The Strada for Pastel Plein Air

As a traveling plein air pastelist, I have found one thing to be true. Carry less so you can have more. More freedom, more practical thought, more ability to move about, and more joy. You see, pastels are like a piano. You need each key to make a beautiful harmonic composition. With oils, you can travel with as few as four colors to make a painting. Not with pastels, oh no. I would jokingly compare it to carrying an upright piano on your shoulder. I think I carry about 250 pastels in my plein air box and the weight adds up. Some pastelists carry more. My plein air box weighs 14 pounds when fully loaded and so I lovingly call it my "Box of Rocks". So it is no wonder why I am always on the lookout for ways to make my set-up less heavy and complicated.

If one were to calculate all the miles I must have hiked with my current pastel box, it would probably be a combination of 40 miles. If you were to count the time I had to run down the halls of the Portland International Airport with my pastel box back to the North 40 after I discovered I left my precious box behind at the TSA, well then that's another 2 miles. Honestly, I tell you, my pastel box is heavy and cumbersome as with all of them out on the market today. They are just heavy and no getting around that. But what if you could fit it into a backpack and free up your arms, then would that be better? Well yes it would. 

You see, I currently use an Open Box M that I have modified to allow the best set up situation and ease of use, but honestly, I have been using it less and less in long distance events because of it's size and weight.  Also what adds to the total bearing weight is the tripod I have to tote around for which it sets upon. A tripod must be lightweight as well as able to carry a payload of 10 lbs over the box's weight. So say your box weighs 11 lbs., then your tripod should be able to withstand 21 lbs. Why the extra payload requirement? Ballast. You need ballast to hold your box down on the tripod so it won't blow over in case of a hefty gust and to avoid a top-heavy set up. No pastel artist wants to pick up a pile of broken pigment chips on the ground in the middle of a beautiful painting experience. 

Well, that wish may come true. I am partnering up with artist, owner, and developer Bryan Mark Taylor of Strada Easel to modify his sweet little pochade box into a pastel box.  The Strada box is sleek offering a tension closure that acts as a panel holder. That means there are no nobs or wing nuts to catch onto anything and making it easy to put into a backpack.  It is sturdy. The Strada is made of powder coated aluminum that makes it nearly bomb proof.  It's compact, making it smaller than the average pastel box. It has additional "wings" that can be added to the sides of the box for extra pastels and can be folded upon themselves to easily pack away.

So in order to make the Strada "pastel friendly" I made a few simple modifications that I will share with you here:

A good pastel box needs to be lined with foam to keep the pastels from rolling around and getting crushed. So I searched for Memory Foam online and found Foam Source, a manufacturer who will customize memory foam to fit exactly the parameters set.  I measured my Strada Box's interior dimensions of depth, width and height for both the bed and the lid and a little extra for the walls of the box, as well as the side wings. 

For the 11x14 Strada Box, I ordered:
(1) Soft Memory Foam 16.5 x 12 x .5" (for the bed of the box)
(1) Soft Memory Foam 15.5 x 12 x .5" (for the lid)
(1) Soft Memory Foam 15.5 x 11 x .5" (extra just in case)

I tacked on an extra inch to measurements of the bed to tape to the walls of the box.

Because the foam is a bit "stretchy" you will need to press firmly down to
trim the memory foam so it doesn't drag and allows a clean, uniform cut.

checking the fit before setting it with adhesive

There is a peg in each corner of the box where they poke through. I am not sure what the purpose is for the pegs, but I suppose they are important for it's oil painting purposes. I will have to remove the pegs so there won't be a hard bump for a pastel to break on.

I had my handy Dad machine them off in a snap. Thanks Dad!

Next, I measured the exact bed dimension and cut some double-sided
adhesive for the foam to stick to. You can see there is a small peg remaining in the upper center area of the bed. That peg is a "must" for the tripod head to attach. When I set in the pastels, I will have to "remember" to avoid resting them on that peg.

Peel the paper off of the double sided adhesive.

Also affix the double-sided tape to the inner sides and
place the foam and press into place.

Here is the bed lined with the memory foam. All while I am building this interior bed, I am always checking the fit, measuring, and testing any challenges. When I checked the closure or the lid, I noticed that the bottom panel bracket would have to be removed when closed as it would crush the pastels and the pastel cover.

So I needed a nifty little spot to put the bracket and decided to cut a bit into the bed

And protect the pastels from the panel bracket by tucking it behind the inner liner.
Nearly done, but just a few more special things to do...

Next, I had to make a padded cover to protect the pastels from the lid.

I measured and cut a piece of heavy duty illustration board to act as a base for the inner lid.
Again, I applied double sided adhesive to the inner lid
and then cut and attached the memory foam to fit.  

I modified the lower left of the inner lid to fit snuggly around the panel bracket.

Then the side trays were also adapted with memory foam.
The larger of the two side trays doubles as a lid and a working space.

The small side trays close up like a small box and then strapped closed with 3 super-duper rubber bands. Use (2) 6" and (1) 9"super-duper rubber bands from PanelPak.

Then I scored the middle of the foam so I could place a thin piece of foam core down the middle lengthwise to give support and structure to the loose pastels.

A perfectly pretty box in every way.

It closes up snuggly. 

Fully assembled with side trays and clip in place on the easel. Now all I need is to find that special tripod and I'm set for easy travel.  This entire set up weighs in at 11.2 lbs.

Things I learned:
Measure twice, cut once.
Always order a bit more than you need. In case you make a mistake, then you won't be delayed in another shipment.
Order a foam thickness of 3/8", not .5" so the box will close a little better. 
Constantly check for obstacles. There are always a few surprises when modifying a box.
Think of creative ways to solve a problem.
Strada weighs 11.2 lbs / Open Box M weighs 14 lbs. I lost 2.8 lbs! 
*  (Open Box M no longer makes a box for pastels)

To make this box complete and ready for the field, I will need a tripod that fits these specs:

Folded length:  16.5"
Weight:  2.5-3 lbs or less
Payload:  21 lbs
Clamp legs/ twist are second best in my opinion.
Carbon Fiber
Quick release ball head
Reasonably priced $200-$400.
Wishing my dreams will come true.

So there you have it, a modified Strada for pastels. What do you think?  I would love to hear your thoughts on this by sharing you comments in the comment box below.

~ Brenda


Giving Permission, "Coachella Cadence" 12x16

"Coachella Cadence" 12x16" Oil
(pardon the glare)

"Coachella Cadence" detail

Pastels have been my medium of choice for nearly twenty-two years and have given me great joy and freedom to paint. Pastels have no mixing and drying time that traditional paints require. Sometimes I call it "pick and peck" painting. Pastels give me quick results and are fresh. I could finish a piece in one day and move on to the next.

When I began working with oils, I was consumed by learning all the names of the pigments and brushes, brushstrokes, mixing possibilities, other artist's palettes, solvents, mediums, and so much more. Coming from a pastelist's point of view, it was overwhelming. By now one would think I'd have a handle on oil painting, but I still struggle...a lot! Most of my struggle is in the mixing of pigment and getting it down in a wonderful brushstroke. I tend to lay it on messy and clumpy, or it's just plainly "cat licked" to death. Or worse, it was overworked leaving the piece heavy laden and boring. I was bored!

Then it hit me just the other day. I decided to step over the "boring" and gave myself permission to just paint with the palette knife and discover whatever comes from it. Loosen up a bit. Step through the gate. Cross over all those self-imposed rules. And when I did, I felt like a delightful child pulling petals off of a daisy and broke free from my self-implied shackles of painting with oil. No surprise that I painted all day long!

Painting with a palette knife is much like how I paint with pastels. I have found the flat side is much like the wide side of a pastel. I can smooth out pigment, let the canvas peek through, mix the colors and collect it without making my brush overly loaded. I can wipe it clean and start a new passage without cleaning my brush with solvent. A palette knife has thin sides which can be used to articulate fine lines and also scrape away paint. No more "over noodling" for me!

What makes it hard for you to paint? When was the last time you picked up a new tool? Are there things you wish you could do with your painting that others have inspired you to try? Then, why not?

Give yourself permission.


Laguna Plein Air Invitational final recap

The Gala Event and following show days...

(Sorry for the odd formatting, not sure why Blogger won't flush left.)

So it's Friday and the pressure to produce is off, making for a very low key day followed by the big artist's Gala. What does an artist do when they have time to burn? They paint some more! I headed out to Laguna's Main Beach and I spotted the iconic lifeguard tower and set up my gear, then along came participating artist Michael Obermeyer and then Jennifer showed up to paint too. It was a spontaneous, chatty time, with good laughs and sunshine
Painting the Life Guard stand of the Main Beach
with Michael Obermeyer and Jennifer Diehl.

"Day Watch" 11x14" Pastel  (sold) ©Brenda Boylan

After a great time painting, we headed out for some lunch and then home to shower up for the Gala. We had to be there an hour early so we could chill and see the work prior the guests.

My piece "Intersection on 1", 16x16" Pastel (sold)
Honored the Edward H. Boseker Award.

What an honor! Caught off guard by the big ribbon.

The Artist's Library:  artists' extra pieces painted from the week
 s well as from their studios.

Celebrating artists Lt to Rt: Brenda Boylan, Paul Kratter, Hiu Lai Chong, Aimee Erickson, 
Mark Fehlman, and Suzie Baker

My two favorite flirts, Jean Stern and Albert Handell.

The second day of the showing, the artists had to attend the event from 9-6:00 pm, so what do artists do when there is a lull in the day? They get out their painting gear and have a impromptu paint out.

Jennifer Diehl and Colin Page painting a portrait of a willing model.

A willing subject, sunflower still life from the surrounding table tops.
"Sun Day Bouquet" 12x9" Pastel
available at Attic Gallery.

The event ended on Sunday, Oct 24th around 3 and then all the artists and organizers said their final goodbyes. What a wonderful week! I had very little time to gather my remaining art from the walls, get something to eat, share a piece of art with my gracious hosts as a "thank you" for their kind hospitality, and then pack up to catch my flight.  Whew, what a day! What a week!

Thanks for following along. I'm hoping you imagined yourself in this special place called Laguna Beach. Perhaps I will fortunate enough to be invited back to paint again next year.

Thanks for sticking with me!


Laguna Day 6 Recap - Turn in work

These 3 pieces were my entries for the judging in the main gallery. We were also allowed up to 6 additional pieces for display in the artists library.

"Intersection on 1" 16x16" Pastel (sold)

"Pelican Point" 16x20" Pastel  (sold)

"The Backway" 14x11"  Pastel

Here are two very tired, yet very happy artists Jennifer Diehl and Greg LaRock
turning in their finished pieces,

It's Thursday morning and it was time to turn in all our work from 8-10:00 am.  

What has to happen prior submission of art is where the rubber hits the road. Dealing with fatigue and last minute decisions, making sure the inventory is picture perfect, paperwork matches the inventory titles, and stickers affixed with the pricing on the back of each piece is the crazy part that always gets me in a tizzy. It can be both exciting and frustrating. Then somehow miraculously, I have to figure out how to fit all that work into my tiny rental car without denting a frame or smearing a painting. It may seem easy, but this is where the plein air competitor earns his or her income, and a can be the tie breaker if not dealt with humor and stress releasing cussing. 

While checking in my work, I observed happy artists grinning to have wrapped up a week of wonderful non-stop painting. The treat when turning in work is being able to see all the other's work firsthand prior curating.  Some stunning artwork indeed. Unfortunately when I came around to my work, I saw condensation forming behind the glazing of 2 of my competition pieces. This will happen when a glazed piece is placed in hot, direct sunlight. Now you'd probably expect me to blow a gasket by now, but luckily I had my framing tool kit and was able to remove the backing off of my pieces to allow some air flow. All was all resolved.

The Gala wasn't until Friday night, so all the artists had over 32 hours to relax and do what artists do when in Laguna Beach;  gallery hop! So a few of us headed out to the Irvine Museum to view the current exhibition "Independent Visions- Women Artists of California, 1880-1940", followed by lunch and a few other fine galleries on the PCH.


Laguna Day 5 Recap

Wednesday morning and this is our last day of painting for the show so Jennifer and I returned back to Crystal Cove to paint the beautiful cliffs of Pelican Point. She wanted to finish her big piece, and well, I loved the place so much that I came along to paint a similar, yet smaller piece. There we were, painting away and what should propel across our view? A blimp of all things. Only in So. Cal I guess. By now I had everything I needed for the show and I was getting more excited for the Gala as well as feeling the rush to wrap the work up.   

Painting always makes me hungry.

Completed piece on the easel

"The Cliffs of Pelican Point" 8x10" Pastel ©Brenda Boylan (sold)

We packed it up and then we went to my host's house to do a little touch-up, photographing of the work, and signature signing before we had to head out to Randy Higbee's frame shop by 6:30.  But first, let me back up a bit to explain the one of the best parts about painting in Laguna.  Prior leaving for any trip like this, you have to arrange for your frames either by assembling and shipping them ahead of time at huge cost, or packaging them up and bringing them on the plane as extra luggage, all peppered with a little frustration and sweat. However, this time, I had the convenience of pre- ordering from Randy Higbee's King of Frames. The best part is that Randy Higbee has a "framing party" at his frame shop on the night before turn-in that eliminates all the stress of getting work framed for the show. The only hard part is deciding what frame style and size of painting you plan on framing a few weeks prior the event. You bring all your artwork to his team to assemble....all while being treated to a buffet meal and wine. How easy is that?  Super easy when you are dealing with pastels and glazing.


Laguna Day 4 Recap

It's Tuesday and I was beginning to feel more comfortable with the light of the day, the warmth of the sun, and the pace of the event, but definitely feeling pretty fatigued by now.  I headed out with Jennifer Diehl around 10:00 to a place highly recommended by Thomas Kitts. I'm so glad I got to see the beach, as I had been painting pretty much urban by this time and it was a welcomed relief to paint something organic. Thomas showed us a place called China Cove that had this wild looking rock formation with a cave like hole in it. The passing shadows moved quickly, so it was a tricky one to paint. We set up on the stairs and just painted away to the calming sound of crashing waves.  I brought a larger 16x20" for this one and I'm glad I did because it nearly painted itself!

Going large on location, this 16x20" 

The day was coming to an end, but not yet, because there was still time to paint a sundown painting.  We headed out to Heisler Park once again to paint and watch the sunset on the southern California coast.  I brought my Sennelier Plein Air Seaside set that has the perfect colors for wet and dry sand, ocean water and sandstone cliffs.  And well, I have to do a little shameless self promotion here.... my piece "Point Lobos Jetty" is blazed upon the box front...yes, I'm a Wheaties gal!

For dinner, all of the artists were treated with a buffet dinner at one of LPAPA's best supporter's.  I won't mention who they are for privacy reasons, but it certainly is a beautiful home filled with masterworks And I mean FILLED! One should even find good reason to visit the bathroom indeed. Recognized works from artist's like Quang Ho, Richard Schmid, Romel Delatorre, were displayed salon style, and gosh, I couldn't count how many beauties were enjoyed by the collectors. They had wonderful stories to share about each piece and how they acquired them that perhaps could be book bound.


Laguna Recap Day 3

Third day into the event and Monday morning rolled around, and I was not up to getting out of bed. Since I first arrived, I had not been sleeping well with my spinning, busy brain and icky tummy. With just about 2 hours total to paint with, I was really beginning to feel it. So, I took it really easy... for awhile. I set out to paint the familiar Huntington Beach lifeguard by the pier. I took my time, trying to understand how life is for the locals. You see, I am not a nosy person, but when I am quiet and painting, every one of my senses is alert and I can hear everything. I heard bits of conversations from people walking just below the railing where I was perched; conversations about the film industry, family issues, interesting surfer slang, and the sound of sunbathers washing off the sand at the showers.
All done on the easel.  This piece measured 12x24"

"Out for the Day" 12x24" Pastel ©Brenda Boylan

Once I had this Lifeguard piece under my belt, I returned to Pacific Coast Hwy to complete my urban piece.  The late afternoon light was what I was after in this scene, so the orange underpainting I had started with really played an important part of the mood.

"Intersection on 1"  16x16" Pastel  ©Brenda Boylan  (sold)

All done! What a relief to have this piece done as I begin to feel more comfortable with my production..so far. It seems like all is downhill from here. I packed it all up and headed back to my host's home to get a quick shower then over to the Forest and Ocean Gallery for a discussion panel of artists.

As planned, LPAPA organizes a fun evening of 5 artists in a discussion panel moderated by gallery owner Ludo Leideritz. Invitational artists Cindy Baron, Lori Putnam, Michael ObermeyerBill Davidson and myself were selected to share our experiences and thoughts on plein air painting. We all had a great time answering the questions with humor peppered with a little bit of seriousness. It was an informative evening for the collectors and curious admirers

After all that was said and done, a few of us headed out for a bite to eat and to enjoy some camaraderie over a glass of wine.