For some reason, yesterday was filled with Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The high prize of life is to have a bias to some pursuit which finds one in employment and happiness — whether it be to make baskets, or broadswords, or canals, or statues, or songs.”
I was working with my homemade paintbox. It’s a simple one — low tech — no bells or whistles. It’s deep and commodious. Long ago, almost casually one afternoon, I put it together. A few times since, it’s been re-glued. It has been with me to many wondrous places. I call it my picnic-table box. These days, there’s generally a picnic table somewhere nearby, but it also works on park benches and on the ground among rocks. My box has a major limitation — it takes only 11″ x 14″ stretched canvases. Emerson would call that an advantage. I, too, trust a format and a size. Somehow, perhaps because I’ve done the odd good one with this box, I trust myself with it. “In self-trust all the virtues are comprehended,” Emerson would say.
A paintbox is a mobile workspace, a mind-place, and an instrument of potential. It’s also a playbox. “It is a happy talent to know how to play,” Emerson said. But a box also holds a million solutions to a million problems. A box gives hope, for it looks at the scenery from any angle and becomes part of the artist’s attitude. “Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.”
A box like mine is a sanctuary from chaos and confusion. My chaos can be neutralized by the relative neatness of the work I make with my box. In “chaos theory,” which I’ve been studying lately, we are called upon to organize and make sense of our world. A good box is the mother of all tools. Thinking inside the box, one can be smug in self-reliance — improving this or that — trying one more time to do something better. Life is a matter of figuring out one thing after the other. “Invention breeds invention,” said Emerson. “All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make, the better.” And while “better” is my aim, the things that I make with my box may turn out to be less than stellar — but they are still mine. “Do your thing and I shall know you.”
PS: “Nothing at last is sacred but the integrity of your mind.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson — from Self-Reliance)
Esoterica: I was working in a place where guests, like background ghosts, passed by to watch and sometimes chat. The people changed; the questions repeated: “What blue is that?” “Why do you start with a pink ground?” “How long have you been here?” The hours slipped by. The sun navigated the sky. What a world this box is. What a place to be. “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1803-1882)
On the float at Painter’s Lodge, Campbell River, B.C., Canada. When you take a look around, there’s an abundance of picnic tables these days.
Picnic-Table Box. Made from quarter-inch mahogany, it’s deep enough to carry lots of stuff. Stretcher bars of 11” x 14” canvas are held by tight slots cut into lid.
On an island in Lake of the Woods, Ontario, Canada. On this occasion I think I found the exact spot where Walter J Phillips had painted the same scene in 1926.
Studio in a toolbox
by Peter Brown, Oakland, CA, USA
My first art studio was an out-building at my grandfather’s place. I moved and had spare rooms, or garages, and then I went outside, en plein air, with a very much older landscape painter, Louis Siegriest. In a very few weeks, my painting kit became more and more refined. Don’t need an easel, don’t need a footlocker, don’t need this or that.
My studio is now a little red toolbox. This holds 30 tubes of oil paint, 20 brushes, and various painting media. I built a covered patio just in case it rains. I can take my little box anywhere, and do most anything. It is all in a little red toolbox. The rent for a little red toolbox is very cheap.
Guerrilla Pochade box
by Laura Wambsgans, Santa Clarita, CA, USA
You touched a warm place in my artistic heart writing about your paintbox. I take a Guerrilla Pochade box wherever I go. When the leather handle is in my hand it gives me the comfort of a well-loved book. Once setting it up, my mind is already searching for compositions and color themes because I know it will do its job. I call it the “E” ticket ride (the fastest ride at Disneyland before one price admission), painting on location with my box, never knowing exactly how successful the finished piece will be. With my Guerrilla box partner, I only have to deal with ants, rain and fleeting sunlight. Thank you for putting a spotlight on our paintboxes.
by Devon Coles, Outlook, SK, Canada
I too work from several boxes. Boxes and backpacks. My boxes are generally modified cosmetics boxes. I have found great joy in the process of altering these cases to fit my needs. I attach brush-holding drawstrings, wire dividers and homemade trays. I have also decorated the outsides with collaged imagery. The Art box can quite easily become Art in itself. Boxes can also be comfortably confining. My favourite boxes have been my studios. I feel contained and protected from distraction inside my little painting spaces. I maintain two controlled openings — my window (controlled by curtains) and my computer (controlled by self-discipline). Someday I intend to own a medium to large-sized, permanent space. Until then I will continue brushing away in my little boxes.
Camaraderie among travellers
by Joanna C. Bevis, White Rock, BC, Canada
I can see that, as you carry along with you your magical ‘paintbox,’ each time it’s exposed to the world it also exposes you and your work. And each time you open this box it sends forth your “soulshine” to attract the onlooker intrigued by what you share and do, born of your passion. As Emerson also said, “Every genuine work of art has as much reason for being as the earth and the sun.” This becomes a calling of camaraderie amongst the many travellers we meet along the way.
Thank you for your generous sharing of knowledge and wisdom along the journey. One last word from Emerson, “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” (But don’t forget your paintbox.)
Doing it outdoors
by Sigal Blaauw, Zurich, Switzerland
One of my art teachers commented that painting outdoors is like making love outside. Do you find it a bit invasive that people stand around and comment? You seem a very disciplined painter, so perhaps that does not bother you, as you are focused.
(RG note) Thanks, Sigal. Apparently it’s possible to make both love and paintings outside with people standing around. Some people even do it on film and get good at it. Actually, I rather enjoy the intercourse that takes place when I paint in front of an enthusiastic crowd. Everything goes fine as long as the questions are not too difficult.
Plein air prescription
by John Mix, Mt. Horeb, WI, USA
I enjoyed reading about your relationship to life via the custom paintbox. I am amazed that you can paint with acrylics outdoors. I have made a number of paintboxes and the current evolution can hold 2 panels (wet oil) 6″ x 8″, 8″ x 10″ or 9″ x 12″, any combo thereof, closed or open box. One panel can hold the 8″ x 10″ vertically for a portrait sketch. The box has a hole to accommodate the screw threads in an older model tripod, held on by a wing nut. I like the infinite adjustability — position and location (slopes, etc.). A large “corkscrew” (that you tie your dog leash to secure him in the yard) works to hold the whole operation down in a wind (unless I’m in a parking lot or sidewalk). I know of no other prescription for the soul better than plein air.
by Len Sodenkamp, Boise, ID, USA
When I think about what it means to me to be connected to the Universal Consciousness, I think of Emerson. The man was taped into the Creative Mind. His words flow into your mind like butter on toast, filling every fiber of your being with positive, enlightening food for thought. Other great thinkers of Emerson’s time were Ernest Holmes, Thomas Troward and Emma Hopkins Curtis. They also realized their connection to The Thing Itself.
Action vs. observation
by Tony Sandy
Language is social and leads attention outward, away from the internal creative space we all need for reflection and contemplation. To me life is made up of two stages: thought and action or observation. Think of bird watching, where you need to be hidden (camouflaged/invisible) and quiet, so as not to disturb the object of your affection. And think of interaction (telling others what you’ve found or going from student to teacher — that Eureka moment). I call this process, funnily enough, The Artist Effect — that is stepping back to look at what you’ve done (quality control) and planning what you’re going to do next, then stepping forward to act, i.e. bringing your plans/vision to fruition.
Instruments of potential
by Ian Massey, Scotland
We all have to find our own tools to help us get to the point where we are employed and happy. My tools are “chisels.” They help me to force the stone in the direction that I want it to go and with these I can choose my trusted format and my size to work with, which varies greatly depending on my inspiration. This also means that my canvases vary in size and material depending on whether I am working on a commission or my own work. But, throughout all this, I trust the way I use my chisels, the way I sharpen them, the way I get used to how blunt they get and yet can still work with them, even the type and weight of hammer I use.
Is this my paintbox? More than likely, as these are my instruments of potential, my mind place, my play tools, and yes I am happy that I know how to play with them, to sort those million problems with the solutions in my hands. This concept gives me hope that I can look at the medium from any angle and my tools have gone with my attitude, for good or bad. I am still in control — good tools are the mother of all progress, and good progress can make one smug (in a good way) — I thought, I wondered, so I created and felt better, felt good in myself. Surely this is what all Artists want for themselves as they do their “thing,” not only for the better of themselves but also for those who enjoy our work and keep us happy and in employment. Could this be a part of our path in making sense of the world?
Chinese-made French easel
by Frank Ansley, St. Helena, CA, USA
A couple of years ago I bought one of those French plein-air easels that has legs that fold out and includes a paintbox. I thought I’d save a few bucks and buy the Chinese-made model. I didn’t pay attention to the weight of the easel. This puppy weighs almost 5 lbs. more than the French or Italian model. Fine if you don’t have to move it around much.
by Jeri-Lynn Ing, Red Deer, AB, Canada
I would like to have your permission to paint your picture. I was quite taken with the photograph posted by you on your website where you are painting on the Lake of the Woods. I think it will make a smashing portrait. I have recently opened an Artists Gallery with seven other artists in Red Deer, Alberta called The Red Block. We showcase our own work and the work of other local artists on a consignment basis. We are able to meet the needs of our community while doing what we love. This is a good thing. I have passed on your twice weekly letters to all our members. Thanks for the wisdom and the fellowship.
(RG note) Thanks Jeri-Lynn. Please use me as you see fit. Please also send us a copy when it’s done. There seems to be an outbreak of painting my portrait lately. This one by Dave Wilson came in yesterday (photo from the Robert Genn Album).
Charitable website for artists
by Michael Earney, Blanco, TX, USA
Why not set up a system to help avert some of the problems that artists get into. To this end I designed a website called “The Medici Connection.” My idea is that artists in all media list themselves, stating what it is they most need, be it Medical coverage, a rent free studio, a trip to Carrara to get the perfect piece of marble, a lifetime supply of brushes. You get the idea. Then the list would be sent to philanthropists. As you know there are many art lovers with resources that could see this as a way to help. The artist and patron work out the details of their relationship. The patron might be happy to receive the first in a series of paintings or the accolades of having made possible the production of a new opera. Unfortunately, I have not found the funds as yet to launch the website.
(RG note) Thanks, Michael. I’m on. I need a clock with more hours.
Artists alone vs. group meetings
by Nancy Reyner, Santa Fe, NM, USA
Artists generally like to be alone — work alone — in fact it is probably a prerequisite to becoming an artist. Recently I have found myself participating regularly in several groups and am reaping much benefit from them. I have noticed a gained confidence, feeling of community, of belonging, as well as more productivity and free access to technical information. All of these benefits are due to belonging to these groups. One is a critique group, composed of artistic peers meeting once a month to share comments, advice, a good objective eye to new work, or work in progress. The second group is an artist’s business group which meets weekly to discuss career and business plans and to share advice on upcoming shows, contracts, legal matters, sharing supply shipments, gallery news, etc. My third group meets once a week to draw from a model. Sharing the model fees and having camaraderie really perks up my week. I have been in groups that felt like a waste of time. The ingredients that work in my current groups are: the groups are composed of strangers meeting for a common purpose – not a group of former friends. Comments are limited to the topic at hand, while gossip, gabbing and extended socializing is avoided. A minimal structure (like who talks when, or how much time is spent on someone’s work, etc.) and someone loosely in charge helps keep the flow and maximizes time management. I was wondering how other artists feel about working alone versus being in groups. For the remainder of the week I am alone in my studio as much as possible. P.S. My fourth “group” is being a part of your wonderful email list!
Gardens of Niagara
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2006.
That includes Annette Waterbeek who wrote, “I was one of those ghosts who passed by as you were peacefully painting on that windy day on the float. Your voice, as you talked to passersby, almost seemed as though you were in a different place.”
And also Suzanne Clark who wrote, “After switching locations three times and wiping off a number of times, I decided that I have forgotten how to make a painting. How humbling painting is!”