Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Little Watercolour Box

This blog is more fully illustrated on my ‘Flickr’ site:

This summer I foresee the delightful prospect of a whole week devoted to sketching and painting ‘en plein air’: I have the wonderful opportunity to spend this time on holiday in Switzerland, incorporated with a family visit.

With this in view, I have had to scramble a bit to complete the assembly of a suitable kit, making sure I have everything I need for watercolour work in the field. I haven’t done much ‘plein air’ work so far, perhaps half a dozen little pieces, and I certainly haven’t been properly equipped for it! After managing to paint several small works whilst standing up I concluded the first thing I needed was a camp stool! I found that item, together with a light knapsack for which it forms the frame, in an art supply shop in Bath. Other items were soon added, with the help of advice from my friend David Gilmore (‘Gilmopix’ on Flickr). Until now I have not been using a watercolour ‘travelling’ box, since most of my work has been done in my studio and I have always bought my paint in tubes. I decided to buy the small Winsor & Newton ‘Cotman’ box to carry around. This however, only holds twelve pans, and I do find that very limiting. Now, I know that I should work harder on limiting my palette, and there is a school of thought too, which holds that one should mix as many colours as possible from a small range of pigments. Whilst respecting that point of view, I find that really doesn’t work for me. I do love pure colour, and I can’t resist buying lots of them. It seems to me that if a certain pigment offers that colour of itself I like to use it, though certainly with modification when required. What I am saying is – I like to pick the colour as close as possible to the hue I need and mix in as little as possible to bring it to what I want.

All that is to explain why I embarked on the enjoyable project which I have just finished: I have built myself a watercolour box. Why build; you say? – when there are so many ready-made boxes available? For several reasons. I couldn’t easily find a box that would hold as many colours as I wished, and I wanted it to be as small and light as could be, consistent with that requirement. Further, whilst I am not particularly price-sensitive, I did find that my eyebrows went up a bit at the price of an empty box. Also, art supply stores around here are scarce, and I haven’t yet found an online supplier here in Canada. So a couple of weeks ago I set to work.

Now it never does to be in a hurry, especially when designing a delicate piece of work. But sometimes there is a deadline and you must go for it. This box could have been made better, but it does the job. I already had a small plastic mixing palette, which I decided to build into the lid of the box. This roughly determined the overall size. I had also bought plenty of plastic pans and half-pans in anticipation of this work. I planned the interior to hold four rows of pans. Each row would hold eleven half-pans or six full pans.

The first design problem to be solved was how to make sure all the pans of paint would stay in place without having those useful metal strip spring clamps to hold them. The answer came to me in one of those happy wakeful moments in the night, when I allow my mind to range where it will: (my form of meditation). – I would divide the rows with wooden strips onto which I would glue a thin cork facing which would be springy enough to compress slightly and grip the pans. I had the cork – several small sheets, about 2mm thick, acquired for fifty cents at a garage sale a couple of years ago. I knew it would come in handy one day!

I began by making a frame to hold the lid, and another with dividers to hold the pans. I made sure they were identical in outside dimensions. Before I assembled the lower (box) frame I cut the tiny dadoes in the end pieces to space the dividing strips. This spacing was critical. When I measured the plastic paint pans, I found that the full pans were fractionally smaller than the halves, though nominally and supposedly identical. I built this slight difference in, so that one row is specifically designed to hold the full pans, the other three hold half pans. I had to adjust one row (where the fit was a bit sloppy), by adding a layer of thick paper to the wall under the cork facing.

Next I glued on thin sheets of Baltic birch ply to form the top and bottom of the box. I matched the two halves up and sanded them so they were perfectly fair, then fastened them together with a small piano hinge. The front side is fastened by two tiny (20mm) filigree brass latches. (Small box hardware from Lee Valley Tools.) The pans are a ‘push fit’ in the rows. Lastly I applied a number of coats of varnish (it’s amazing how that plywood drinks it up), so that when it gets too messy with accidental paint marks I should be able to wash it off.

I found it difficult to settle on an arrangement for the colours. Partly I tried to be guided by the way Winsor & Newton have ordered the hues on their colour chart, but the need to choose a layout which would as far as possible make it easy for me to find my colours instinctively took precedence. I had arbitrarily decided to reserve one row for full pans, thinking that these should be used for ‘weak’ colours and/or those I use a lot of. I’m sure this preliminary placing will be changed as I find out what works best. Before loading the pans I made sure to label each one with the colour it was to contain, so if I can’t remember what’s what I just have to extract the pan and read the side.

Yesterday I got the box loaded up with thirty-nine paint colours. It is all ready to go. It measure 20cm x 11cm x 2.5cm overall, and weighs exactly 250 grams (just under nine ounces), fully loaded with paint!

So, on to the next task – decide what different watercolour papers to take: what sizes, types, which sketchbooks?

They say that anticipation is half the fun.