In my chronic weakness for mobile painting stations, I bought a panel van. With the current passion for economical cars sweeping the world, plenty of these vehicles are on the market. I figured there were 200 of them on one stretch of used car lots near here. They’re mostly white, mostly off-lease ex-phone company, cablevision or rental redundancies selling for anywhere between $4000 and $14,000. Mine is a barebones 2004 Ford E150 V8, an ex-Budget rental truck. I’m calling her “Li’l Van Go.”
The first thing I did was put down a flat plywood floor and cover it with a replaceable carpet. A local auto-glass company installed a removable sunroof over the easel area. The easel, palette and paint storage are near the rear so the doors can be thrown open for the view. A painter can sit comfortably but he can’t stand up.
The first few sorties were spent in our driveway. I was testing the heights of various chairs and the relative positions and handiness of things. Then yesterday I took her out in stormy conditions. What a delight to be there under the soft skylight with the rain beating on the roof, the CD whispering “Starry, Starry Night,” and umbrella-huddled passersby paying scant attention.
But there’s more to the disappearing act than that. It has to do with the simplicity and lack of clutter of such an environment. Mobility is one thing, but insularity is another. One need not go far. Without the phone and the computer, no matter where you are, the mind clears and the brush settles into a pleasant rural rhythm. Contemplation and the blessing of steady application pervade. I found myself dwelling on the multiple trunks of a paper birch. The words “snug” and “smug” came to mind.
I drove into a nearby forest. I opened the doors and turned off the CD. The storm abated and the rain stopped. Late sunlight penetrated the tall timbers. I listened to the reflected calls of barred owls. Peace overtook me and I painted once more.
PS: “Come to the woods, for here is rest. There is no repose like that of the green deep woods.” (John Muir)
Esoterica: One of the features of a dedicated mobile work station is the ready availability of tools and material as soon as you pull up. Acrylic brushes stay water-immersed in a deep container. The palette is quickly replenished by the tubes at hand. Glazes and other media in squirt bottles stand at alert. All is well, and the move to painting is second nature. “The mind of the sage, being in repose, becomes the mirror of the universe, the speculum of all creation.” (Chuang Tzu)
Li’l Van Go
Golden days on the roof
by Philip Mix, Victoria, BC, Canada
I hope yours gets good mileage, metaphorically that is. I placed a platform on top of my van when I cruised Israel and Cyprus, there was hardly ever rain and what I desired was a vantage point that gave my paintings a sense of grandness even though they were small. I worked in gouache on board (very portable for travel) and translated them to larger works later. Well that was a long time ago but strangely today I just thought of it on my morning tranquility, talk to God, walk. Maybe your letter is serendipity or maybe it’s a cue. Now I paint differently than then but the inspiration is the same. I enclose an example from then, and one from now.
(RG note) Thanks Philip. When Carol and I were first married, we lived for nearly two years in a VW bus all over Europe. We used to hang up my oil painted canvases on lines inside the bus to dry — and sleep under them. Later we had a 28 ft motor-home for 17 years, and yes, that roof really came in handy, and not just for the canoe.
Life with Vinni Van Go
by Eleanor Reykjalin
Mine is a 2003 Kia, Sedona. I bought her 2 years ago. After the purchase, as I was driving her home, I named her “Vinni Van Go.” Over the Labour Day weekend I have been out to the Cypress Hills, just outside of Maple Creek, Saskatchewan. teaching an oil painting workshop and doing some Plein Air. It was wonderful and Mother Nature presented herself in her true colours and natural compositions, what more could an artist ask for? As for “Vinni” she provides me with a working studio on wheels, I travel fairly lightly, and have room for everything I need to paint outdoors and if necessary I can accommodate painting in the back. I also have sleeping accommodations that are most comfortable. I love the sense of oneness and peace in the surroundings of my choosing. It is absolutely delightful to fall into a deep sleep as the sky slowly darkens and the owls hoot their lullaby, the trees sway and move with the breezes, the pine cones and needles tap on the roof and at other times the pattering of raindrops… I have no need to listen to music on the stereo, I don’t think of hearing about any news stories and I don’t have to watch the clock or be on time. In fact the sun, the stars and the moon determine what will happen next. Even if a storm should come along I can take comfort in my surroundings. The only requirement that I impose on myself is to not leave a shred of evidence that I was ever there and dispose of all garbage in an appropriate manner, therefore leaving only my footprint and the marks of my tires, and in due time the weather conditions will take care of that. “Touch the earth, feel the earth, rest your spirit in her solitary places.” (Henry Beston)
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Perils of the outdoors
by Frank Nicholas, Wheaton, IL, USA
With a smile on my face, I read through your analysis and procedure regarding the van. I’ve never considered going that far, but have done other things to keep out of weather. Sometimes it’s been just, run for the trees or try to get all the stuff onto somebody’s porch. My location work is almost always in watercolor and my paper and board is fairly flat. We have similar struggles when it comes to picking up in a speedy manner. Both hands with clutching fingers holding loose items and both arms and even chin squeezing to grip all of my stuff. Thanks for sharing with us the need to consider a customized van as a rolling studio.
Super portable kit
by Jeanne Long, Minneapolis, MN, USA
Love everything about your L’il Van Go! It seems to really fit your needs, and be a work of art in itself. I share your love for finding the perfect travel gear, but on a much smaller scale. I put together a sketching kit, in a camera bag. I found that not only did I take it into the field, but I tend to enjoy using it on the dining room table with the New York Times providing me with some inspiring scenery that I might not have access to on my own!
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Nirvana in a Ford van
by Susan K Burgess, Marblehead, MA, USA
This letter actually made me weep — for joy that you’ve found nirvana in a Ford panel van and for a moment such as you described when ‘peace overtook you.’ Thank you for your inspiration and communal friendship that finds its way through these letters. It’s of immeasurable support to painterly souls like me, wandering across the world’s landscapes searching to steal a moment in time and space. We paint that moment to capture it, but then we must let it go — to galleries and to other walls than ours. So — drive on, as Li’l Van Go would say.
Might take off again soon
by Marina des Tombe, Florence, Italy
I read your email and wanted to thank you. It reminded me of when I used to go painting in my old camper. I would just take off and stop on a nice spot (which is about everywere here in the Chianti area). I would put on some Music, make myself a cup of tea (which tastes much better made in the old camper) and with the rain tinkling on the roof I would paint for a few hours. What a fantastic feeling, and you are right it is immediately a different World, far away of all the thoughts and distractions, even though maybe only 10 minutes from home.So thanks for reminding me, I might take off soon again now that I remember the sensation.
Van Go down under
by Hans Werner, Australia
Now you have started something, and I look forward to many others from all over the world, a subject for another book perhaps?
Life on the road
by Charles Peck, Punta Gorda, Florida, USA
I was brightened by your letter and the great “blast from the past” it brought flooding into my mind.
I spent several years traveling the Gulf of Mexico coastline of the southern U.S.A. States after Nam first in an old ’62 ford station wagon, then a sort of newish Ford Econoline van, next a converted school bus then a converted ’56 1 1/2 ton ford Utility van milk truck as my final version. I lived as well as painted out of these various rolling studios often pulling up to outdoor Art fairs and doing quick sketch portraits. A couple of times I was waylaid to play house for awhile but the road becomes an enchanting seductress in its own right and usually won out in the end. There is an immersion in the moment to fling the rear doors open, unstrap one’s materials and get right back into painting that which is in front of one I have not found anywhere else … except anchoring one’s sailboat and setting up on deck to have a go at it or taking the dinghy to shore with the French easel and looking about for some shade and a view.
Heavy duty ‘paintmobile’
by Jen Lacoste, South Africa
Ron Ranson mentions Walter Gonske of New Mexico (in his book Modern Oil Impressionists) : “This commitment to immediacy has led him to acquire a customized pick-up truck which he calls his ‘paintmobile’: It’s a Ford cab and chassis with a box-like camper which gives plenty of space to work in all kinds of conditions, undisturbed. The recreational space is appointed with built in racks for canvasses and special shelves for paint. ‘I can stack fifty canvasses in there, and twenty-five tubes of each colour of paint. That’s enough for about a month of work.’ ”
We have refitted several old (very old) VW Kombi vans, and have found that, in the absence of available spare parts, quite adequate interior wall panels might be made from approximately 3mm hardboard or Masonite cut to measure, and covered with lightweight stick-on carpet tiles, or vinyl fabric. These are pretty easy to screw/rivet into place.
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by John Hulsey, KS, USA
Your letter on mobile studios brought back fond memories of my own “rolling studio,” our 1984 Westphalia deluxe camper also named VanGo. We drove all over the U.S. in it, painting as we went, and when we finally retired it, it had over 200,000 miles on it! I have attached a photo here of it parked in Yosemite National Park, where I was invited to spend a month painting as artist-in residence. Some of your readers may remember reading about two of my painting excursions in VanGo, the first article, published in American Artist Magazine’s June 1991 issue, Traveling Cross-Country with Watercolors,” and the second in Watercolor Magazine’s Summer 1998 issue,”The Range of Light.” The Westphalia is an ideal vehicle for the traveling painter as it contains a large water tank, sink with electrical pump, propane stove and refrigerator (which will run for weeks on a full tank of gas, built-in ) allowing one to paint in very remote locations for an extended period without resupply, and only then for perishables! The pop-up top allows for standing up and also the use of the upper sleeping berth, the openable skylight and large sliding door provide for ventilation, and the swing-out table over the large bench seat in the back makes a terrific painting surface when inclement weather hits. There is beaucoup storage, including a hanging closet for jackets and tall stuff, and snap-in screens and curtains provide a bug-free and private environment in which to work, play, or just take a mid-day nap. Great gas mileage and high ground clearance meant that we could go just about anywhere, even off-road. (They also made an all-wheel drive version). Our water-cooled version also had air conditioning, but lacked a lot of horsepower, so one needed to drive conservatively. We loved it and even got used to the typical Volkswagen quirks, like an unpredictable electrical system. On one trip, we were driving up to the 12,000 ft. summit of Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park late at night, and right at the top, just before the road took a sharp right, the headlights went out — a real adrenaline moment! I was able to work the bright headlight switch, and by holding it on, get enough lights back on for the drive down to Estes Park for a repair. So many great painting adventures in VanGo — in my view, the best-designed mobile studio ever built. I hope to find another one someday.
oil painting, 60 x 60 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Michael Pointer of Afghanistan, who wrote, “I’m in Afghanistan for the next two years working with the Afghanistan Dental Relief Project. I always supported my art by working as a dental technician. Now I’m here teaching what I know and bringing toothbrushes to people who’ve never seen one. It seems that dental abscesses kill many people here. Your lively and interesting discussions are a great solace to me.”
And also Peter Reid of Chatsworth, ON, Canada, who wrote, “Maybe an office chair with wheels would give you a bit more mobility and you could get the height/tilt just right. You would need to secure it during transport. You can even roll back a bit while painting.”
(RG note) Thanks, Peter. Right on! I tried a few paintings with my favorite twenties secretary chair with wheels. It’s definitely the best but awkward always having to tie down when moving. Also, half the time I want to get outside and the cheap lawn chair is quick and light.
And also ‘Papa Joe’ Marchant of Richardson, TX, USA, who wrote, “I have been considering a small school bus or an airport parking van. Either of these vehicles eliminates the need for a removable sun roof as a six foot person can stand in either of the vehicles and both are air conditioned. The small school bus appears to be the best. One with a handicapped lift in the rear is very appealing. But what I really want is a Monet barge. If I could only afford my own pond. My backyard koi pond will not support my dream.
Enjoy the past comments below for Li’l Van Go…