-By Dan dos Santos
A few months ago I discovered a gorgeous new pochade box called the PaintBook, manufactured by Edge Pro Gear. For those unfamiliar with the term 'pochade box', it is basically a portable easel, commonly used by people who travel or paint outdoors a lot.
There are a lot of options available when purchasing a pochade box, but none quite as striking at the PaintBook. So much so, that I contacted the company to learn more.
The generous folks at Edge Gear Pro were kind enough to loan us one of their new PaintBooks, and all the accessories, to try out in person. Since I'm not one to handle my working gear preciously, I decided to throw it right into the fray, and demo it firsthand at last month's Spectrum Fantastic Art Live in front of a live audience.
My first impression of the PaintBook was a good one. Without reading any instructions, I had the easel, trays, cups, tripod and the light, all set up in 2 minutes flat. It is a very intuitive and well thought out design.
Part of what made the set-up so easy is that fact that every accessory is magnetic. The trays just snap onto the paint box, the jars snap onto the trays, the canvases snap onto the easel, etc. The benefit to this is two-fold. Firstly, ease. Secondly, and more importantly, it's secure. Since the jars are magnetically attached to the trays, you don't need to worry about accidentally knocking your turp over and making a huge mess. We were painting indoors for this demo, but if we were using this outdoors, wind and terrain are a major consideration, making this feature extra beneficial.
Overall, the PaintBook looks great, and goes together great. In terms of aesthetics and craftsmanship, I really don't think you could do much better.
So let's talk function...
The paint box itself is designed incredibly rugged. I don't know what it's actually made from, perhaps a carbon fiber of sorts, but it looks like it could take a serious beating. I'm not talking "Oops, I banged it on my doorframe" kind of beating. I'm talking "Oh crap, I ran it over with my car" kind of beating. Seriously, it's that well made. The hinges are strong and very resistant, meaning you have to forcefully adjust the lid. This is good, as you don't want the lid opening further every time you put down a stroke. On the downside, there is no locking mechanism. I've owned a lot of portable easels, and no matter what, after a few years the hinges always get a little loose. It would be nice if there was some way to lock the position of the lid so that if the hinges do loosen up in time, you could always just crank it down tighter.
The glass palette (which appears to be easily replaced should it be damaged) is toned a perfectly neutral grey. This makes color mixing far easier in my opinion. Though, Greg Manchess, who demoed it on behalf of Muddy Colors, is used to mixing on a white palette and mentioned that he found it a little difficult to adapt to at first. People who already paint on a grey or wooden palette will likely enjoy it.
The panels are pretty nice. The primed linen has a nice texture to it. Not too plastic-y, and not too toothy. The panels are also magnetic, meaning they snap onto the PaintBook effortlessly just like everything else. The magnetic panel is a really cool, albeit novel, feature... but made me a little apprehensive at first. I'm always reluctant to depend on a single provider for an expensive element so integral to my process. What happens if they go out of business, or I just don't like their panels any more? At first, I thought this was going to be a real deal breaker for me. Fortunately, the PaintBook also comes with sliding canvas holders, so you can use your own standard non-magnetic panels too.
Simple, strong, and practical. Each tray has a notched edge so you can place your brushes down without them sliding around or bumping into each other. The magnetic turp jar I mentioned is nothing short of brilliant in my opinion. The trays and jars are admittedly pricey, but man, are they worth it.
The LED just may have been the star of the show for me. Lights like this are usually too cumbersome to actually attach to your easel, but this one isn't. It snaps right into the top of the PaintBook, and is so lightweight it doesn't affect the stability of the paintbox at all. It is also battery operated (if you want) so you don't have any messy cords in the way. The light is perfectly color balanced, has adjustable intensity (a MAJOR plus), and lasted a REALLY long time on 4 AA batteries. We used it for at least 4 hours on a medium intensity, and it showed no signs of dimming whatsoever. The LED light is so good, it makes me wonder how I ever worked without one.
I have a love/hate relationship with the tripod. It is a Manfrotto tripod, which in the photo community, is about as good as it gets. It is strong, well made, and will out last us all. The problem with the tripod (and thusly the entire setup) is the head... particularly the quick release attachment. Even though the quick release snaps securely enough to support a heavy camera, it is not designed to support 10 lbs of equipment and a heavy handed artist. Even a millimeter of flex at the attachment point, when adequately leveraged against, gets amplified to a significant bounce when painting.
You can see in the following images that Greg had to hold the PaintBook while painting to prevent it from bouncing back and forth.
Part of the bounce is from the tripod head, and a small part is from the Paintbox hinges. Alone, neither one is so bad as to be an issue. But together, the bounce is significant enough to be problematic.
Personally, I do not think the box even needs a quick release attachment at all. An artist is not taking the box on and off the easel so much that it warrants the need for it, especially at such a detriment. When setting up, it would have arguably taken LESS time to simply screw in a standard ball head.
If you do decide to purchase the PaintBook, I'd definitely pass on the tripod, and instead get one with a standard, non-releasing, ball head. Or at the very least, change the head on this one.
So, Pros and Cons:
Very rugged and well crafted.
Very thin profile.
The LED light has adjustable intensity, and long battery life.
Magnetic trays and turp jars are secure and spill proof.
The glass palette is neutral grey and easy to clean.
No storage whatsoever, so paint tubes still need to be carried in another box.
Does not hold wet canvases like many pochade boxes do.
The profile is so thin, that you can only close the lid over small/moderate daubs of paint.
The tripod head causes wobble.
No locking hinges.
I think the PaintBook is a great SEMI-portable easel.
If you are painting outdoors, and setting up and breaking down every few hours, this is not the pochade box for you. Because of it's lack of storage, and it's inability to hold wet canvases, you're going to be carrying a lot of stuff.
However, if you are traveling, and doing say, a three-day workshop/demo somewhere, it is a perfect choice! It's small, sturdy, and easy enough to travel with. Once you get set up, carrying around the additional paint tubes and whatnot isn't really a concern. Plus it's rugged enough I don't think even an airport baggage handler could break it.
Basically, think of the Paintbook as more of an easel than a paintbox.
That said, the PaintBook was a great piece of equipment, which suited our needs quite well for the SFAL convention. Below are some photos from Greg Manchess' demo. In keeping with the SF/F nature of the convention, Greg painted a 90 minute portrait of Zachary Quinto as Spock.