Friday, March 28, 2014

tinyExpanse tiny travel box. 

Today's blog involves a little Plein Air-tech-geeking for anyone interested in putting together their own traveling painting kit. 

The Box

My little painting box, my most prized possession, goes with me everywhere I travel. It is often cause for curiosity - it looks like a bomb kit to TSA agents. It looks like a drug kit to cops passing by. To me, it is my little haven that contains infinite opportunity for quiet time to observe the world around me no matter where I am.

I'm often asked how I travel with oil paint - there's lots of logistics due to the slow drying time of the medium. So I thought it'd be fun to share some ideas that have worked for me to help you start your own painting kit.

Over the last 2 years I've reduced the size of my basic Plein Air kit to a 9"x5"x3" aluminum Sigg ALU box, and fantasize about downsizing to their smaller ALU Box Mini (about 7"x5"x2.5"). I love these boxes - the latches hold up well, they are easy to pack with their sturdy rectangular shape, paint can be scrubbed off them with a scotch bright pad, and they have a good looking design. The larger box fits perfectly into my small day/hydration pack, leaving my hands free while I hike to my painting location. Most of all I just like the clank of the metal on metal when I put on the lid.

Here are the essentials I keep inside my Sigg box:

Paint Pouch

A sturdy TSA approved pouch of paint. I got mine at the Container Store a few years ago and it has held up well - the zipper still works well despite abuse from dirt and paint. Make sure the mesh is strong, as this pouch will get worked. I fill 22ml empty paint tubes ordered from Jerry's Artarama with only my most essential paint colors. These are small enough for plane travel. I just put my shampoo and other liquid cosmetics in the pouch with my paint when I go through security. Keeping the number of colors you carry with you small will help you learn to mix paint more skillfully as well as cultivate your own color palette. I have about 12-15 but would love to get it down to 8-10.

Brush Holder

I've been through a few of these, first trying tubes specifically made for brushes. But this one, a 99cent toothbrush holder from the Container Store, has proved to be my favorite. One reason is because it is rectangular, making it more space efficient and less prone to rolling away from you (I recently lost my most treasured brush collection in this way with a round tube) I keep about 6 brushes with me, as well as a piece of vine charcoal and a sharpie marker that I use to date the back of my tinyExpanse paintings. 

Brush Washer

This gives you a way to clean brushes between paint colors. I got this from Guerrilla Painter on Jerry's Artarama. Guerrilla Painter is a fantastic resource for Plein Air painters. This Mighty Might Jr Brush Washer works really well and is a compact size at about 2" wide. Great for cleaning small brushes when you aren't going to have access to a sink for a few days. I use the larger Mighty Might at home in my studio. 

Painting Medium Container

Again, this is from Guerrilla Painter. It is their Large Mouth Single Palette Cup. I tore the bottom clip off since I don't need it, and repurposed it as a money clip (dorky, I know). I also put this in my paint pouch when I go through security at airports. If I'm going on a longer trip and need more medium, I carry an extra portion in a GoToob made by HumanGear. I love these. Some people might even like these instead of a palette cup, but I like to have the cup to dip my brushes into instead of always having to squirt medium onto my palette from the GoToob. 


Any small tin will do. I don't mind a very small palette so I went as small as I could at the time - I've since seen Altoid tins that are smaller and I'll try that one in my smaller kit in progress. The hinges on this one are a little flimsy - Altoid boxes are more sturdy. But this one has held up for 6 months when I only expected it to last a few weeks. I scrape mine clean every week with a spoon and then scrub it with scotch bright and dish or brush cleaning soap.

Wet Painting Storage

The most difficult element to figure out for my oil painting kit was how to protect completed, wet paintings from dirt and smudging while transporting. For my larger Plein Air kit, I use Guerrilla Painter's "Wet Painting Totes." I scoured the game sections of some thrift stores and came across this Rolling Dice box. Then I used sculptor's Balsa Foam from Blick Art to carve out an insert with bevelled edges to hold the painting in place without touching the face. I designed it so it holds either a 3"x3" or a 2.5"x3.5" mini canvas, the two sizes of tinyExpanses I make. I'd recommend standardizing your sizes so you don't have to accommodate as many different canvas dimensions in your storage box. I intended for the Balsa Foam insert to be a prototype to have made out of plastic or wood, but the foam has actually held up for nearly a year, so I'll use it til it breaks or until I can figure out how to get it printed on a 3D printer. I've also been working on a design for an insert that goes into a Sigg Alu Box that would be able to hold up to 10 wet paintings at a time. At the moment, when I travel, I have to leave wet paintings at my hosts' homes to mail when dry since I can only carry one wet canvas at a time. I'll let you know when I have this part figure out.

And then I throw in a small scrap of rag (I like about 3"x3") to wipe my brushes between colors.  That's about it! I put the Sigg box inside my daypack along with a few other items - brush soap if I'm traveling away from home, Ice Breaker Merino wool glove liners to keep my fingers from freezing in the winter while still being nimble, extra canvases, a few extra rags, and a GoToob full of extra medium. All these extra items can be left behind for shorter outings.

Have fun getting nerdy and putting together your kit! is a great resource that I mentioned a few times above. Carl, the inventor, will even personally call you to answer questions you post on the website. They have painting kits of their own that they sell, but I've found that they are a little bit heavy and bulkier than necessary, so I like my custom Sigg box kit for daily painting. I do use their Large French Resistance Box and tripod, as well as all three sizes of Wet Painting Totes for longer truck-camping outings.  The Container Store and drugstores are great for finding just the right shape and size storage products to fit inside your box. Once you get a first attempt of a kit together, take it out in the field to give it a try and little by little you will fine-tune it so it's perfect for your way of working.

And then, freedom to paint anywhere!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Confidence versus Arrogance as an Artist.

Today's blog is for the artists. For those of us who have caught ourselves apologizing or diminishing the fruits of our creativity.

I have been taking a life-changing seminar called the Public Art Academy run by the amazing Karen Bubb and sponsored by the City of Boise Department of Arts and History. I'd like to first say how lucky I am to have these resources. Karen is a unique and precious ally to artists. An artist herself, she understands what it means to pull new creations out of oneself day in and day out while also navigating the mystifying business world of art. And, as an administrator of public arts, she knows what logistical and financial challenges a city finds itself faced with each day in commissioning public art. So first, thank you Karen and Boise.

All this was preface to explain the source of my following musings about how we artists can empower ourselves by changing the way we talk about our work. Recently it was kindly suggested to me that I can be arrogant about my work. I accepted this as true. But it still bugged me to have it pointed out. After a few days I realized that the reason it bothered me was that I've spent years cultivating the confidence needed to put my work in front of people without apologizing for prices or trying to appear modest. The work we do as artists is all too often considered fluffy and easy, and it's assumed that we don't face the same realities of other business owners trying to get by.

Here's an example. I recently went to the bank to apply for a loan for a business vehicle. Here's how my conversation began with the loan officer:

Loan officer: "Hi Rachel, I'm John (not really his name). How's your day going?"
Me: "Hi John, good, how about yours?"
Loan officer: "Oh, busy, you know? But...I guess as an artist that's not your reality."
Me: (seething within the first 30 seconds of what continued to be a degrading conversation where I was compared to his grandmother who did watercolors and told that I must be supported by a boyfriend or father, or must exaggerate my expenses because my declared income couldn't possibly support me alone.) I bit my tongue not to tell "John" about my grandmother who liked to play monopoly, grouchy as his comment made me after having been up since 6am working on my website.

This sort of situation happens to artists every day. And I am becoming more and more aware and sensitive to it. And more determined to speak boldly and confidently about my work even if it means being accused of arrogance. Who would hire a contractor to renovate their home if they qualified their work - "Oh, I just kind of dabble with construction…I'm so happy someone appreciates my work even though there are so many better contractors out there". Sounds crazy right? But this is how artists are taught to speak about their work from childhood onward! As kids and throughout college we are taught that one can't judge art, that everyone's work is beautiful. But as math or science or even English students, there are measurable levels of quality and right and wrong answers. So too in art - some art IS better than other art. And if we as artists we can't stand up for the quality and value of our work, who are we to sell it?

From a client's perspective, I think it's important to know this reality. And also the reality of where prices are coming from. I put 50% of what I earn directly back into my work. And a price of a piece of art can't be broken into a simple time + materials equation. Besides the costly materials of the actual piece, I pay for my studio, equipment, insurance, travel expenses, photography, website, health insurance, promotional materials, 50-70% (yes, 50-70%) commission fees at galleries, and on and on. I am lucky to spend 20% of my time painting and 80% developing my business or preparing materials. These challenges are true for any business owner - the product in front of you represents a host of chores that might not be obvious. I can complete a Plein Air painting in 45 minutes. The faster I paint, the more accurately I capture light and the better the painting. But it can take me 10 hours of driving, $100 in gas, 2 days of preparation of canvases and gear, and an additional full day of waiting for the optimal lighting to complete this work. And, the experience of creating countless prior works of art that never sold but were necessary to develop the skill I employ today. Just as what you pay for the 20 minutes you spend with a doctor can't be calculated at an hourly rate, neither can the time you spend with an actual paintbrush in hand accurately represent the price of a finished work of art.

And then I am asked for discounts or donations of my work - because I'm so lucky to spend all day painting (playing), right?

I find myself hesitating to even hit publish for this post. Another moment of insecurity in being confident in what I do. But here I go.

Artists - own what it takes to do what you do. Be responsible for the quality of your work. And help your clients understand - they will love your work even more for it.