Pat Hart of Gabriola Island, B.C., wrote, “Apropos of workshops overseas, could you talk about the subject of getting oneself and gear together and THERE? For instance, does a French easel go as ‘carry on’ or is it slung in the hold? A workshop surely calls for equipment and not everyone can afford to re-equip themselves on these occasions.”
Actually, re-equipping some of your stuff on location is half the fun. I recommend that you go as wild and crazy as you can afford. Foreign art stores are full of magic stuff with unfamiliar names. It’s one of life’s major highs. Renewal is the game. In France, for example, they sell brushes with handles that are 18 feet long. Easels are a different matter. You can’t go buying a new French one every time you land somewhere. They go in the hold with your luggage. Because they’re awkward and pointy I put on a couple of turns of bubble-wrap in both directions. Still transparent, security personnel can see what’s in there. When they ask, I say, “Paint-box; I’m an artist.” They often say, “Go away.”
Load your paint-box carefully. If you’re working in oils you leave out the turps and other flammable fluids. No spray cans. Linseed, Copal, Damar, etc., in little bottles seem to be okay. Acrylic: no problem. For some reason they look at tubes; I once had a douannier squeeze a little bit from a random selection. I let him keep his efforts. Watercolor boxes can snuggle in a sweater in your luggage, and tripod-easels can be taken along with other people’s skis by “Special Handling.” Powdery pastels arouse little suspicion but they don’t travel well. You might think of buying a few when you get there. “When in Rome, etc.”
With regard to the art you produce while you’re away, don’t sign it. Art’s not a customs event if it’s not signed. Don’t finish it either. Give your travel-work the benefit of home-eyes. That last sentence is some of the best advice I’ve ever given. It pays for a pile of travel. Another thing: Stretcher sizes in Europe and other places tend to be in centimeters and won’t fit your standard size frames if you bring them back to North America or the UK. I take stretchers with me, remove the canvas and layer them on the bottom of the suitcase for the trip home. If you work in oil, three days on the Riviera will dry them.
PS: “No mode of creation is more direct or naturally arrived at than the accumulation of materials found close at hand.” (William Seitz)
Esoterica: A favourite home-built easel is one I call “The Laptop.” It’s a folding box designed for horizontal 11 x 14s. This may seem an unnatural limitation, but sometimes a limitation can be a creative source. It’s not the only easel in the world, but it’s simple to build and a piece of cake to ship. There’s a picture of it in the previous clickback.
The following are selected responses to the above and other letters. Thank you for writing.
Just take a camera
(Name withheld by request)
I sometimes feel guilty when I read some of your articles and those of others who write your correspondence. I’m a professional painter who travels frequently and I never take stuff to work on. I just take my camera. My customers don’t know this. I happen to think it’s the only way.
(RG note) Let’s be frank. There are many artists who work from reference practically all the time. They synthesize in their studios from photographs or slides taken specifically for the purpose. The great advantage apart from the drawing and pattern problems that photos often solve, is efficiency. An artist can wander in an environment that is pregnant with material, tune into those subjects he needs, take advantage of fleeting light and fleeting humanity — fairs, parades, happenings — and grab a lifetime of material in an afternoon. This free-floating photographer-artist combination is an art in itself and not to be sneezed at. It doesn’t mean the artist does “photographic work” either. His mind and nature appreciates the processing of many images, the sifting that can be done with the later studio-art of comparison and reflection. Great things come of it. Leonardo would have loved a camera. No need for guilt.
My digital camera was indispensable for taking reference photos — no guesswork about whether or not the picture turned out — you can see it on site. Also, it was easy to transport the tiny memory cards, and after downloading the images to my hard drive I reuse them. So easy and so inexpensive compared to film. Plus I can then zoom, crop, and edit, as I like before starting the painting. You do lose some color in transit, so a small sketch in oils on site may help jog the memory.
In Europe you can paint in museums. (US museums don’t allow that — a serious oversight on their part, I think. One of the most important functions of a museum is to help educate the artists of today). In Paris, don’t miss the Musee D’ Orsay; it has a lot of the impressionist work that is missing from the Louvre. In the Louvre is also a wonderful library of historical documents (such as artist’s letters) that is fascinating. One must write ahead for permission to enter this area and many people don’t know it exists. I found out about it from a charming young portraitist I met in the museum and spent a wonderful afternoon with at a cafe and comparing notes on art. I was shocked to find that it was difficult to get archival quality canvases in Paris, especially in the Monmartre area. I really had to look. They seem to use a lot of jute instead of cotton or linen and we all know the life expectancy of jute is pitiable. Don’t be fooled. I had taken a lot of cash with me in order to buy cool supplies while there; but was so disappointed in the quality that I made do with a couple new brushes. Maybe I just wasn’t finding the right stores.
I took with me a great pochade box “Open Box M.” They specialize in equipment for plein air painters working in any medium. Michael and Coletta, who make them, are very kind people and the quality of their products is excellent. For example, each wooden box is twice dipped in oil and hand-rubbed before the final sanding and waxing.
(RG note) Open Box M is at http://openboxm.com/
Ann Templeton, Ruidoso Downs, NM, USA
I travel with the smallest, most adaptable pochade box, the largest Box-M, which accommodates a 16×20 canvas. Likewise, I do not take stretcher bars, but instead roll up pieces of linen cut just oversize for standard issue, rolled up in a tube in the suitcase, which protects them. Each day tape a few pieces to a backing board, and at the end of the day strip them off, tape and all and attach to a wall to dry. When I’m about to return they are again rolled up, put in the tube for easy carry home, and then glued to masonite upon return to the studio. Saves a lot of space and weight compared to carrying stretched canvases or panels. Brushes also go in a tube for safe handling. And paper towels make excellent dunnage around the easel, as does bubble wrap. I suggest paint always be checked on, not carried on as it can be taken away. Also, the Kodak film canisters will not leak so they are a safe place to carry your mediums, but never take turpentine along. It can always be purchased onsite.
Travel to France
Susan Holland, Issaquah, Washington, USA
Before I packed for France, I cut papers just the right size to fit into my largest suitcase. I mounted each on a same-sized board and I rigged acetate covers for each one, taped to the back and creased so it would just flip over the face of the paper, and then creased again so it would “lock” by folding over the bottom of the board. I put a stack of these things in the flattest part of my suitcase under my clothes. A week or so in advance, in time for the gouache to dry, I put a generous amount of each color into the deep pans of a small watercolor palette. Once dry I stuck the palette in a plastic bag. Took along a water bottle (empty for travel, of course) and a rolled up set of brushes. You can always pick up a dish for mixing, even trimmed plastic cups will do. It all took up very little room, and was not ever messy in my packing. When the painting is sufficiently dry, flip the acetate over, and it’s protected until you get it home to you. The gear all fits nicely into one of those mesh shopping bags they use in Europe, it stretches to fit awkward shapes and I could pack it easily here and there. (I use one of those many-pocketed vests to carry the rest of my stuff, so it’s just the mesh bag I am toting around. Just sit on a step with M’sieur’s kind permission, and paint away. People come and watch. Little children throw 100mph spates of French at you and you have to draw pictures to answer their questions. A 67 year old lock tender comes and says, “C’est chez moi!” and signs the painting on the back that depicts his ancient stone house that has endured, he says, three floods in the years he has lived there.
Continental art supplies
Faith Puleston, Germany
Here in Germany there is a terrific choice of materials including everything from such renowned firms as Winsor & Newton, Daler-Rowney, Lascaux and Sennelier, Rembrandt, Lukas, Schminke, Liquitex, Faber-Castell, Conté, Blockx (wonderful watercolors), Caran d’Ache. Dutch, French, Swiss and German products are all available in student and artist qualities, and of course you can get best quality paper and all the other paraphernalia you need to get going. Perhaps you could persuade an art supplier from the nearest city in France to send you a brochure or stock list, with a view to having your requirements met as needed “on site”? I think if I were going on such a trip, I would probably only take my favorite paintbrushes, a limited palette in whatever medium I had decided to work in, a pencil or two, conté chalks and a sampler pad. You can get them here containing various types of paper for various mediums.
Ann Aldinger, Memphis, TN, USA
I haven’t traveled since 9/11, but would advise to pack paint tubes in checked luggage, protected with bubble-wrap, and enclosed in zip-lock bag. I had carry-on alkyd paints confiscated by airport security with no recourse. I also carry rolled linen and paint on cut pieces taped to cardboard. Every evening I remove the tape and hang the work on the bathroom wall — they dry quickly. When returning home, I roll all together tightly, tape and pack. At home, glue to cut board. I would also advise — LESS IS BEST. Painting equipment gets heavy after a few days. But I do advise taking what you think you will need, in some places art stores are not always easily found.
Pauline Conn, Bedford, Texas, USA
I recently flew with new tubes of water-based oils in my luggage and saw a sign announcing a possible $27,000 fine for not declaring paint. So I told them at the ticket counter and was asked to unpack my bag. After much discussion and consideration the expert from security let it through. If it had been up to the ticket agent, I would have lost my paints. After this I will either buy on site or mail ahead.
Doran William Cannon, Santa Barbara, CA, USA
Returning to NYC from Europe many years ago, a friend had brought some modern abstract statuary back with him. The wooden box was opened by customs and he had a hard time explaining that it was art. Another customs official came by, seriously saying, “You’d better shut that box or all those rocks will fall out.”
Pain needed as much as happiness
June Raabe, Naniamo, B.C., Canada
I’ll bet I am not the only one who read Chris Tyrell’s letter (in the previous clickback) and said, “Yeah, that’s me, I can identify with that!” As a young student at Art school I was (inevitably) offered something illegal to use at a party. I thanked the person and said “no thanks.” Why? In my youth, I often felt an alien teetering on the edge of sanity, unable to figure out the rest of the people. The idea of “mood altering drugs” scared me because my mind alters its moods enough by itself and I feared I might topple over the edge into the depths of insanity. In adulthood a parent was murdered, a marriage ended late and bitterly and the stresses of life took a toll on my health. During the worst of the divorce a doctor prescribed tranquilizers. I found it only took the “edge” off the pain, you didn’t hit “rock bottom” any more. Later a psychiatrist fearing they might be addictive warned me he was only giving one more renewal. I threw it away and went back to “full feeling.” Now I realize that pain is needed as much as happiness, it is an emotion and that’s what artists are about; expressing our emotions and sharing them. Who has not listened to Beethoven and not felt his despair at being deaf and yet also felt his spirit transcend this monumental barrier?
Don Getz, Peninsula, Ohio, USA
After a number of flights to Europe and Great Britain, I’ve settled for using ‘watercolor journals’, a 9″ high by 12″ wide spiral bound book of 140 pound Waterford CP watercolor paper. This, along with several brushes; a 1 & 1/2″ flat and a no. 8 round, a collapsible water container and a folding plastic Yarka watercolor pan set, and I’m ready to sketch & paint just about anything, anywhere. This setup allows me more time to do a variety of small watercolor studies, whereas with the old reliable (and heavy) French easel, I’d do two or three half-sheets in a day’s time and not gather nearly as much info as I do, when I’m creating the watercolor studies. The other really great attribute of creating the ‘watercolor journal,’ is that when you’ve finished it (I put a whole trip in one book), you can review the journal and ‘relive’ the entire experience! Try it… you’ll love it!
Easels and palettes
Joye Moon, Wisconsin, USA
A friend of mine who is a plein air painter, suggested I invest in a Soltek Easel to use while teaching classes around the country and abroad. This easel quickly became one of the most valuable art tools I use. It seems to be indestructible. The Soltek Easel fits into a small rolling suitcase that I can take onboard some flights. It is only 9 pounds and can hold all the supplies I need. It sets up in 20 seconds and can be put into at least 10 positions. The versatility it gives my while painting on location is perfect for my groups. Students can watch the demonstrations with ease and I find it very comfortable to work with. It has a strap that I sling over my shoulder making it easy to carry while walking to our painting location (and I’m only 100 pounds myself). One can also leave it in the small suitcase and wheel everything to the painting site.
I also use the Quiller Travelling Palette which fits perfectly on top of the set up Soltek Easel (it also fits a French easel and the Italian – French easel.) I can fit in all the paint I need since it has 24 wells and a space at the bottom to hold brushes. There is a nice area in the center for mixing colors and it has a tight fitting lid.
Bruce Meisterman, Memphis, Tennessee, USA
A cloudy day peers in through the window. It is gray, but doesn’t have the effect of dulling. I am not in the darkroom nor am I shooting. Still there is reason for rejoicing… the corporate world is rapidly disappearing in my personal rear view mirror and I am free to do my art for myself and whatever commerce finds it way to my door. Now that this is truly my life 24/7, I can say, “I am an artist, this is only my day job.” And I have already heard the cosmic and social equivalent of your customs officers’ “Go away.” Yes, gladly!
The following are a few more of the 250 or so entries that have come in since the contest was announced two weeks ago. They are not necessarily finalists in the “Free Painting Workshop in Brittany with Robert Genn” contest.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 97 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2002. That includes Sara Genn who says, “French pastels are the most beautiful things in the world. Buy them in France… use ’em up before you go home.”