Monday, February 2, 2015

Gear Update

 Back in the late 90's, when I thought I would seamlessly transition from pastels to oils. I purchased an Open Box M pochade box, along with an umbrella and a tripod to mount the whole rig on. Once I decided to stick with pastels, I kept the umbrella, which I mounted on the tripod, while I sat nearby on a stool with my pastels laying on the ground in various boxes. That setup explains why I regularly lost so many umbrellas over the  years. A gust of wind would periodically blow the whole rig away from me while I was seated on my stool, and when I couldn't grab it in time, would helplessly watch the umbrella transform into a wounded bird with a broken wing, never to fly, or shade, again....

One cannot blame the equipment for such ineptness on my part.

About 4.5 years ago, I did a blogpost on what gear I was then using for plein air work. I've altered my gear considerably since then, so I thought I'd give an update about what has changed, what has remained, and why. The photo above shows the setup I'm currently working with outdoors. 

 First off, kudos to the Bestbrella, which I'd just started to use back then. I'm happy to report that I've not broken a single umbrella since I started using it. I credit the entire system... the flexibility of the fiberglass umbrella ribs, the sturdy mount, and the poles, which are strengthened at the joints by a sliding tube. A gale wind will likely demolish anything, including this setup, but for most painting expeditions, this works very well. The weakest link in that system is the poles themselves, as they have a short threaded insert that can become loose over time, causing a bit of play and wobble. Patty Kellner, the owner of Bestbrella, advised me to fix that with a specific type of thread locking glue, and it does the trick. 

Next up, I changed from a small All-In-One easel, to a Heilman backpack box, both of which will mount on a tripod. I enjoyed the All in One for its light weight, and ease of use, and it came highly recommended. The reason I discontinued using it was that I had developed some problems with numbness in my fingers after about 6 months.  I have a full time job, where I daily use a computer with a tablet, so any plein air work with a specific configuration could either ease, or possibly exacerbate, any underlying issues I might be already having. Such was the case, unfortunately, with the configuration I was using at that point. The primary problem was that the image area was only an inch or so above the box holding the pastels. Think of a very small open suitcase with the pastels in the bottom, and the artwork mounted in the lid, set at 90°.  In order to keep my wrist and arm out of the pastels, I started raising my elbow up to the height of my shoulder, and within a few months, I was suddenly dealing with numbness in my fingers, and a fair amount of pain in the tendons in my arm, etc. Conversely, the easel for the Heilman box is like a small music stand that plugs into the top of the box and keeps the image area comfortably separated from the pastels. In addition, the easel is slightly tilted, so that one is not, by default, restricted to a 90° angle on the work surface. I should note that All in one has since changed their hinge setup to allow for other tilts. In addition, many artists use their product with no issues at all. 

A view above of the Heilman Box mounted on a tripod, with one compartment open. One of the benefits of this design is the way the foam covered box lids lock down on the pastels to prevent them from moving around during transport.

Here is the easel mounted onto the box. It is adjustable, and has the capacity to keep the artwork well elevated above the sea of pastels  below. This was the ergonomic remedy I was seeking. 

Here is the bracket that mounts the box to the tripod. It is an Arca-Swiss compatible type, which is a wedge shaped mount that is an industry standard in professional grade photographic equipment. These brackets come in different lengths depending on the weight and size of the equipment to be mounted, and are available from many manufacturers. This one is made by Sunwayfoto.

For the tripod mount, I chose what is called a leveling base.  Also available from several manufacturers, they offer a limited range of tilt, and are used to level equipment when the ground plane is uneven, without having to resort to changing the lengths of the tripod legs. This mount was designed for photographic use, but it serves some useful needs for the artist. First, the limited tilt range of a leveling base means that it is unlikely to unexpectedly flop so far over as to dump all your pastels out of the box. The tilt range of the mount I use is limited to 10° in any direction. I consider this a built in fail-safe mechanism. Like any regular ballhead type mount, it can swivel 360° in any direction, which is useful when a tripod has a non-rotating center column, as mine does. This means you can rotate your art and your pastels to keep work in the shade, or to paint a different view, without having to pick up and move the tripod.
The mount I use is made by Acratech. Here is another picture of it:

The top element is the Arca-Swiss compatible clamp that grips the wedge on the box. 

You can see in this side view, how the box can be mounted level, while the center post of the tripod is off vertical, and the tripod legs are set at different angles. There are many types of mounts that can achieve this,  but I chose what I did for simplicity, ruggedness, and light weight.

The primary qualities  in a tripod that a plein air painter benefits from are stability, ease of use, and light weight. The weight is really only an issue if you regularly carry all your gear a fair distance to paint.  Since I periodically hike several miles into some locations, I am always interested in lightening my burden. It is certainly true that I could lighten my load more effectively by going on a diet.

 In picking the Gitzo 1541 I found I reduced the weight of my tripod by half a pound, and gained noticeably more stiffness and stability. The catch is that it cost more than 3x as much. I chose to use professional photographic equipment because it is designed to securely hold thousands of dollars worth of lenses stable, in all sorts of conditions, and still be portable and reliable.

In about 18 years of using tripods, this will be my third, and possibly the last one I'll ever need. Does that mean it's perfect? Nope. I do wish it had the leg angles I was used to on my old bogen/manfrotto, or the tripod sold by Easyl, that I last used, but I've compensated by setting one leg longer, and at a wider angle, than the other two, so that it has a stance not  unlike a Gloucester easel, which gives it a stable footprint. 

Here's a typical setup with a few other functional elements to point out. First, I do use a small accessory tray (available from Heilman) that hooks onto the side of the wooden box to store pastels that I'm using for a scene. In this picture, I'm also using the wooden lids to lean against the back of the easel to keep direct sunlight off my sticks. This does not work at all in the wind, by the way, and makes me miss the All in one box that self-shadowed my pastels by design.  Lastly, I have a rag handy to clean my fingers and pastels while I work. And, like many, I still feel the need to haul more pastels around than will fit in my box, so you can see a Blue Earth box (and lid) sitting on top of my other sticks. What a mess! I can't say this is the 'ideal' setup by any means, but going this route has kept my RSI from recurring, improved overall stability, and lowered weight.

During my research, I did look carefully at mini-gloucester type setups where the box is mounted on the tripod legs, below the apex, and the artwork is on a separate easel that attaches to the tripod head. In terms of weight distribution, I think that is one of  the most stable of all configurations, as it significantly lowers the center of gravity. Accordingly, I tried the Easel Butler out and also ordered a fitting that allowed me to mount the detachable Heilman easel to the tripod head. I was not satisfied with the result, however, as I was very nervous about the pastel box getting knocked off the 2 bars, as the weight of the box (~11 lbs) was enough to slightly tilt forward the aluminum cross brace holding the bars. Yes, one could bungee it on, etc., but at this point the setup starts to become more laborious, as the shelf has to be assembled and mounted, the box placed on it, then secured, the easel separately put on, etc. 

If Heilman made a version of their box with a fitting that was dedicated to mounting on tripod legs, I would definitely give it a try. There are several such boxes made for painters, by the way, of which the Coulter is perhaps one of the original, and simplest, versions of such a design. 


rroseman said...

Being a hand therapist / pastelist I choose not to have a n all in one system for the exact reason you mentioned. I use dakota box, featherlight pro easel with easel butler and bestbrella for my plein air work. A program of stretches you do intermittently during the day for computer and painting work can be helpful as well.

Bill Cone said...

Thanks for the comment. I've updated my post in response, as I did give the Easel Butler a try. I found it to be better in concept than execution, as its load bearing capacity, plus the length of the bars was not ideal for my setup.

Kathleen Lipinski said...

Bill- I'd like to talk with you about participating in "Marinscapes" a landscape exhibition.
Kathleen Lipinski

Shelley McCarl said...

Bill- I am interested in your Pt. Reyes fall workshop; when might info be posted, and would I look on your blog or the Pt. Reyes one?

Re your raised elbow/ arm position- I had just the same thing because that was my default position for all my easel work--who knew how bad that is for your shoulder??! I think they should name a shoulder condition "rotator cuff pastellitis"! I'm glad you were able to deal with it without surgery; the surgery is NO FUN.

Last thing-one thing I love about your work is how you are able to capture light with what looks like a very high key value range. (I haven't seen originals of your work, but I do have the 'Light, Water, Granite" exhibition catalogue & have read all of your posts,many repeatedly). Do you use many very dark darks at all? Your set up photo looks like your value range is maybe midtone to lightest light-is that because of the photo, or do you generally stay away from very darks? Thanks, Bill!

Bill Cone said...

Hi Shelly, Signups for my September Pt. Reyes workshop are open. Here is the link:

With regard to the range of values in my palette, I would say you are generally correct. I will use darker colored paper to get the overall value range into a lower key, like in a forest, or a creek. I do not carry a lot of hues in very dark ranges, primarily aiming for warm/cool possibilities way down low. It is not so difficult in landscape. When dealing with the clothed figure, urban nocturne, or a lot of man made items, you need more saturated colors in the dark values.

Unknown said...

I have signed up for the September 11 Pt. Reyes workshop, and am really looking forward to it--but friends are warning me that I won't be able to handle hiking or carrying a back pack. How much hiking is involved to each location [approx. miles and time]? Are there steep climbs, rocky trails etc.? Could you give me some idea of the schedule on Saturday and Sunday, including when we go back to Lighthouse Station or other places with restrooms? Would I be able to use a cart (on the trails) to carry heavy equipment? What is the longest stay at any one location? If it's not too long a stay, perhaps I would do better with just a camera, sketch pads, a stool, and a few pastels. Also, are there steep stairs or stairs without railings in Lighthouse Station?

I have never worked outdoors with pastels -- in fact it's been years since I've worked with pastels -- so will have to get everything new unless you know of somewhere that rents some of the equipment. My home email is and home phone is 415-381-8124, direct work number is 415-659-5602. Thanks for any help you may be able to give me.

Shelley McCarl said...

Hi again, Bill,

Couldn't do the Pt Reyes workshop because of rotator cuff surgeries this summer--maybe next year. My question is, did you look at the en plein air pro set-up at all? We're going to be living in a trailer next summer, and I'm trying to figure out the best easel etc for both oil & pastels, multiple sizes of canvas/paper. I'll only have room for 1 easel, and I can't tell if the Heilman one would work for both mediums. Also, does your Heilman box set really firmly on the tripod? My guerilla box wobbles, but that may be my tripod. Any suggestions would be welcome!

Shelley McCarl