Paint boxes come in a lot of shapes and sizes. They have been around for a long time and over the years innovations and improvements have been made to make the job of the plein air painter more practical and enjoyable.
Let’s start with the basic box, usually in 12×16 and 16×20 sizes, with a lid containing slots for panels. With the smaller size, the artist would typically sit out in the field on a stool with the box handle fastened to a belt or rope around the waist and paint away. (Not exactly the most convenient way to work, but it got the job done). The alternative was to mount the canvas or panel on an easel, which would require the painter to bend down to the ground whenever a tube of paint or tool was needed. This situation was remedied by further innovation in the form of the Gloucester or Anderson Easel, a good wide based set-up that can more than handle the task and is still in use today. It was designed to accommodate the 16×20 box that was then mounted on the easel. This eliminated the need of constant bending and the accompanying back problems. This particular configuration was used in New England quite a bit, which enabled artists, like Edward Redfield, Aldro Hibbard, Anthony Thieme, Emile Gruppe’, to execute larger paintings in the field while standing.
During World War II, a French prisoner of war named Roger Jullian invented the Jullian Easel. This rig combined the easel with the box making it a lot more convenient out in the field. Today, there are several different varieties, including the full box and the half box. This is an excellent way to go with the added feature of portability, off the ground work station and ability to handle small to mid sized canvases. There are several knock-offs to the Jullian, but I would suggest that if you are considering one of these you stick to the brand name. Besides being a great box, the Jullian is also inexpensively priced when compared to some of the other high-end systems. Since both can be used on a table without extending the legs they are also good for the classroom or studio. These can be purchased at most art supply stores.
A variation on this idea is the Russian easel. They always remind me of the french easel turned backwards, which means always having the back leg right in the area where you want to stand. I’ve never been impressed with the arrangement, but some like it. I’m not really sure how long this easel has been around, but I have seen at least one photo of an artist using it, circa 1940’s.
Open Box M is a great company for paint boxes. They have a large variety of pochade boxes and several different configurations of palette/panel holders that fit on the bogen tripod. When this box came along it was a real innovation which is now a standard fixture for on location painting. I have had the 10×12 version for years and love it, especially for backpacking and travel. You can even order one of these in a waterproof box that can go just about anywhere (including rafting trips in Alaska, which I have done). The only disadvantage here is you’re back to a box on the ground, but this has been overcome to some extent by brass brush and knife holders that can be mounted to the panel holder. It’s a little more pricey than the Jullian, but well worth the expense.
The next easel/box is the Soltek, invented by artist Jim Wilcox of the Wilcox Gallery in Jackson Hole Wyoming.|6| This one is fairly new on the scene, but has made quite an impact on the plein air community since its inception. I don’t own a Soltek, but many of my students do and all seem to like it. Like the French Easel it is good for either indoor or outdoor work, has an off-the-ground work station, and is lightweight and portable. Like the Open Box M, the Soltek is one of the higher end brands out there, but well worth the price for both experienced and inexperienced artists alike.
One last easel I was recently made aware of by my friend, artist John Poon, is the Coulter Plein Air System, produced by the Art Box and Panel Company. At a mid-range price it is a unique design that has been around for at least ten years, but only advertised through word of mouth. It is light-weight and uses an innovative palette/panel holder that mounts on to a tripod.
Of course if you are good with wood and have the tools to do it, there is nothing wrong with making your own paint boxes and easels to suit your personal needs. I started out years ago, by making my own equipment and I still have several of these boxes in my collection, including my studio easel and another box I currently use outdoors. And there is always the possibility of a trade as well. A few years ago I was looking for a 6×8 pochade box for hiking, but wasn’t really thrilled with the prospect of making another box. Luckily, I was able to make an art trade with another friend, artist, Paul Kay, to do one for me like he made for himself. It’s been a great addition to my collection of gear and something I use whenever the occasion arises.
As you can see, there are a lot of possibilities out there depending on your personal preference and financial situation. The list of easel/boxes I presented here is not exhaustive, but reflect the ones I have been most impressed with over the years. If you are still not convinced about what would work best for you, talk to other artists and see how they like their equipment or try googling “pochade boxes” or “paint boxes” and see what comes up. There is sure to be something out there for every taste. Until next time, enjoy the winter painting.
An award-winning artist and teacher who has been painting the landscape both in and out of the studio since 1983, John Hughes maintains a studio in Taylorsville and teaches students in private workshops and in a course at Salt Lake Community College.