of getting used to painting with a different set-up. When I first started landscape painting I used the heavy steel easels made by Fome in Italy. When I tried their aluminum version I found it to be annoyingly unstable. Now I use that same aluminum easel everyday without issues. In my quest for lighter gear I recently tried repurposing a plastic box from a hardware store and had the same experience. The first few times I found it moved too much and seemed unstable, but after sticking with it for a few weeks it works fine for me now.
Having equipment blow over in the wind is a bigger problem, but for most breezes the weight of the backpack is enough to stabilize everything. For heavier winds I think the best solution is to have some way of attaching a weight to the set-up when one arrives at the painting site, and finding said weight there. In nature this usually means finding a big rock and in cities it can mean buying a bottle of water.
Backup tubes of paint (just white, the three blues, and ochre)
It clocks in at around 11 lbs, or 5 kg, with the easel.
Everything packed up.
My focus here is really on having a painting set-up that works for me, the weight is completely secondary. For example, I won’t give up the ridiculous number of brushes I need to paint with. My Kunst & Papier sketchbook is also quite large, but I find drawing compositional ideas in a small Moleskine-sized sketchbook to be restrictive. (Kunst & Papier has much better drawing paper too).
I only carry titanium white, Roman ochre, cerulean, cobalt and ultramarine blue paint tubes with me. The fact is that the cadmiums last forever on the palette. They don’t dry out, and the tinting strength of Williamsburg is such that I use very little over the course of a day. I find there is almost never a reason to have back-up tubes in the bag. (Another solution is just to take half-empty tubes of everything).
I’m currently using Zecchi’s gesso-prepared wood panels in Europe, but I’ll switch to New Traditions’ C12 Claessens-on-gatorfoam when I’m in the US this summer. With the Zecchi boards I use those orange ‘Pony’ clamps to hold the lid of my pochade box and the top of the panel. With New Traditions, the clamps are too strong and will crush the gatorfoam so I switch to lightweight (plastic) photographer’s clips. The New Traditions’ boards are quite expensive, but I know people who are making their own version with their preferred primed-linen attached to gatorboard, dibond, or wood via sheets of Beva 371 thick film (glue) using a low-temprature iron. Linen mounted on gatorfoam is wonderfully lightweight and can be especially useful for avoiding overweight fees on airplanes.
Obviously, the night lights aren’t necessary unless I’m painting nocturnes.
There are a lot of cottage industry companies these days making ultralight backpacks (here is a good list). The problem with many of the ultralight packs is that they’re often huge for what is essentially a day trip for most plein air painters. They’re also usually minimalist with regard to add-ons and pockets in order to reduce weight. I find the bells and whistles to be really useful on a backpack. I also need a gazillion pockets to sort everything. Furthermore, having everything waterproofed is useful as medium leakage is a standard occupational hazard for landscape painters and it’s good to be able to protect the other items in the pack from such an event.
At the moment I’m using a Ferrino Zephyr 22 + 3. It’s not an ultralight pack as there is a frame that pushes the body of the bag away from one’s back which seems relatively heavy. (Frankly, the frame doesn’t seem that well thought out as it pushes too far into the main section so it doesn’t leave a great deal of space inside). I bought it after trying on a dozen or so backpacks in various stores as it was very comfortable and the pockets were the right size for my equipment. It’s been holding up well, but I plan on having one custom made after the summer. I’d like to organize the storage to fit my materials exactly, and in a way where I can quickly access the items I regularly need while working.
My current set-up in the field.
Many pochade box companies advertise a 30 second set-up time. That seems like a lifetime in plein air painting. My set-up is up and running in closer to 10 seconds.
That said, I’d like to try a carbon fiber camera tripod set up. While the Fome aluminum easels are lighter than most good carbon fiber camera tripods, I’m curious to see if I can get more stability out of carbon fiber. I wrote to Manfrotto/Gitzo and asked them if they could make some attachment parts for plein air painters, but they said they only design their equipment for photographers. (What ingrates. A landscape painter invented photography for them, and this is the thanks we get.) I considered writing to Fome too, but after they started putting rubber in the lids of their turpentine cups I have very low expectations of their design team.
There are some great American pochade box makers these days, but based on the weight of the boxes they’re making they all seem to have sherpas carrying their equipment around. I’m also more interested in the cigar-box-with-separate-mast system that I currently use. The pochade box model doesn’t work for sight-size, unless you’re ok with having your nose in your palette.
So, after not being able to find a strong, stable, and lightweight attachment system for a cigar box and tripod, I’m currently experimenting with making my own carbon fiber equipment at home. I’ll post the results in a few days.