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Jan 19, 2015

The Strada Mini: Perfect for the traveling plein air painter...

The folks who brought you the original Strada Easel back in 2013 are now offering a more compact design called the Strada Mini, and they've asked me to post a review. I've had an opportunity to test the Mini in the field and in short, my impressions are all positive. For more information about the original Strada easel read my review of it here.
Disclaimer: While I have received no renumeration for posting this review it is only fair I disclose the fact the manufacturer is a friend of mine and that he sent me a complimentary easel to test last week. However, neither my long-standing relationship with the designer nor the easel itself colored this review. If you have questions about the Strada Mini I invite you to share them in the comment section below. I will respond...

A quick review of the Strada Mini...

Pros: Robust design. Excellent build-quality. Compact size. Quick and simple to set up. A pleasure to use.

Cons: By itself the Mini provides a restricted area to mix your colors. (I purchased two of the optional shelves and used them to increase my mixing area. Combined, the shelves and the Mini offer one of the largest plein air palettes on the market and completely resolved my one concern. The photo above shows the system I tested.)

A more in-depth review of the Strada Mini...

The Mini, like its bigger brother, is a variation of the clamshell easel used by many plein air pros today. A clamshell design is hinged along the opposite side, opens and closes like a clam, and combines a painting support with a mixing palette immediately below. It is an efficient easel for small to medium sized panel paintings and convenient to set up and tear down out in the field, making it a popular solution for plein air painters.

If you can't see this video click here

Like its big brother, you attach the Mini to a tripod. (If you want to travel ultra-light you can lay it in your lap or place it on a table top.) You then flip the lid open like a laptop, set a panel or canvas into the t-bar, and start painting. When you are finished you remove the painting, close the lid, push the t-bar back in, and move on. One of the niceties of the Mini is that you can leave excess paint on the palette and the easel will both protect and retard the drying time of that color. I often put the Mini in my freezer, which prevents the paint on the palette from drying out for weeks. Since the easel is made entirely out of aluminum rust is not an issue.

If you can't see this video click here

Design and Build-Quality: 

The designer and manufacturer of the Mini is a well-recognized plein air painter who spends a lot of time outside painting. He set out to create the easiest to use, robust plein air easel you can imagine, while tempering that goal with making it as light as possible, and reasonably affordable. Towards that end, the Mini is constructed out of a substantial gauge aluminum bent and welded into a strong form, painted in a neutral gray, with some of the sliding parts anodized for durability. The all-important friction hinges consist of stainless steel and any element or form that does not serve a functional purpose has been stripped away, leaving behind an easel free of unnecessary bells and whistles.

If you can't see this video click here

Ease of Use: 

As previously mentioned, setting up the Mini is as easy as it gets – you attach it to a tripod, pull out the t-bar, flip up the lid, set a canvas or panel in place, and start painting. If you've purchased one or two side shelves like me, you attach them by slipping them on to the rims on either side of the center palette. Set up is easy and quick. The t-bar mechanism is affixed to the lid and once attached, your painting can be set to any angle you want, from almost fully closed to 180 degrees open. The angle you set is securely held by the two friction hinges at the base of the lid so there are no brass knobs or wing-nuts to fuss with. This is definitely a bonus if you are troubled by a minor arthritis or your hands become cold while you paint. To tear down you simple reverse the process: pull out your painting, close the lid, push the t-bar back in, and detach the Mini. The t-bar will latch the lid closed. It works just like its bigger brother, as an integrated package.

There is enough friction built into the hinges to prevent the painting support from excessively wiggling as you work. I (unscientifically) compared the amount of movement of the Mini against the other clam-shell easels I own and found it to be comparable. I wanted to look at this issue closely because I am sensitive to easel movement, yet I was able to quickly adjust to any minor wiggle by lightening up my touch with the brush. In the end, I would favorably compare the bounce of a Mini to painting on a stretched canvas, meaning it feels similar in the give and take.

The Mini can hold a canvas or a panel tightly against the lid, although in general I prefer to paint on a rigid supports, not stretched canvas. I was able to fit panels up to 1/4 inch thick, gessoed or lined with cotton or linen, which means your art standard commercial painting supports should be fine. The mini is limited to stretched canvases using a 3/4 inch stretcher bar so deeper 'gallery wrap' canvases won't work.

The Mini can easily accommodate a painting 16 inches high, and perhaps a little bit taller if you want to push the limit. The t-bar holds the top and bottom of your canvas or panel in place using compression and friction so the higher up you extended the bar the less friction there is available. Theoretically, there is no horizontal limit to what the Mini will support, but the wider you go the more wiggle you will encounter along the outermost edges, and, in extreme cases, movement caused by the wind could become a factor. However, most folks paint between 6 x 8 and 16 x 20 inches in the field and the Mini is a good fit for that size range. If you plan to paint larger than this in the field then you should consider another easel design altogether. (In truth, no single easel can meet your every need. At this point I have seven outdoor easels. Ha!)

So why choose the Mini over its bigger brother?

© New Line Cinema
Well, mostly for its diminutive size. In my opinion, the Strada Mini can do everything the full-sized Strada can, with the exception of the smaller palette. So adding those optional side shelves and using them to increase your mixing area becomes essential if you decide to go with the Mini. With the shelves, I expect the Mini to become my go-to travel easel, when I want to be move around fast and light without any breakdowns. I will also recommend the Mini for students who sign up for any of my international or adventure workshops. (Information about my trips can be found in the drop down menu above, or in the left column of my blog.)

No easel is ever perfect so here are some alterations I plan to make to my Mini...

If you are an avid reader of this blog then you know I am all about the mod. I believe in getting the best gear you can, but also modifying it when necessary. (FWIW, this review is based on a stock Mini I have not modd'ed...yet.) I am not crazy about the plexiglass inserts you are expected to mix on because I know they easily scratched by a palette knife or a razor.  This is not a minor point because those scratches fill up with wet paint and thus pollute your lighter tints. The manufacture of the Strada recommends, and even includes, a plastic razor blade for you to try – which I did and immediately put aside – but even if you do limit yourself to plastic razor blades you will still scratch the plexiglass with your palette knife. So the stock plexiglass goes and I will caulk in some high-impact auto glass in its place, or perhaps start mixing directly on the aluminum surface itself. If you decide to stick with plexiglass I recommend you caulk it in place anyway. The double-stick tape provided by the manufacturer didn't hold the plexiglass in place in the cold temperatures I was painting in.

I am really pleased that the side shelves nest together and create a separate enclosed shell. This means I can pre-load my palette(s) in the studio, or at the car, and leave a lot of tubed paint behind, lightening the load overall. (You've heard the old backpacker's adage, "Worry about the ounces and the pounds will take care of themselves." Yes? I kid you not, I used to cut my toothbrush in half before heading out on a 7 day trek, so I know it works...) The nested shelves can also protect your leftover paint on the way home, which is another thoughtful consideration by an intelligent designer. However, as the shelves are produced right now, they fit together a tad too tightly and can be difficult to pull apart without a separate tool so I think it is likely crusty paint could glue them together if I am careless. I plan to drill a finger hole in the inner shelf, or weld a hinged ring on the bottom so I can pull the shelves apart if it becomes necessary. In truth, this is a nice problem to have to solve.

In any case, both are easy mods to make and something I will discuss with the manufacturer directly. He is responsive to customer suggestions and has already made a number of improvements to his Strada line so I don't see him resting on his laurels now.

So what is the bottom line here?...

The Strada Mini is an terrific option for any plein air painter, from the novice who is just starting out, to the advanced artist who has years of experience. It is not often you see such significant and concrete improvements to a time-tested and universal design unless they are achieved by the use of a new material or improved build-quality. In the case of the Strada Mini, its excellence arises out of three aspects: the aluminum, the bomb-proof build-quality, AND a few real design innovations. Those friction hinges and the self-locking t-bar system make the Mini a pleasure to use.

I highly recommend it.


Hey all, would you like to work on your outdoor painting skills in Italy this September? If so, click here to learn about my annual Tuscan Workshop. It is a fantastic experience and garners rave reviews! 

If you want even more info then send me an email requesting a FAQ Sheet that outlines where we stay, what we do, what we learn, and of course, the cost. But wow, the US dollar is strong now which means there may never be a better year to go than 2015. Registration is open and folks ARE signing up!...

Jan 16, 2015

Playing Hooky on a Snow Day...

Hey all, it's been a while since my last post on this blog. Actually, a long, long, while. And that's bad, bad, bad for maintaining my connection to you.

This video runs 3 minutes, 48 seconds and there is a bonus for those who make it to the end. (ha!) Facebookers and anyone who would like to watch this in high resolution click here

I have been preoccupied with a number of projects, presentations, and painting for a gallery show in Palm Springs this March. (More about that soon...) So I plead distraction via ADHD and my own over-scheduling. I know such things are not an acceptable excuse because I could have jammed in a post or two about something between then and now, but hey, I just got busy with so many darn things.

Sometimes I think the only way I get to paint undisturbed is if I blow out of town.
So last Tuesday I decided to take advantage of some unseasonable weather, unplug from 'teh internets', pack up some shiny new painting gear, and play hooky for a day up on Mt. Hood. You know, cut class for just one day. Managed to knock out two paintings when I did.

But still, I am way behind on some things and I committed to posting a comprehensive review of the new Strada Mini – which comes from the folks who brought you the original Strada easel last year – and I thought why not kill two birds with one stone and take the Mini up to the mountain and see how it works under more demanding conditions. (Spoiler alert: I was pleasantly surprised.)

I'll be posting my review of the new Mini next week. I promise. With comprehensive and comparable specs and my hands-on field impressions. So until then you'll have to have fun with this video post instead.

Gotta go now...There's something I need to do in the studio.


Dec 11, 2014

In Search of the Authentic, II...

More to geek out on...

Van Meergen's Fake Vermeers | Runtime 12:37

Van Meergen was a minor Dutch art dealer who sold newly discovered Vermeers to the Nazis during World War II and he made millions doing so. Van Meergen was only caught after the war because Hermann Goering's hidden cache of stolen art was found and one of the paintings in it was traced back to Van Meergen. But ironically, the art Van Meergen had been selling to the Nazis were fakes he had painted himself and to get out of a long prison sentence for being a German sympathizer who'd profited from the war Van Meergen had to admit to being an art forger and produce another fake in court to prove it. 

Van Meergen painting the forgery that saved his bacon...

This meant that even after he was caught nobody believed the Vermeers Van Meergen had been selling were fake. Whaaaa?...

So, after the trial Van Meergen went from evil villain to national hero in the eyes of the Dutch public for having hoodwinked the Nazis during the Occupation.

What a story, yes?

However, what I can't figure out is how Van Meergen managed to convince anyone his Vermeers were authentic in the first place. Just look at them. My god, look at them! For me that's the bigger story. His fakes, literally painted using a homemade paint of pigment and bakelite™ enamel binder, and heat-set in his kitchen oven, were so terrible-horrible-bad manneristic smears of pastiche crap it seems impossible that they would have fooled anybody at the time. Nazi or not.

But hey, what do I know? What do you think?

There are forgeries – which despite being fake – that are still beautiful.  These, however, are not among them...


Dec 10, 2014

In Search of the Authentic...

For all you art geeks out there, like me...

Eric Hebborn: Portrait of a Master ForgerRuntime: 45:35

Master forger of old master's drawings, author of "Drawn to Trouble" (1991) and "The Art Forger's Handbook" (1996). I have his second book. It is a fascinating how-to...

Hebborn was found in a street in Rome with his skull crushed in by a blunt instrument shortly after his second book was published. He died in-hospital three days later. It's been speculated that an unhappy collector was involved. The case was never solved and remains open.


Dec 5, 2014

'Speedy Gonzales', en plein air...

Just having a little fun during an outdoor workshop last Fall down in California. It was such a great group, with fantastic weather and soooooo much to paint!

If you are interested in joining me for your own class in California, or any other domestic or international location, check out the listings in the workshop menu above. Or sign up to receive class notifications before they are publicly announced: 

We always have fun while we learn about painting. Indoors or out. Why? Because, "If it ain't fun, it ain't art!"

With thanks to Rich Brimer, of Carmel Visual Arts, who shot this video on my last day, and all the fine folks down in Carmel, California who make it happen...


Nov 12, 2014

A Decent Fake Lead White...

Another quick one for today...

I was talking to someone at Gamblin Oil Colors this morning and our conversation reminded me of a photograph I took down in Laguna Beach last month. Many of you know I am a bit old-school and like to paint with Lead White (a.k.a., Flake White). And as of late it has become harder and harder to find suitable lead white in stores across the country because the quality has been going down or the cost has been going up. Why? Because fewer color houses are making it for oil painters. Scared away by the terrors of over stated toxicity.

Here I am, last month, on the main beach at sunset during the 16th Annual Laguna Beach Plein Air Invitational. Working on the painting honored with the Mathewson Foundation Award. No lead white paint being used here, but another 'magical elixir' instead...

As a result I've recently been using a combination of Titanium/Zinc White and Gamblin's Titanium White from their Fastmatte™ line. I often put both on the palette side by side. (see below)

The Fastmatte White is extremely short and stiff and it imparts both qualities to any other paint you mix it into. So I have found if you mix a little FM Titanium white into a traditional titanium white and add a teenie-weensie bit of yellow or cadmium orange to warm things up you will end up with a mixture that looks and acts a lot like lead white. The FMTW softens the opacity of the T/ZW, and the shorter, stiffer characteristics retain the texture of your brush strokes. It's great for quickly building up a paint layer or for applying those last touches of juicy impasto. And yes, it is perfectly okay to mix the two kinds of paint in any proportion. No worries there.

Not every painter will like the way this combination works, but I do. Plus, the alkyd resin in the Fastmatte acts like an accelerator and speeds up the 'drying' time of your thicker paint film – making traveling with wet painting easier. This FMTW plus traditional TW is what I took to Europe last year and my paintings were dry to the touch within 18 hours.

My palette during the Laguna competition...

This close up photo shows how I have been laying out both whites on my larger palette. The traditional T/ZW is on your left and the FMTW is on your right. With the whites in line like this I can use a brush or knife to quickly scoop up one or the other as needed. Or I can easily pick up a little of both if I want an intermediate mixture.

I still love to paint with lead white and want to see it survive as an option for future painters because nothing can truly replace it. Not even this ad-hoc solution. But these days I am less worried that some crazy ill-informed congress will legislate it off our palette. If that actually occurs in the near future I will be frustrated, but at least I know there is a viable option if it does.

If you try this let me know what you think...


Nov 9, 2014

"One more time, but with feeling"...

Just a quick one today:

I've been reading about painting, more than I've actually been painting since I came home this month. Not so much about the how of painting but the why. It's easy for me to forget why I paint when I become caught up with the how, not that I am suggesting that art needs a reason to exist beyond itself. I'm just saying it is good for me to pause and think about such things every now and then.

Here is a quick excerpt from an obscure book on the laws of Japanese painting, published in 1911. Yes, from way back then. Not even sure how I ended up with the volume but it always amazes me where artistic redirection can come from...


"One of the most important principles in the art of Japanese painting—indeed, a fundamental and entirely distinctive characteristic—is that called living movement, sei do, or kokoro mochi, it being, so to say, the transfusion into the work of the felt nature of the thing to be painted by the artist. Whatever the subject to be translated—whether river or tree, rock or mountain, bird or flower, fish or animal—the artist at the moment of painting it must feel its very nature, which, by the magic of his art, he transfers into his work to remain forever, affecting all who see it with the same sensations he experienced when executing it.
This is not an imaginary principle but a strictly enforced law of Japanese painting. The student is incessantly admonished to observe it. Should his subject be a tree, he is urged when painting it to feel the strength which shoots through the branches and sustains the limbs. Or if a flower, to try to feel the grace with which it expands or bows its blossoms. Indeed, nothing is more constantly urged upon his attention than this great underlying principle that it is impossible to express in art what one does not first feel." 

From Henry P. Bowie's book, “On the Laws of Japanese Painting”, with black and white illustrations. Paul Elder and Company Publishers. 

If there is a why to painting then this is it.


( FWIW: I think perhaps the spelling of 'sei do' is more properly seido, which translates to accuracy, institution, organization, precision, or system depending upon the context. And as the author above implies, kokoro mochi seems to translate pretty closely to feeling.)