Sunday, December 8, 2013

Strada Easel Mini Review

#PleinAir #Painting

A few people have asked about my plein air setup that I show in pictures from the field:

So I thought I would post a review of this paint box and how I use it. It is the Strada Easel available here:

Previously I used a Sienna All-In-One Pochade box, which is a clever and well constructed paint box for a reasonable price. But it had a number of issues that didn't quite fit with me, so the search was on for a new solution. I won't go into a detailed review of the Sienna, but I will outline my problems with it. Perhaps other painters have similar issues.

All-in-One Pochade Issues

• Stability. 
The All-In-One carries paint, brushes, palette knives, paint panels, and whatever else will fit in the drawers, solvent cups for example. This whole load goes on top of a tripod and becomes a bit top-heavy. I wanted something lighter and shallower.

• I didn't need all-in-one.
This main feature, right in the name of the product, seemed like a great idea at the time. You have everything you need in a compact box with a handle like a suitcase. Take it with you, put it on your tripod and you're good to go. Turns out I needed a few more things (tripod, paper towels, medium, umbrella, chair, water, get the idea) which of course didn't fit in the box. So I put all this stuff, along with the pochade, into a large backpack in case some hiking was required, which it often is. Why did I need an all-in-one case when I had a backpack to carry everything? I didn't.

• Awkward paint drawer.
This was the deal-killer. I had this top-heavy box on top of my tripod, all my paints and brushes stored in a drawer whose lid was the palette itself. Clipped on the edge of the drawer was an included tray holding my solvent and brushes. (You can clip this tray on the left side instead, but I'm a righty so it was better on the right.) So if I needed more paint, or a different color, or a different brush, I had to slide open this whole assembly to get at them, which often resulted in brushes and/or solvent clattering and splashing on the ground.

• Palette too small and deep.
I use a small palette knife to mix colors and the palette on the box is deep down from the top edge, presumably to accommodate the canvas-holding mechanism when the lid is closed. This made mixing paint very awkward. I needed something bigger and shallower.

• Cleanup.
You might be thinking, "I just let my paint buildup on the palette, I don't need to clean it that much." But in fact, you do with the all-in-one. The problem is that the drawer top, aka the palette, slides in and out in grooves cut in the inner sides of the box. When mixing paint, it will inevitably get in between the palette board and the groove making it imperative that you clean out any paint in there if you want the drawer to operate at all in the future.

Ok that's enough to chew on, I was looking for a box with the following features:

New Paint Box Desired Features

• Shallow and light
• Large palette
• No need to carry paint and brushes, in fact I prefer it doesn't
• Extra shelf space to hold brushes, solvents, mediums, etc. while painting
• Ideally, a small side-palette for paint from the tube (more on this below)
• A hook to hold a brush cleaner

There are a number of boxes which meet these criteria, but I chose the Strada Easel and I'm very happy with it so far. Its features and specs can be seen on the website linked above so I won't go over them, but I will point out what I like about it.

Very easy set up. Just mount it on the tripod, open it up and get going. There aren't any screws or knobs to tighten, it uses a friction hinge which stays in place quite well, but is also easy to adjust the angle at any time by just tilting it directly.

Large, shallow palette. It comes with a white plexiglass palette mounted with velcro on the bottom. It can be easily pulled out for cleaning or replacement. I replaced this with this pad of grey palette paper that I cut down to the size of the box. When I'm done painting I just pull out the sheet and throw it away with my used paper towels and nitrile gloves. The only problem with this is the wind will blow up the corner of the top sheet, so I have to weigh it down with rocks, solvent jars, or use clips to hold the pad together. I may re-think this and use the plexiglass palette, but I do like easy cleanup.

Lots of shelf space. I purchased two shelves which are made to slide securely onto the sides of the box. They work quite well and are also made of the same sturdy aluminum. I keep my brushes, knives, and solvent on the right side, and on the left I have this Sta-Wet palette (intended for acrylics or water colors) on which I place my oils from the tube. I was wasting too much paint cleaning off the whole palette every time, so this keeps the paint around a little longer, and gives me a lot more room on the main palette for mixing. I have left paint in this for a few weeks at a time, with good results. Some colors are still perfectly fresh, and some others have a skin formed which I scrape away to get to good paint inside.

The drawback with this is if you are a fast mixer and are used to going back and forth quickly from tube colors to your mixing color on the same palette, this probably won't work for you. But it's not that much farther to go with your brush, it preserves your paint that you've already squeezed out while at the same time leaving you ample room to mix on a cleaner palette.

I also have a brush cleaner dangling from a hook on the edge of the box, a garbage bag clipped to the side, and a paper towel roll on a rope clipped to one of the shelves. All this sets up in seconds and is put away in just a few minutes.

I carry my paints in a small Artbin container, and my brushes in a folding brush holder. These I can now easily retrieve without disturbing my easel and palette. Problem solved!

I am quite happy with this whole setup and it has eliminated all the issues I had with my first pochade box. What I like best is the simplicity of it. No complicated drawers, latches or knobs, sometimes these can be too clever and just get in the way. Now I just need to keep painting, learning, and improving!