Cigar Box Oil Painting Palettes
Some days I just grab my cigar box palette and do some mini paintings as a warm up.They're like little color value studies or even little finished paintings in their own right. But don't let the size fool you, these are not easy to do.
In fact, depending on how you approach them, they can be much more difficult than a larger painting. By the time I've done a few of them I'm happy to be back on my large panels again. They're a great exercise for loosening up your brushwork though and my students are so excited about them at first... until they get into them! Then they complain for weeks about how much they hated that miniature assignment.
But if you're up for a challenge that'll help your brush dexterity immensely if you're committed... below are instructions on how I make my cigar box palettes and mini canvases. And try to use the largest flat brushes you feel you can.
I recently found out that Jeremy Mann also takes a cigar box out into the field to do plein air work (as do other artists) and it makes sense. It's so small and handy and lightweight. Of course I have tons of plein air gear and I use it all the time when I'm doing bigger stuff. Funny but sometimes I set up all my gear and then set my cigar box right in my Coulter easel. I get teased a lot about this. I think my cigar box is like a blankie. Maybe. I don't know. I paint with it so much. Too much? I haul it back and forth to classes because it has a lid and the paints don't dry out as much and I've made them as gifts for students.
Now one practical thing I can say in my defense about mixing colors in my cigar box on top of my Coulter easel palette is that when I get home the cigar box always pops nicely into my freezer. Try popping a Coulter into your freezer. Although I'm sure you could with the smallest size no problem! I like lifting it off when I'm done with my studies, transferring my colors to my larger glass, if I feel like doing a larger work and going ahead with it. Or not. Or just using it as another mixing space. I take up a lot of room out there. I'm the most neurotic plein air painter. Won't even deny it!
Probably because I'm a studio painter as a rule, honestly I use it in the studio too. But sometimes painting out I just get overwhelmed and want a very small canvas and cigar box to begin with out there to do some simple studies and have a coffee and just collect myself and say... okay, wtf is going on out here in this mess of screaming green and Florida heat?
Someone once called it a tangle of green. They tell me to just "edit". They say it like it's the simplest thing in the world. Please. Edit Scmedit. Look at the crowded market scene above and imagine painting it! I looked to my right and saw one lone painter and decided to paint her.
I like a studio where if you want to paint a damn pear you just set the thing up and throw a light on it. You tell a model to sit still and you're done! Or better yet clamp a photo to your easel and go.
I give endless props to plein air painters. My undying respect! Sometimes I just sit there and laugh (cry) for a while before I start — as the light shifts quickly to show me a completely different scene, essentially laughing back at me. It's stressful. Respect the people who master this genre. It is next level. So yes, my cigar box is my blankie out here.
Plein air is hard but for me there's nowhere better to practice fundmentals of light and shadow. And have them kick you in the teeth. So I do it. But I start small. Out in the field I use these small canvases for quick composition or color value studies. Just fun little pops to get warmed up and mix up some color. Then I'm onto normal sized canvases within a half hour... usually... sometimes I'm onto lunch...
I'm better in the studio, it's so soothing in my opinion, I have friends that totally disagree with me though. For me in the studio everything stays in its place and doesn't blow (or walk) around. So when I read that Jeremy Mann takes his cigar box palette out plein air painting too it made me feel vindicated — but I'm sure it's not because he's overwhelmed out there!
He's a very efficient painter. I remember seeing a documentary where he was wearing a bunch of white t-shirts, maybe six and we don't really know why he's putting so many on, just layering one after another and then they show him working. He works with brayers in his backgrounds and he cleans them right on his shirts so as each shirt gets too dirty he just rips it off over his head and keeps working uninterrupted. It's pretty awesome.
He takes his cigar box palette out into the landscape to capture quick value sketches in simple bands to capture moments in his landscapes during sunset or sunrise and then he uses them to paint from. He teaches this method as I understand it and takes his students out with him. I don't know if they all have cigar boxes but that would be cool.They're undeniably handy in the field.
I have many cigar boxes going at any given time in my freezer for different projects, keeping my paint workable. It works pretty well. If you don't know about that trick, try it, then just freshen it up with a bit of medium when you pull it out. Any medium you normally use works well, refined linseed oil, Neo Megilp or whatever you prefer, Gamblin's Solvent Free Gel is a go-to as well.
I have four or five cigar box palettes right now I think, I keep giving them away. They are very handy. I put glass in the bottom of mine but that isn't necessary at all. They do need to be wood if you want them to last. You can just give the wood a few thin coats of linseed oil and it'll harden up enough to mix on so the paint won't soak in.
The cigar box is just such a comforting little object that you make yourself. And you make these little sketches out there that you take back to the studio with you and you can make larger paintings from them later that are more alive from having been done that way.
HOW TO MAKE A CIGAR BOX PAINTING PALETTE
THE CIGAR BOX
I've used a lot of different boxes and I'd suggest the widest bottom you can find for lots of mixing space. I'd also suggest the lowest walls so your colors don't get shaded. Remove any side inserts, they can warp over time to make it hard to open and close and they give you less floor space and too much shade on your colors because of the height. Make sure to get wood, oil will saturate the cardboard and your floor will get soggy. Big rubber bands will hold them closed nicely.
THE PALETTE BOTTOM
I prefer a glass palette so I have a piece of glass cut to fit (not too tightly) at a hardware store or anywhere near you. Then I paint one side of it 50% gray because that's how I like my palettes but that's up to you then I drop it (painted side down) in and caulk with clear silicone caulk around the edges. If you don't caulk it's only a matter of time until the oil seeps underneath. You can leave your paint on the palette this way and scrape any dry areas with a glass scraper.
You can also choose to forego the glass altogether and keep it simple. Just linseed oil the bottom with a very thin coat and let it dry. Do this about three times and you should be good to go as far as mixing paints on it. They won't sink in. You'll wipe the palette down every time you use it with OMS. But since it can't be scraped with a glass scraper the way glass can it's not possible to leave your paints on it quite as easily in the freezer. Although some people do. They just keep adding to the pile and the piles of paint just get really big and they just keep digging into them. I've seen this... I just haven't done it, so.... (or just get a new one when it gets mucked up!)
STORING YOUR PAINT
I keep my paint for days (even weeks sometimes) in the freezer without too much drying out. The earth colors give me the most trouble. I lose the most in thinner mixed areas on the palette. Just add a bit of medium like Neo Megilp or Gamblin's Solvent Free Gel to refresh them but inevitably some will dry out a bit. As I said above a glass scraper taken to the palette will take up any areas that have dried.
MAKING MINI ACEO ARCHIVAL PANELS
You can paint on anything you want of course, I often paint on 5x7 Gessobord panels tucked into the top of the box. But I sell my tiny ACEO miniatures and want them to last so I want them to be acid free and archival. I like them to be on a thick card stock and have some tooth and after testing a bunch of different things I settled on Canson's acid free illustration board. It has a fine linen texture for holding onto the paint but not so much as to interfere with the brushwork on these tiny little paintings. I give the large boards a couple thin coats of gesso, letting it dry between coats. And then cut them into 2 1/2" x 3 1/2" rectangles. Then I have them around when I want them.