Monday, January 31, 2011

Open Box M: A Review

Recently while browsing the web I popped in at the Open Box M site. I hadn't been there in a while since my own Open Box is working just fine.  I was astonished to see this message posted prominently on their site, "Please Plan Ahead! We are a small company that makes handcrafted artist equipment. Due to a high demand for our products and our attention to quality, it can be up to 4 weeks until your order is completed. Please contact us for expected delivery times. Thank you, open Box M."


I've been meaning to do a review of the Open Box M palette. This little message by the company, plus the fact their products run in the hundreds of dollars, spurred me on.  If a serious artist is thinking about plopping down - oh say over $500 with tax + delivery - I'm sure they'd want the opinion of someone who's used it for a while. I know I would.

A brief history: at one point in my artistic career my thought was to be a plein aire painter. A friend uses an Open Box M palette so I bought one.  I wanted a set-up that would work in the studio and in the field. So I bought an Open Box M. I think it was the 11x14 model with the walnut case. This was around 2007 and I don't know what I paid. Now the same kit is going for $460.

Walnut Case and Panel Holder

I used the kit all summer - well I used the palette. This is the working part of the set-up. it's essentially a shallow box with a means of holding panels/canvas. The interior of the box is supposed to be used as a palette. The box itself is set up on a tripod - not included in the price.

A word about the method of holding the canvas/panel. They use two brass rods that are spring loaded to hold the painting surface. It's really quite ingenius. I've taken it apart to see how it works (they cover up the innards with brass plates) and it's a simple, yet elegant method. This is the real heart of the Open Box M system, why you see photos of artists using it in magazines like Workshop and American Artist. The brass rods hold the painting surface secure with no rattle or shake. Competitors have nothing to match it.

The only part of the kit I use is the palette. I found the walnut case beautiful, but too big and heavy for everyday use. The wet panel carrier isn't as well thought-out as the palette holder, so I reverted to my old method of carrying wet panels. 

This can be confusing. I found it so on their site when I was looking to buy. Here's a breakdown: the kit includes a big, heavy wooden box (beautifully finished) to hold paint, brushes, etc. It also holds a wet canvas carrier - basically useless. And the real reason for buying the kit is the palette, the shallow box with brass rods that mount to a tripod. This is what you paint on.

There are alternatives offered. For instance you can buy a kit that doesn't include the walnut box, instead substituting a messenger bag + palette + wet panel carrier.

After using my Open Box "M" palette all summer in 2007 I decided it wasn't for me. Now I wanted a Soltek. In my defense this was my 'experimental phase' when I was trying as many different set-ups as possible in search of that mythical, perfect set-up. A friend jumped at the chance to buy my Open Box and I sold it to him. Then:

I bought the Soltek. I sold the Soltek.
I bought an Easy "L".  Now its down the basement.
I bought a Guerilla Box. Now down the basement, joining the Jullian.
I even tried my hand at making my own.

Eventually... reluctantly... I decided the best system was indeed the Open Box "M" palette. Now I had to buy another one. (In case you're wondering if I'm like this in other areas, my wife and I have been married eighteen years and my truck is six years old.) This time, however, I ignored the heavy (expensive) walnut box, opting instead for the messenger bag set-up.

A word here about Open Box's competitors. I'll break down their negatives because that's what decided me against them.

Easy "L" - too large and heavy. Needs a massive tripod. Panel fastener is inferior to Open Box. Hinges are superior to Open Box. Second most popular among artists based on my browsing of workshop photos.

Guerilla Box - large and heavy, yet indestructible. Worst drawback is their panel fastening system. It requires you buying a separate holder for each size panel. And the panels rattle with each brushstroke. I want my painting surface to be rock steady.

Jullian - large and heavy, but incorporates tripod into system so you don't have to carry it around. Set-up can be complicated ( I see people at almost every painting session I go to struggling with their Jullians. And I see many elderly painters asking for help.) Ultimately I found the palette surface of the Jullian too low for comfortable painting. I didn't like the panel fastening sytem either. You can't get to your entire surface without some mid-painting adjustments.

Soltek - ahhh...Now this is one I'd choose again. The tripod is part of the box and it all folds neatly down into a compact package. If some crazed art materials thief stole my kit tomorrow, I'd buy a Soltek as replacement. Drawback to the Soltek is a lousy palette inside. Wilcox may have changed it, but mine was a piece of flimsy plastic gray tupperware. The Soltek is basically an updated 21st century Jullian made of aluminum and plastic. Comes at a premium though. Cost is comparable to Open Box. (Note: they offer a "pro" model that's supposed to be for artists over 5'8", but I'm 6' and it fit me fine.) 

and now for the negatives of open Box M:

There aren't many - otherwise i wouldn't have settled on one. I'm nit-picking. The box could have dovetailed corners. Needs a quality tripod, but it doesn't have a to be a huge tripod. I get along quite nicely with a lightweight Bogen. Hinge system can be annoying...and ...ummm...that's it.

If you're thinking of buying one are they worth the money? Probably. Are they worth the money and the wait? Not for me...I'd get a Soltek. Or for the price I'd try this new version offered at Dick Blick. Looks like it would work...or you never know it might end up down the basement.

Craftech Sienna Plein Air Pochade

About Me

My photo
Elmira, New York, United States
In many ways I think like a photographer. The image itself is becoming more and more important to me; the actual application of paint less and less. Blasphemy in some painterly circles. I choose to paint figures and portraits because I consider them the most difficult subject.