Sunday, April 22, 2012

A Triumph of Surgery


I mentioned this on twitter not long ago, but the sunshine season is coming to bridgetown (in a few months, that is) and it's time to get outside. I have been thinking a lot lately about how I can paint outside, something I'd like to do more often. Specifically I want to be able to carry my paints around with me at the Oregon Country Fair, and be able to be in full art-making mode rather than willfully limited as I was last year. The way I want to input things is always in flux and recently I've been itching to do more painting studies out in the world, and yearn for something that blends portability with simplicity. I want all the painting objects to be in one thing. Pallets, brushes, water cup, reading glasses and paper.

palletes stacked

The pallets I use are plastic, and two of them are the fold up "travel" kind, though the large one doesn't snap together like you'd want it to. Usually if my paints need to go somewhere I wrap a cloth around the cover-less pallet, close the closeable ones, tie them all together and stuff them into a bag. It works.

brushes in a jar

The brushes are of course the real problem. How in the world can one safely get brushes from point A to point B? For a long time I've had an ArtBin brand box that has foam holders specifically designed to keep brushes totally immobile -- honestly the best solution I have seen. Those bamboo roll-'em-up mats really don't work with small brushes and letting them jangle around loose in a pencil box is no solution at all. So the foam-in-the-box is great. However the box itself is not great. It is huge -- intended for meaty acrylic and oil painting brushes, not the minute brushes we watercolor-type painters use. A lot of unusable space. Nothing apart from paintbrushes could go inside it yet the box itself is large than my largest pallet, and longer indeed than my normal bag could accommodate.


My big pallet actually has a space for brushes. In the past I've made a little tube out of paper, taped it shut, and slipped it over the bristles of the brush. That works fairly well except I can only carry about three brushes in this way and in order to actually work on something I need my full range. That's still only about 5-8 brushes, but it exceeds my travel-pallet's capacity.

For a long time my solution has been to not bring brushes out at all, partly for the impossibility and partly in an effort to simplify my experience whilst at large in the wide world. If I bring too many things I am apt to try and USE them and not pay attention to what I'm seeing. But I have seen some very amazing things, (the Museum of Man building in San Diego for instance,) that -- for me -- really cannot be captured in any other way than paint and brush. The last time I was in Denver I actually bought a paintbrush and a tube of paint somewhere because I couldn't stop myself from wanting to express bigger than pen, more colorful than pen. And add to this my last-summer's work-in-the-park sessions of just sketching when I had actual real painting to do. OR the countless days spent woefully indoors when I could have easily been outside working if only I'd had the means.

So it is that I've been in the market for a painter's box. Nothing fancy, nothing pre-packed with gear I didn't need. Just an old beat up thing I could trick out to suit my needs. And sure enough, whilst sifting through my favorite antique place for something else entirely, squashed between a fine ceramic bowl and a statue of St. Francis, was my dilapidated painter's box. It was like destiny.

box is found

The ladies behind the counter looked at me with a trace of benevolent doubt as I gushed about my find, clutching it as though it were the a rare bone-china teacup. That saying about one man's trash is another man's treasure couldn't be more true at thrift and antique stores. It's okay. All the better if it was kind of battered -- nothing to hold me back from really using it.


And it really is battered. Apart from the scratches and paint all over it, the handle was broken -- not yet in two pieces, but well on the way.


The closure itself left a lot to be desired. There was a corresponding screw-and-hook on the other side, and held surprisingly well as I gave it violent experimental shakes, but I couldn't imagine walking around with important paintings with the closures in this state.


And of course the main thing was it still didn't solve the paintbrush problem. It was just  empty compartments. Fortunately I still have the long-unused ArtBin box -- it has on four separate occasions gone into the "to donate" pile and lately has just floated around the car becuase it's a completely useless item to me, yet I knew that those little foam holders were the best thing I'd ever seen to solve the paintbrush problem. Now it was time to combine the two.

remove the foam

I removed the foam holders from the plastic box with a razor blade. (One came easily, one was more difficult.) If I had given away this box, or not had one, I would have just gone to a fabric store and bought a tiny bit of foam and cut slits into it. It would work just as well.

foam goes in

I cut the stuff down to size and glued it down with Diamond Glaze, which is not exactly appropriate but it's what I had on hand. I was careful to cut the foam a little too big so it would have to squish into the spot -- in theory holding things better. It held itself in there just fine and it was really for peace of mind more than anything else I bothered to glue it down at all. Though I suppose I will appreciate not having to hold the foam down as I take out a paint brush. I weighed down the foam with heavy stuff from my desk as I tackled the handle.

get ready for handle time

Ideally you'd want to wet-mold some sort of suede or leather to this and let it shrink-in-place to keep its hold. And also to do things 100% correct you'd replace the broken cord or cardboard or whatever held the thing's shape. (You'd maybe even want to take it to a proper furniture fix-it, which is what I will do someday when this fix gives way.) I didn't have anything like this, and the cork was broken in a nice place for my hands, so I just left it as-is and used fabric. DARK fabric, mind. Anything your grubby mitts will get hold of will turn dingy sooner or later.

fixing begins

I used a thinnish cotton fabric that would itself stretch a bit and do sort of what I'd want wet leather to do.

no science

There's no clear science here. I did an under-layer with a thin piece, for support, then overlaid that with a wider piece. I held it all together with pins and then crazy-stiched myself around as best I could. Eventually we arrived here: my darling lumpy handle. All in one piece.

finished handle

Then of course I had to solve the closure problem, which took me, for the first time, to Hippo Hardware, our friendly neighborhood salvage hardware superheroes. If you live in Portland and haven't managed to get yourself here, please do. What I wanted was a place where I could park myself and dig through the possibilities, and that's just what happened.

I can't tell you how pleased I am with the fixtures I found. That they match one another was pure gravy -- I just wanted something secure and small enough to fit on my box. In a drawer labeled "chest and suitcase hardwear" I saw little golden briefcase locks, I saw lock-and-key type things, I saw old suitcase closures with latches that slid to one side to release the catch, and numerous nameless odds and ends. A lot of the delight of digging through the drawer was solving the puzzle of how might THAT work? when you found something baffling. And eventually I found these two latches that look as though they belong to the box itself. Major thanks to the woman who took a bent piece I found and painstakingly hammered it and squeezed it in a vice until it could lay flat, and who then without my prompting took out her little blue box of special tools and filed down all the rough edges of the piece.


AND thanks to the man who saw me digging through miscellaneous screws and was a little horrified, saying No! You need some really nice vintage-y screws that will match those great latches! and ushered me to a plastic box on the work bench where innumerable nicer screws floated around. It's a detail I never would have set out to pursue on purpose, yet looking at them now it completely makes the latches look as though they came with the box, and have been here all along.

finished latches

And there you have it! A painter's box with all the little trimmings specific to my wacky needs. I can't tell you how happy this whole project made me. Still makes me, in fact. We have been blessed with a glorious clear-sky weekend -- the kind you don't often find in Portland in April -- and not an hour after I finished attaching these latches onto the box I was able to fill it up and go paint in the park for a few hours. Not sketching or playing around but real, actual work; progress on a painting in progress. It was transcendent. Looking forward to many, many working outings this summer and many summers to come. Thank you for being there, box. And thank you for letting me fix you up. Now let's go on some adventures.

adventure time