Basically pochade boxes started to become common when artists wanted to take the new tube paints and work in the field on small wood and plywood panels (3-ply ready made artists' boards were available around 1880 in New York). The ability to work small, on rigid panels, with the ability to paint several small sketches in an outing and bring the wet panels home safely home is still what pochade boxes excel at, as opposed to working larger, on stretched canvas, which is what the French easel was designed to do, for example.
It's largely a function of how much you want to emphasize portability (a smaller box will always be easier to grab and go work with, just no getting around it) vs. other considerations like painting on larger panels, carrying more supplies, and maximizing palette area to mix on. If you have a favorite panel size you like to work on, that will play a big role, as the boxes are built around some common panel sizes, and while they have flexibility in the sizes they will paint and carry there will always be an advantage to getting the box based around the size you plan to work with the most.
Standard boxes have storage in the drawers, for paint and palette cups and so on. Lite boxes forgo the drawers, but will carry brushes and pencils and slim stuff in the work trays that store on the back. I usually make them with a 2-panel lid since the emphasis is on portability, slimness, light weight etc., but can make them with a 4-panel lid as well. Since they don't carry much in the way of supplies the overall box weight is substantially less and they do well on smaller, lighter, more compact tripods. With a Lite box you are more setting up a small daypack as your painting kit, rather than expecting the box to do it all... It saves weight overall, but you lose some of the convenience of having paint and supplies immediately at hand in the drawers while you work.
I didn’t design around using stretched canvas, but since the panel holder is a dynamic system that squeezes the panel between top and bottom, it works pretty well for canvas, it’s just a bit less secure since a stretched canvas is much thicker than a panel and will project beyond the panel holder ledges quite a bit. With smaller canvases, it’s not really an issue. As you get bigger, and the canvas goes well beyond the box size, you are exerting a lot of leverage when you paint out on the edges of the canvas, so it’s more likely to overpower the ability of the panel holder to grab the canvas and you’d want to be careful about how hard you are pushing with a brush out toward the edges. Also, the lid panel storage is built around panels, and a stretched canvas is not going to fit in the storage slots. Pochade boxes originated around using panels for painting and sketching, while other approaches have traditionally dealt with using stretched canvas, but yes, if you are occasionally using a stretched canvas and don’t need to store it in the box, then it will work OK.
No, the pochade boxes do not include tripods, but they are made to fit all standard tripods. The tripods have a stainless steel mount that use standard camera threads (1/4"-20), so if the tripod will attach to a camera it will attach to the box. See the Links page for information and suggestions.
This is a big one, but I’ll try to keep it as brief as possible: the tripod needs to support the weight of the loaded box. Beyond that, it’s largely preference. That’s why I don’t sell tripods, besides the fact that my business is so tiny tripod makers have no interest in dealing with me. One painter might be looking for the least expensive, most solid option they can find, while another might be interested in the lightest, carbon fiber travel tripod they can get and price is secondary.
Tripods are really two parts, the legs and the head. You can buy them separately, or as a package, and with some tripods (usually the cheaper ones) the head is not removable. A removable head is kind of cool because you can have one set of legs with a couple of different heads if you like, or you can upgrade the head later if you want to start with an inexpensive setup. Most tripod heads come with quick release systems these days, but not always, and the arca-swiss quick release plate is fairly standard. You don’t have to have a quick release, but it does make it a bit easier to mount the box on the tripod.
In general, I prefer tripods with independently adjustable legs for setting up on uneven ground or setting the tripod in a wide stance, prefer ball heads since they seem simple and intuitive to use, and look for a counterweighting hook as well since that helps so much with stability.
For the Bitterroot and Yellowstone, I’d look at tripods rated for 13lbs or so, since the fully loaded box might weight 10-11lbs. For the ‘Lite’ boxes, and the Blackfoot and Belly River, tripods rated for 7-8lbs seem to work pretty well. Very compact tripods are available in that 8lb sort of range.
I really recommend looking to see if the tripod you want has a hook for counterweighting. Counterweighting makes a HUGE difference in the stability of your setup. I make a habit of hanging my daypack (the pack I'm using to carry the box, tripod, paper towels, etc.) from the counterweighting hook. If it's windy, I might look for a rock to throw in the pack. Or hang a plastic bag you want to use for dirty paper towels and other trash, and put a rock or two in it. I have added hooks to tripods that don't have them—a screw-in cup hook from the hardware store can work, something like that. I counterweight all the time, but it's especially critical on breezy days and can easily make the difference between frustration and satisfaction…
The box itself can’t really wobble—it’s the connection to the tripod and the moving parts of the tripod that create movement. If the tripod uses a quick release system, the most common source of movement is the interface of the quick release plate and the receiver. Usually there is a spring loaded cam that grabs the plate when you put it in the receiver, and often the spring is not strong enough to really grab the plate, so you just need to give the release lever an extra push to tighten it down. For overall stability, COUNTERWEIGHT the tripod. Can't overemphasize that-- just a few extra pounds lowering your setup's center of gravity will make a lot vibration almost disappear, and turn your lightweight, traveling tripod into a something that feels completely different.
Wood is a traditional palette surface, and the palette surface, like the rest of the box, has been oiled a couple of times. You can use it as is if you’re painting with oils, as you're essentially rubbing linseed oil and pigment into the palette every time you paint. Fairly quickly the palette will develop a neutral gray, glassy sort of surface from this repeated use—it's very much like seasoning a cast iron pan. The advantages of using the wood palette are that it doesn't add any weight, is durable if maintained a little, and is a nice, neutral, largely non-reflective surface to work on outside. A little sunlight at the wrong angle reflecting off a piece of glass will make for a difficult painting session, and a white background can be completely overwhelming in natural light, affecting your ability to judge color and value. Wood, seasoned with mixed pigment, naturally tends toward a neutral gray and doesn't have harsh or blinding reflections, and unused paint is more reluctant to slide around on it than it is on glass or plastic.
If you’re painting with oils, I recommend that at the end of a painting session you scrape the excess paint off of your mixing area (your unused ribbons of paint can stay where they are) with a relatively dull tool like the side of a palette knife, or a putty knife (plastic putty knives are light, inexpensive and won't tear up your palette). Don’t use a razor knife on wood, you’ll cut it up. You just want to remove most of the excess paint. Then use your last paper towel to wipe and rub down the palette. That’s it. I leave my unused paint where it is in little ribbons or piles, and if it eventually dries out I can cut it off with that same palette knife or putty knife. Its the leftover, thin, mixed paint that will dry more quickly and start making your mixing surface lumpy and irregular, so wipe it off. Once your palette is well seasoned and the linseed that saturates it has dried completely you can get more aggressive about cleaning it, using thinner and so on if you like, but initially let that linseed and pigment fill every pore of the wood and develop that smooth, grayish surface.
If you’re using acrylics, you might want to put in a palette liner—glass or acrylic, or other plastics will work. Any glass shop can cut a piece to fit, and you can tack it in place with some silicone, applied from above. Like caulking a bathtub. That said, I sometimes use acrylics and if the palette is well conditioned and seasoned from using oils it’s worked fine for me without a palette liner. With acrylics, you just have to be a bit more attentive about getting that thin mixed paint off before it dries completely and starts making your mixing surface all lumpy.
Yes, if you are used to using glass and like that surface, there's room to add a piece. A window/glass place can cut one, a frame shop probably could as well, just have them cut it to fit (you can remove the little wood cover plate at the back of the Lite boxes, it just covers the tripod mount. One small screw holds it there). Put the glass in and hold it in place with a little silicone caulk (you can get a small tube like a toothpaste tube at the hardware store). Apply it from above like caulking a bathtub, just a bead around the corners should be fine or go all the way around if you want. That way it could be cut and the glass removed if needed in the future. This sizes are listed below. You'll want the glass cut slightly under that just to ensure it fits in easily, 1/16" should be plenty.
I’m primarily an oil painter and designed the boxes around that medium. I’ve used acrylics as well, once the palette is seasoned and saturated with linseed and pigment it’s pretty tolerant of water media, but if going straight to acrylics some sort of palette liner would be a good idea. Lexan or plexiglass, or glass—any window or frame shop would cut you a piece to fit, and the most common method is to tack it in place with a little silicone caulk applied from above, just a little bead around the edge, so that it could be cut if needed and the liner removed.
Belly River = 7 3/4" x 6 1/8"
Blackfoot = 9 3/4" x 8 1/8"
Bitterroot = 11 3/4" x 10 1/8"
Bitterroot Lite = 11 3/4" x 10 1/8"
Yellowstone = 13 3/4" x 11 1/8"
Yellowstone Lite = 13 3/4" x 11 1/8"
I use an oil/varnish blend to finish the boxes, which allows me to submerge them completely and get protection into every surface. An oil finish (as opposed to polyurethane varnish) is very easy to renew anytime you want. Watco Danish oil is an oil/varnish blend and would be quite similar to the finish I use. Tung oil is a nice oil. Howard's Feed-n-wax is a citrus based oil/wax wood restorer. These sorts of wood care products are available in most any hardware store. Just rub any of those into the box whenever it might start looking a bit dry, don't worry about taking off hardware or anything. A little on the hinges and d-rings won't hurt anything and will help prevent corrosion. Let it sit for a half hour, and wipe off any excess still on the surface. If the wood absorbed it all, re-coat it, and again wipe off excess after a bit. That's it. The wood will love it. Do that once a year and that should be fine.
After a painting session, take a minute after you wipe down your palette mixing area and wipe down places on the box where parts come together—the the raised edge around the palette, the perimeter of the panel holder face on the lid, the lid door, etc… The goal isn't to completely clean the box, just to prevent paint drying, building up, forming lumps and ridges that will keep the box from closing up properly, or impede moving parts. Oil paint is basically a slow drying, pigmented, thick glue. If you allow it to build up heavily on parts that need to meet closely, or need to move, you will have to force things, and that's when stuff breaks. Of course your box will be covered with many beautiful smudges, smears, and stains, and that is fine—it's your personal signature of sorts. Just don't let it accumulate too much...
If you get paint smeared onto the panel holder return spring, take a clean brush and a little thinner and clean it up. It needs to unroll and roll back up freely, and paint or medium drying on it and gumming it up will take a toll. Feel free to oil it if you like, WD-40, 3-in1 oil, grease, vaseline, any lubricant really…it will help keep it spinning freely and discourage any paint that does get on it from drying and adhering. Remember, paint is basically glue...
I live in a very humid climate. Will that effect my pochade box?
The boxes themselves are pretty tolerant of different climates, I have customers all over the world including Florida and Hawaii, and have taken boxes of my own from the dry cold winter of Montana to the Caribbean side of Nicaragua, or Hawaii, and it’s fine. Wood is pretty tolerant of absorbing and releasing moisture as long as the process is slowed and controlled by the finish on the wood. I use a linseed/varnish blend, and the box has been dunked in that several times and rubbed down a couple of more times after that. It’s an easy finish to renew, just pick up something like Watco Danish oil or Tung oil and give the box a rub down from time to time and the wood will really appreciate it, just takes a few minutes. That holds true for a place like Arizona as well—it’s all about controlling the speed with which moisture enters and leaves the wood. No surface coating will prevent wood from reaching a moisture equilibrium with it's environment—it's all about making that process into a slow, even one. If you are heading somewhere extremely dry, or extremely wet, give the box an oil rub-down if it hasn't had one for awhile. Slow down that moisture transfer...
Most likely what is going on is that paint and/or medium have gotten onto the spring and dried, and that is preventing it from moving freely. The spring has to be able to unroll freely, and roll back up, and it can probably be encouraged to do that again with a little cleaning. Take a clean brush and some thinner (or any light household solvent/oil, like wd-40) and work it into the spring. Let it sit a little, and then pull up on the mast like usual, and when it sticks take the brush and work on the spring, let the mast back down, pull it back up, etc… Just trying to gently work it free and break down the dried, gummed up stuff in there, using the thinner or oil and the brush.
You can even open the box up, put it on its side, and work the wd-40 or thinner in from the side of the spring and let it sit overnight. That will usually soften up any paint buildup. If necessary, a stronger solvent like xylene would absolutely soften up the oil paint and break it down, but that shouldn’t be necessary. Once you have the spring working freely and clean, feel free to oil it and put oil on it from time to time—wd-40, 3-in-1, even Vaseline will give it a coating that will help prevent paint from drying on it and gumming it up.
If nothing works and the spring is done for, I can replace it pretty easily. Usually the least expensive thing to do as far as shipping is to remove the panel holder face (8 small screws) and put the whole thing in a box and send it to me, but you could also send the whole box if you’d rather not remove the panel holder face. I’ll replace the spring and send it on back, but so far the handful of times this has happened cleaning the spring has gotten everything working again…