Tuesday, February 17, 2009

How to build your own Pochade Box

One of the things I’ve always enjoyed as an artist was the craftsmanship involved. If it’s either building my own stretchers, prepping canvas, customizing equipment for the studio, or just preparing panels for future work, it is great way to kill down time between painting projects. Sort of a Zen thing, doesn’t tax the brain but is productive in all ways for my efforts.

When it came to me that I would tackle building my own Pochade box, there was a precise set of criteria I needed to meet.
First it could not take hours of planning and measuring. Some boxes seem very complicated for what their function is. It needed to be a simple, functional design. I built this box in an afternoon, maybe four or five hours total. The panel carrier took a bit longer, but we will get into that later in this post.
Second it had to be done with fairly simple tools. Most importantly, it must be easily built without the use of a shop full of equipment. I’ve seen some wonderful “build your own Pochade Boxes” online. But most people do not have routers and table saws, or any method to cut dados into material. Just a set of hand tools, an average person would own and simple joinery. No complicated hardware to fabricate.

Third it had to be lightweight and easy to set up, which of course, is the entire point of a Pochade box. A few I’ve seen on the market have hefty bottom boxes that make the person using them look like an organ grinder without the monkey. But more importantly, the large base restricts your arm movement with the brush, so streamlined is the idea.

And finally, it had to be inexpensive to build. The material cost on this Pochade box was $22.09 US, and $20.08 for the Panel Carrier. Then another $13.27 for misc. items such as glue, stain and polyurethane. All for a grand total of $55.44 US dollars.

So you are probably thinking, let’s have a look at this fifty five dollar Pochade Box? Here she is in all her glory with her side kick, Panel Carrier. Which we will also build so that we have a complete en plain air kit. Ta-da!

Still interested?
If so, then read on and I’ll walk you through the projects with some photos and some simple explanations. Following is a materials list, tool suggestions and a photo to clarify some of these hardware pieces.

Materials: Estimated cost:
1 – 1/4” x 5/16” – Tee nut .98 per bag
2 - #10 washers .98 per bag
1 - #10 – 32 x 3/4” bolt with nut .30
1 - 1/2 inch by 4”x 4” wood stock…… I used a scarp of plywood.1.00 ?
1 - locking table leg brace 2.89
2 – 4” x 3/4” continuous hinges 7.00
1 - 1.75oz container #18 x 5/8” Wire Brads .98
1 – 2’ x 2’ 1/4“ luan plywood 3.40
3 - 36” x 1/2” x 3/4” Hardwood Square Dowels 4.56

Tool List:
Small hand saw
Miter box,… handy but not necessary.
Philips head and standard driver
Drill, with a 3/16 inch wood bit

Your first step is to decide on the size of your box. I wanted mine to hold panels as small as 5”x7” and as large as 9”x 12”. So the finish size was 14”x 11”, perfect for fitting in most backpacks. Once you have made this decision cut your 1/4” plywood to your finished size.
I used a normal handsaw, but you certainly can use a jig saw. Be warned, this stuff cuts like butter. In fact you can cut it with several passes of a utility knife. The Luan plywood is probably the main thing I would do differently on this box. Wherever you touch it with wood glue it saturates the wood fiber and does not allow a nice stain penetration, even after wiping off the excess glue. Pretty much acts as a resist. On the Panel Carrier I switched to Birch plywood, more expensive but worth the better finish. Also try to get the two panels as square as possible, the better they match up, the easier it will be to complete.
Next, measure 4 inches down from the top, on one of your two panels. Then measure in from the side 4-1/2 inches. You should have a vertical line on this panel reaching one third of the way in from each side. These will be your panel clip guides. Carefully cut both line as straight as you can with the saw, and sand smooth by doubling a piece of sandpaper in half and sliding it through the slots. If your cut line is a bit wiggly, sanding will help, but on location with a panel in place you’ll never notice if you wandered off the line.

Moving on to the box frame, what we are using is a stock commonly referred to as hardwood square dowels. Usually located where they sell finish grade lumber, they come in a variety of sizes. I had no problem locating this material. I used the 1/2” x 3/4” stock so I could have the bottom of the box deeper for paint and the top thinner. The construction is to simply cut your square stock to length and shadow box your panels using butt joints. Use the 1/2” on end for the bottom panel and flat on the 3/4” side for the top. See photo. Thinly coat both the panel and square dowel with wood glue and let them set a minute, tack together using the small wire brads.
Cut one piece to fit down the center of the Pochade Box top, in the wood space between your panel clip guides.

By now you should have something that’s starting to look like a Pochade Box, and it’s all down hill from here!
Now for attaching the base plate and the Tee Nut, I used a 1/2” scrap piece of plywood, but any stock material a half inch thick will do. (If you build the Panel Carrier at the same time, you can use the extra 4” stock.) If you already have a tri-pod, check the fit of the Tee Nut with it. The size listed here is standard for most, but it is best to be certain. Once you’ve got the right size, take your 1/2 x 4 x 4 stock and drill a hole in the center and drive the Tee-Nut in with a hammer. They usually sell this hardware in a bag of three so you can have a couple of try’s at it. Center base plate on the bottom box about an inch from the lip, glue and tack from the inside palette side with wire brads. Place some weight on top of this and let set for a day, you need a strong bond here.

At this point, with everything dry, I sanded and stained the box and hit it with a coat of fast dry polyurethane. How finished you want the box is up to you, you could go as far as setting the nail heads or just leave it raw wood. I thought the varnish wood help clean-up after use, and I’m glad I did.
As far as the hardware, the back hinges are simple enough to install. The placement of side brace requires a decision. I wanted my box to open as wide as possible, giving me lots of room to move a regular handle brush around without bumping the palette tray. But when closed the hinge brace sticks out about an inch from the box. You can move it in and flush with the edge of the box and still get a good angle. This was just a personal choice, you need to decide which will work best for you. When you mount the brace hinge use the washers in between the wood and metal so that it will slide and not bind the wood. I used a nut and bolt on the bottom and a wood screw in the top. Figuring the bolt side would take the most abuse and needed to be stronger.

Now for the panel clips and how panels are going to be held. It can’t get any simpler than this. I really thought about all the commercial boxes and the “build your own Pochade Box” sites that I’ve seen. The panel mounts were often too complicated or took too many specialized tools. A simple backpackers bungee and problem solved. I actually think it holds much better than some of the sliding mechanisms I’ve experienced. Plus it makes this a box that anyone can build and quickly enjoy the experience of painting on location - pretty much the goal of this whole effort.


So that is the box. Pretty simple and streamlined, it weighs in at just under one pound. And easily fits into my pack with the panel carrier. I made a small hand palette that fits into the carrier from the left over material. And other than the tri-pod spent just fifty five dollars on this entire kit. With the money I saved I can really stock up on paint, where I would rather spend my cash. Besides isn’t that what I am suppose to be doing, painting?
I hoped this was helpful, that you get some good ideas, or it even inspired you to build one yourself. If you do, I would love to see yours, I’ll post it if you’d like. Also, feel free to e-mail me with any questions, or post any comments, or if you share this info, just call it the “Serrett Box”.
In my next post I will be showing how the Panel Carrier goes together, so stay tuned.
Enjoy, Jim

Friday, February 6, 2009

What is a Pochade ?

If you’re an artist or art student you’re probably familiar with the term. If you’re new to painting or someone just cultivating an appreciation of art, it’s worth the time to just summarize what a Pochade Box Painting is, and is not.
A Pocahde box is a small paint box mounted on a tri-pod used for painting on location. The word pochade is derived from the French word “pocher”, meaning to sketch.
The Pochade is no new invention. Artists have been painting landscapes “en plein air” or in the open air for some time now. Doing quick oil sketches or studies on location, which were often used as the source material for larger more ambitious studio works.
By the early 1800’s there was a major change in artist’s subject matter. A growing middle class, social and political upheaval, even revolutions that would restructure society. It would change forever an artist’s role - freed from the restraints of an aristocratic society of painting nobility and religious iconography. The elite aristocrat patron, was replaced by a larger wealthy upper “bougeous” class. That was a door of opportunity for the artist to pursue new concepts and genres.
The English painter John Constable did numerous oil sketches on location. He later translated some into larger or more finished pieces but is credited with being one of the first painters to work directly from nature. When first exhibited they were recognized for their freshness and spontaneity and created a major stir. They were bold and innovated and would be a huge influence on later Impressionists. What they declared most loudly was that the landscape was not just for mere background decoration, or for some moral-social political-allegorical icon, but worthy of subject matter on their own. Interesting schools of outdoor painting would follow - the Barbizon, the Impressionist, the Hudson River School and American Impressionist would all claim linage to him.
When you look at landscape painters such as Constable, or Thomas Moran and one of my favorites, Edgar Payne, you are awestruck by the information they convey in simple direct brushwork. Not because they learned some system or trick, but have spent their time in front of nature cultivating their skills. And the best way to emulate what these artists have done is to follow their footsteps. The first part of that journey is physically getting there.
One of the reasons for this blog is the resurrection of the pochade box.
As I’ve tried to point out there’s nothing new in this concept. Certainly some notable artists working in this format have helped. But the major reason for its revival is the innovations in equipment.

I’ve been a dedicated fan of the French Easel. Well suited for large paintings on location, being a very stable platform, extremely useful indoors and out. It has however for me two major draw backs, one that it is too heavy and clumsy for a major hike. And when set up it becomes a magnet for everyone whose ever know an artist, seen an artist, or wants to tell you about Uncle Joe or Cousin Beth, that was an artist. And didn’t you know them? Sorry, I never saw painting as a group activity and find it very distracting. You can not really blame them. The French Easel when set up is a very interesting and elegant piece of equipment.
With the Pochade, you can quickly and inconspicuously get into places and work. That alone for me is its best feature.
The Pochade has had its own revolution in the last few years. The idea of a light weight tri-pod mounted painting platform has revitalized the plein air movement.
Having been a backpacker myself, it should have been a predictable evolution of modern components, but I am amazed by some of the ingenious designs that have come out lately. Any backpacker will tell you “light and simple” is the way to go. And most boxes I’ve tried truly simplified the effort to get oneself on location and set up. There are some beautiful Pochade boxes on the market, most reasonably priced.
But in my next installment on this blog, I will be giving a demonstration on how to build a functioning box for under sixty U.S. dollars. Stay tuned to this channel!
I will also be posting my efforts here, the successes and failures, hopefully not too much of the latter. In the end it is about connecting with your subject. Challenging yourself to capture what you see, and being “in” a dialogue with nature. It will only improve your skills and discipline, and hopefully send you home with a great experience that you can share.
For this artist, that is what a Pochade Box Painting “is” or is about.
What it “is not”, is a system or method, some new “ism” or commercial margin zed product you buy. It is not a magic box, the magic is in nature, you’ve just got to go there and capture it.
So enjoy and get outdoors!