The Benefit of Proper Tools

Armand Cabrera

Painting is hard enough without having to suffer the handicap of poor tools. This is not limited to just brushes and easels.

I know it’s hard to spend money on art supplies when you first start to paint. When I first began, my rule of thumb was to buy the best I could afford at the time. Even when I was poor, the things I wouldn’t skimp on were brushes, paint, and solvent.

Familiarize yourself with the different type of brushes for your chosen medium and style of painting. Go to art stores. Look at brushes. Try the different shapes and types of synthetic and natural brushes available. Check out prices. I personally use flat hog bristle brushes in sizes 4 to 18. I like the Robert Simmons Signet brand.

Always use artist grade paint. Beyond that, brands of paint are a personal choice; so again, try different brands of artist grade paints to find what you like.

For me, there is only one choice for solvent and that is odorless mineral spirits. All solvents clean your brushes. You want the safest nontoxic material you can afford.

Easels /Pochades/ Tripods
There is no perfect outdoor rig for all your painting needs—no matter what the manufacturers claim. I have several to fit my requirements. For the studio, I want a large steady easel that will hold all the different canvas sizes I paint.
In the field, I desire the smallest and lightest setup I can have without sacrificing stability.
I use two different companies for pochade boxes.

Artwork Essentials
These boxes are well made and are at a good price point. They have models with built in panel carriers and lighter weight models without the carrier feature. They come with a tripod and backpack in various sizes.

Open Box M
This company makes a quality box also; it is a little lighter than the Artwork Essentials box and a lot more expensive. They do not come with tripods or accessories, but you can purchase these separately. You can get them in wooden cases and custom airtight pelican cases for air travel.
Both companies offer various panel carriers for your wet panels. Check their websites for more information.

I don’t recommend the other pochades on the market. In my years of teaching, I’ve seen all of them come through my classes and they are either too heavy, poorly designed or so complex that something is always popping off or breaking. Trust me on this. I know what I’m talking about.

The tripods I use are Manfrotto Bogen and the Artwork Essential tripods (that come with their rigs.)
I was in the Sierras with some artist friends last year and they had upgraded to Carbon Fiber tripods which run about a thousand bucks for a good one with a swivel head. I had tripod envy for weeks. Gitzo and Feisel make the best ones for carbon fiber.

As for easels, there is only one studio easel for me and that is a Hughes easel. I have a double masted model; they are built to order and are worth every penny.
When I’m painting large canvases outdoors, I use a Take-It-Easel—which is a better version of the cheap Gloucester easels made fifty years ago. Instead of cheap pine and pot metal, they are made of brass and maple wood.

I still have an old Julian French easel. It was the first outdoor easel I bought and it is very well made. They have different and cheaper models now, but the top of the line ones are a great piece of equipment that has stood the test of time. I replaced the handle with a good leather one. I had it installed at a luggage/shoe repair shop for about ten dollars.

Some people like wooden palettes. In the studio, I prefer a glass palette for ease of use and an easy-to-clean surface. My studio palette is 18 x 24 inches. I use a baby changing station for my palette stand. (Yes)
Outdoors, I have switched to a plastic palette because of weight issues. I have the plastic cut to fit whatever pochade rig I’m using. Every year or so I replace the plastic, it is not permanent and scratches easily, but the weight and added safety is worth the inconvenience for me.
For the easel palettes, I use a folding wood palette box called, unfortunately, a French Mistress; it comes in two sizes 12 x 16 and 16 x 20. I like the smaller one. I place two hooks on the inside front so I can attach a plastic bag for garbage. I also have a bungee cord I use to secure it to either easel.

Panels and Canvas
In my early painting days, I used cotton duck canvas panels and framed canvas. I slowly switched to double oil primed linen, first for my outdoor work and then my larger studio pieces. Whether you make your panels and stretch your own canvases or buy them from a manufacturer, make sure the surface you paint on is archival. There are many types of surfaces available to paint on. Once again, the surface you use is a matter of personal preference.

I think making panels is cathartic and I like taking the time to do it. I buy my blank birch panels in 12 x 16 and smaller sizes from SourceTek panels. I use glue called Miracle Muck, which I also buy from SourceTek.

6 thoughts on “The Benefit of Proper Tools

  1. Thanks for posting this kind of information. I am really interested in what a brush has to offer in terms of effect. I have tried alot of brushes but for the life of me I cant determine their best qualities and put them to good use.
    I do use round kolinsky brushes for still life and I know I'll never change that.
    I guess my question is what kind of effects and benefits do you get from the hog hair bristle brushes?

  2. Gregory,

    I look at the tool as an extension of my personality as opposed to it benefit irrespective of who uses it. In other words I am heavy handed in my approach, its part of who I am as a painter. I look for tools that allow me to make the marks I want without having to change types of brushes for every passage I’m painting. Part of my tool philosophy is the same as my palette; only add something when you need an effect and you can’t get it any other way. I’ve used palette knives and soft and hard brushes in all the different shapes. I can basically get all of the effects with any brush or knife if I work at it but it is more intuitive for me with hog bristles. The hog bristles offer a good solution for me for 90% of what I’m painting in oils.

  3. I hear you, Armand, as I'm having problems with
    my mouse when I try to move to the right! Time
    for a new one. I also agree with you on not
    skimping with the important tools. As far as
    what one paints on this is area where one is able
    to be a little more frugal. When I work with my
    colored pencils however, it has to be quality
    paper, so I look for sales & discounts, buy as
    much as I can afford & stock up.

  4. It is probably a good thing you don't have a spiffy carbon fiber tripod. They are lighter, but also much less stable in wind, etc. You have to get a sandbag for the tripod, which pretty much negates any weight saving advantages it has over an aluminum one.

    By the way, the "French Mistress"?? What were they thinking? Too funny!

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