This is another update in my continuing quest to build a lightweight and durable pochade box and mast system in carbon fiber.
I would first like to preface this post with the statement that I am not an expert in working with carbon fiber and, the truth is, I have no idea what I’m doing. When I was a teenager, I tried to make a skimboard out of fiberglass. While my project wasn’t all that successful, I did learn how to work with the resin and fabric composite system which is common to both fiberglass and carbon fiber. My recent foray was guided by that single experience 30 years prior, combined with online research and a few YouTube videos. This should in no way be taken as an expert guide on building painting equipment with carbon fiber, and there are almost certainly much better ways of doing this.
That said, I do now have a few working pochade boxes and a large format plein air easel, so I wanted to show how I did it. And with that in mind, here are all the parts I used for my box:
Materials for a DIY carbon fiber pochade box
Foam mold I cut for the box shape.
Purchased pre-made carbon fiber reinforcements and wood slats for extra strength at the mast-hook and hinges.
Nomex honeycomb for rigidity.
Carbon fiber twill.
Epoxy resin (not shown).
And the method I used: First I covered my cut foam mold with released film.
Step 1: Foam mold covered with release film
Then I taped the wood veneer in place.
Step 2: Wood veneer taped around mold.
Next I brushed on epoxy and wrapped it with a couple of layers of carbon fiber. I added extra layers of carbon fiber, as well as the pre-made carbon fiber bits and wood slats in sensitive areas, such as where it hooks to the mast and where the hinges would go, respectively. (I didn’t photograph this stage).
Then I wrapped the Nomex honeycomb cardboard around that.
Step 4: Nomex honeycomb wrapped around the first two layers of carbon fiber.
Next I added final layers of carbon fiber (and epoxy), wrapped it with perforated release film and breather cloth, and and stuck it all in a vacuum bag.
Step 6: The box goes in a vacuum bag for 24 hours.
After the epoxy cured, I cut it the box in half with a Dremel, screwed in the hinges, and added another layer of carbon fiber to cover the hinges (not shown). Finally I cut the box in half again, cut holes for the mast-hook and my thumb, and sanded down everything.
Step 8: The box has just been cut in half with a Dremel, and the mold pulled out.
Cutting and sanding composites such as fiberglass and carbon fiber creates a great deal of dust which is very dangerous to inhale. While working on these projects I wore a bunny suit, respirator, gloves, and protective goggles.
For the mast, I wrapped carbon fiber around a balsa wood slat with an attached Arca Swiss camera plate and put it in a vacuum bag. I folded the extra carbon fiber from one end up over a small foam rectangle (wrapped in release film) to make the hook for the box.
DIY painting mast in a vacuum bag
For the panel holders I first wrapped tin foil around the mast to give some space, then wrapped that with release film, then wrapped carbon fiber again (with a bolt in the middle for the butterfly screw) and stuck it in a vacuum bag.
Panel holders tubes on my DIY carbon fiber mast.
Finally, I covered the panel holder tubes with carbon fiber layers and epoxy, and attached it to a mold with the shape I wanted for either panels or canvas or both, and put that into a food-storage vacuum bag. I switched to the food-storage vacuum bags so I could make a few at the same time. It works as well as my regular vacuum pump.
Making smaller carbon fiber mast clips with a food-storage vacuum bag
For the attachment on my Senz umbrella, I similarly wrapped both the cut-down umbrella shaft and the mast in carbon fiber, stuck them both into a vacuum bag, and then sanded everything down.
Custom carbon fiber mast attachment for my Senz umbrella.
As I mentioned last time, I’m not convinced this set-up is all that superior to a cigar box attached to an aluminum tripod easel, but I have a working system now so I’ll stick with it. Here are a couple of shots of my set-up in the field:
Small carbon fiber pochade set-up in the field.
Carbon fiber plein air painting system with a Senz umbrella.
The one area I have had great success with carbon fiber equipment is for larger, relatively lightweight easels. The one I currently use is shown in the photos below. It packs down small enough to fit into my suitcase, but expands to take up to a 47″ (120 cm) vertical stretcher bar. It attaches to a large Gitzo tripod via a heavy-duty ballhead. I also built a larger folding palette that I can both use in the studio, and then carry into the field and hook it to my smaller mast on the Sirui tripod. This way I’m always using the same paints, whether I’m working inside or out.
Larger carbon fiber easel design.
My kit on site in Maine.
To make the larger easel, I cut the shape of the masts in balsa wood, and wrapped them with carbon fiber and Nomex honeycomb. The top and bottom wedges to hold the canvas were wrapped around a mold to get the shape. I did it in three steps to get the parts to fit together.
Larger carbon fiber easel in a vacuum bag.
After the second stage of building a large carbon fiber easel.
The finished easel. Brushes for scale.
My carbon fiber half of the easel weighs in at around 2.5 lbs (1.2 kg), and I attach it to a very sturdy Gitzo GT2541EX which is 4.1 lbs (1.8kg). I got a tripod with the column that can be set at any angle with the hopes I could avoid buying a ball head, but it hasn’t really worked out. To get enough height in some situations I need the column up pretty high and have to use a ball head to keep the easel perpendicular to the ground.
My next customization will be to attach webbing and a buckle system to both the easel and my backpack, so I can quickly attach and detach it, as well as carry my large canvases on my backpack. The two camera tripods fit into the pockets on my backpack.
Overall, it’s been a lot of work to get this system going. A few people have asked me to go into production with these but, for the moment, it’s too much work for me to produce even one working model. Maybe if I can find a partner to make them, I’ll look into it. In the meantime if anyone wants to use any of my ideas for their own projects, go for it. As I said earlier, you’re not missing out not using a carbon fiber easel, but they are very lightweight and (I think) they look pretty cool.
This is an update to a post from a few years ago. I’ve been interested in developing a lightweight set-up for plein air painting and I feel I’ve finally achieved my goal. At the moment my backpack with gear for a day of plein air painting has a base-weight of around 8lbs, or under 4kg. For painting in rain, at night, or if I’m expecting variable weather I can add equipment as needed.
You can see the set-up in the images below:
My ultralight plein air painting kit.
My kit with everything opened.
Everything in the backpack. Small dog for scale.
Here is the key for the numbers, with hyperlinks (some are referral):
6. My set-up would be much lighter if I could learn to use fewer brushes. There are some very good painters out there who use one or two brushes for an entire oil painting. I don’t know how they do it.
7. Cadmium paints last a week on my palette, so I only bring tubes of the three blues I use (cobalt, ultramarine, cerulean), ochre, and titanium white. I go through a lot of those colors.
8. I probably use the Leatherman Skeletool once a year, and most times don’t carry it. Same with the allen key, once I get the proper tightness on the legs of the tripod I don’t really need it.
9. Most of the time the weight of the backpack and a water bottle is enough to keep the easel steady while I paint. In high winds the tent pegs work great. If I can’t get them into the soil I tie them to rocks or even lampposts or signposts in cities.
10. My next blog post will be on making a custom carbon fiber pochade box, mast set-up, and panel carrier (#12 and #17).
11. The Sirui t-025x tripod is the lightest tripod I could find that had decent stability and got up high enough for painting equipment.
13. For a rain jacket I really like the new Gore-Tex Shakedry jackets as they still breath even when you’re drenched in heavy rain. My previous jackets would ‘wet out’, meaning the face fabric would get soaked with water and keep the membrane from breathing, and the jacket would feel stuffy and suffocating in warm rain. This one breathes so well that I’ve even worn it in the summer as a bug jacket. The downside to the Arc’teryx version that I have is that the zipper leaks in really heavy rain. Other brands make them with better zippers. My umbrella is a Senz storm umbrella with a custom attachment that I made for the mast of my easel. It keeps the rain off of the painting and the palette, but unfortunately dumps it onto me while I work.
14. For carried clothes, the fleece/down/windbreaker jacket combo works great. Obviously I only take what I think I’ll need, but for shoulder seasons and places where the temperature can change dramatically (cough * the California coast * cough) the three layers give me a lot of versatility. Also, the dog gets cold quicker than I do, so she usually sleeps wrapped in one of the layers. In the past I carried a down vest rather than a jacket and I think vests are great for painters as allows for more mobility with our painting arms. And on the subject of shoulder mobility, climbing clothes are usually stitched differently so the sleeves can be raised easily. I find they work better than city or street clothes with the sleeves stitched in the ‘arms down’ position where you fight the fabric to raise your arm. It’s not a huge deal, but something to consider. All my shirts, jackets, and hats are black, dark grey, blue or dark blue so as to not reflect a confusing color back onto my painting when working contre-jour.
15. My current phone is a first generation 5″ Google Pixel. I wanted the larger storage (128GB) for shooting video while I travel, a high quality camera, and I prefer a headphone jack to the bluetooth-only design of newer phones. A powerbank is very useful for charging my phone when I forget to charge it at home, and the stylus works as a backup pencil if I need to sketch. In reality I almost never use it.
18. The KS Ultralight backpack works very well, but it’s not 100% waterproof. My worry with backpacks is that my medium will leak out, not that water will get in, so I’ve added an inner liner to the outer pocket where my pochade box goes.
This is still a work in progress, but I have arrived at a point where I don’t feel I can improve on anything in particular for the moment. Everything works great, and weighs as little as possible. My next goal is to get a similar set-up for carrying and working on very large plein air landscapes and I’ve almost got that working as well, so stay tuned.
I’ve been aloof with the blog posts. My apologies. I have a few longer posts in the works, and a few videos I’m working on. Here is the first one, the demo I normally do on my plein air painting courses showing how to glaze a dry landscape painting.
I’ll post the next ones as soon as I have enough free time to finish them.
Wild Turkeys, Carmel Valley. 8 x 12 in., oil on linen.
Plein air painting in California is always a joy and I’ve said before that I believe I became a landscape painter because of the beauty of California’s Central Coast. Here are images of my recent paintings of the area. As always, I spent a lot of time scouting by car as I needed to find picturesque motifs to enlarge into larger pieces in the studio this winter.
Farm near Soledad. 8 x 12 in., oil on linen.
Chaparral at Garapata State Beach. 8 x 12 in., oil on linen.
Point Lobos. 11 x 14 in., oil on linen.
In an attempt to lighten my travel kit, I tried just using a cellphone to photograph my work this trip. It didn’t really work out and I apologize for the quality of the images. I’ll go back to lugging around a DSLR.
Belladonna Lilies. 8 x 12 in., oil on linen.
Tina Painting in Big Sur. 44 x 11 in., oil on linen.
I taught a couple of workshops for Carmel Visual Arts and we painted in two of the Monterey Regional Parks District‘s parks. They’ve done a great job of setting aside some of the more beautiful parts of the Monterey area for public use and preservation.
Garland Park #1. 8 x 12 in., oil on linen.
Garland Park #2. 11 x 14 in., oil on linen.
Garland Park #3. 11 x 14 in., oil on linen.
The Barn at Palo Corona #1. 8 x 12 in., oil on linen.
The Barn at Palo Corona #2. 8 x 12 in., oil on linen.
The Barn at Palo Corona #3. 8 x 12 in., oil on linen.
The last three are from around my parent’s house in Carmel Valley. I’m always really interested in the views of neighborhoods as I love art which is focused on local scenes, which people might not notices as they pass by in their daily lives.
Horses on Garzas Road. 8 x 12 in., oil on linen.
The One Lane Bridge. 12 x 8 in., oil on linen.
Garzas. 11 x 14 in., oil on linen.
Before heading to the East Coast we painted around Lake Tahoe and near Sacramento and I’ll try to post those images in a future update. It’s always hard keeping up with the online stuff in the summers as there is so much painting to be done.
Morning in Stonington. 11 x 14 in.,oil on linen (on gatorboard).
These are some of my recent plein air paintings from a trip to Deer Isle, Maine. I was teaching for the Waltham Studios, and they have a blog post on the course.
4th of July Parade, Deer Isle. 8 x 12 in.,oil on panel.
I always have a great time in Maine. The landscapes are beautiful, the towns are picturesque, the people are friendly, and the food is great. It’s also much cooler in the summers, so working outside is much more pleasant.
Lifting Fog. 11 x 14 in., oil on linen (on gatorboard).
Hillside, Stonington. 8 x 12 in., oil on linen (on gatorboard).
Grey Day, Stonington. 11 x 14 in., oil on linen (on gatorboard).
Greenhead Road. 8 x 12 in., oil on linen (on gatorboard).
Plein Air Painters, Sand Beach. 8 x 12 in., oil on linen (on gatorboard).
Driveway, Reach. 8 x 12 in., oil on panel.
View from Church Street, Stonington. 8 x 12 in., oil on linen (on gatorboard).
Lobster Boats, Burnt Cove. 8 x 12 in., oil on linen (on gatorboard).
Fog. 8 x 12 in., oil on linen (on gatorboard).
Sunset, Stonington. 8 x 12 in., oil on linen (on gatorboard).
I spent a few days painting Ames Pond just outside Stonington. The colors and shapes were different from what I’m used to, and the views reminded me of some of my favorite Russian and Nordic painters.
Ames Pond #1. 14 x 11 in., oil on linen (on gatorboard).
Ames Pond #2. 8 x 12 in., oil on linen (on gatorboard).
Ames Pond #3. 8 x 12 in., oil on linen (on gatorboard).
Ames Pond #4. 8 x 12 in., oil on linen (on gatorboard).
I also did a couple of large plein air landscapes looking out towards the Eggemoggin Reach using my new carbon fiber easel and palette system. The idea was to create lightweight system that could fit into a small suitcase, yet would still be able to handle a big canvas in wind. You can see it in the image below:
Carbon fiber system for large plein air work.
So far so good, but there are some kinks that need to be worked out. In high winds I use a system of tent pegs for added stability.
Grays Cove looking toward Eggemoggin Reach #1. 36 x 48 in., oil on linen.
Grays Cove looking toward Eggemoggin Reach #2. 36 x 48 in., oil on linen.
Here are some of the recent larger plein air paintings from our hill above Florence. I did a couple timelapse videos of the progress this time.
Dawn over Florence #2. Oil on linen, 90 x 120 cm.
Dawn over Florence - YouTube
Olive Trees in May. 90 x 120 cm, oil on linen.
Il Sole e di Tutti - YouTube
I’m working on a stable and portable system for working on larger paintings on site. I’ve just finished the first iteration and I’ll be taking it back to the US to try it out next week. These were mostly done with my older Italian steel field easel set-up, which also works really well.
The next two images are of the same painting. The first (below) was painting in the afternoon, but then I decided to glaze everything orange to capture the evening light effect.
Old Olive Tree, early version with afternoon light. 70 x 90 cm, oil on linen.
Old Olive Tree, final version with evening light. 70 x 90 cm, oil on linen.
Fruit Trees in Bloom. 60 x 80 cm, oil on linen.
Garden at Villa Schneiderf. 90 x 100 cm, oil on linen.
After my recent anti-technology rant, here’s a post on smartphone apps for landscape painters.
These apps wont make anyone’s paintings better but they can facilitate putting oneself in a position where the focus is on the subject. The only surefire way to improve your painting with a smartphone is to use it as a black mirror.
I’ve switched recently to Android, so the links are to the Google store. I’m sure there are equivalents for iOS.
Il Meteo Weather App
Il Meteo’s hour by hour prediction is usually very accurate.
Knowing what the weather will do is obviously incredibly useful. I wrote before about Il Meteo, the Italian meteorological website I use to predict weather for plein air painting. They also have an app. It’s the one I always check first as it’s accurate most of the time. It’s pretty general though, and for more specific information I use MeteoEarth ($10/year) which has cool little animations which show you wind direction, cloud cover, and precipitation for the coming days.
Meteo Earth’s animated cloud cover display.
It also shows wind speed and temperature but I prefer Windy for wind prediction, and after 25 years in Europe I still haven’t figured out what the numbers in celsius mean (I know 0 and 40). The third app I use for weather is Clear Outside, which forgoes the fancy maps and animations and just gives numerical values for everything. I find its prediction for cloud cover especially useful as it is normally accurate, and because it splits them into high, medium, and low clouds. It also gives the dew point, which can be useful for predicting how wet I’ll get when trudging to my spot in the early morning.
Windy wind-prediction app.
Clear Outside’s numerical weather forecast.
More Clear Outside, showing the dew point and humidity.
I usually check all three apps and follow the majority opinion.
For people in other parts of the world, RainToday (it only shows up in the UK app stores) seemed to work well for simple, short-term rain prediction in the UK, and NOAA and MyRadar get good reviews from painters in the US.
Sun Seeker’s sun-prediction augmented reality view.
There are a bunch of these for landscape photographers. My favorite is Sun Seeker as it does an augmented reality view where it uses your camera to overlay the sun’s path through your view. It also gives the positions at other times of the year, which can be useful if you have a particular subject that you want in a particular light. The other one I check occasionally is Exsate Golden Hour, but really just to check the sunset and sunrise times. It gives the time for the ‘golden hour’, but I think it’s different for painters than photographers as I consider my golden hour to last much longer than the app does. It also predicts stuff like ‘expressive skies’ based on whether it’s going to be partly cloudy at sunset. For calculating sunrise and sunset The Photographer’s Ephemeris can also calculate mountains that will shorten the day at either end, but it’s a confusing app and I don’t use it. I mention it because landscape photographers seem to love it. They have a desktop version you can try for free.
Kompass topographical maps
I find topographical maps to be very useful in scouting for landscapes. I can often calculate a good view by studying the lay of the land before I even start driving to the location. And they are especially well-suited to scouting in Italy as I can often predict the picturesqueness of a view based on the layout of the buildings (older buildings are rarely on a grid, and are usually much better for landscape painting). My favorite paper maps of Tuscany are made by an Austrian company called Kompass and some of my favorite painting spots were found using their maps, so I was quite happy to see they now have an app. It’s not as nice as having a paper map, but it’s certainly more convenient. Their library isn’t very extensive, but they do central Tuscany quite well (the only building they don’t have is the one I live in now). When I couldn’t find Kompass maps for an area, I would often use the Italian state’s (IGM) maps which are available via other apps like MyTrails and BackCountry Navigator.
MyTrails using the Istituto Geografico Militare maps.
Istituto Geografico Militare map on BackCountry Navigator
The other map app I’ve played around with is Komoot, which has navigation instructions for hiking and mountain biking, and does a good job of knowing actual trails in the areas around Florence where I’ve tried it.
Komoot’s trail navigator.
Gaia GPS gets very high praise from hikers but, as it doesn’t show the buildings here in Italy, I prefer the other apps.
Lastly, Peakfinder and Peaklens can show you the names of mountains in your view, which can be useful for titling work.
Screenshot of Peakfinder pointed over the rather uninteresting Arno valley.
Peaklens’ augmented reality view (more or less the same view as Peakfinder above).
I bought a Jot Pro stylus and tried a few drawing programs. I can see how it would be useful for thumbnails and for artists who feel more comfortable with digital media, but I still prefer a pencil and paper. I tried Autodesk’s Sketchbook, PaperOne, and Bamboo Paper. I think PaperOne was my favorite of the three as it felt the most like an actual pencil. Their lay-out leaves much to be desired though as the tools take up too much of the screen space. Autodesk felt the most polished of the three.