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


  1. Very interesting review and somewhat mirrors my own experience I have the OBm 10x12 "Pelican case", 3 Guerilla Painters, a Julian 1/2 box and a Savoir Faire full box..... and yes still looking. Guerilla Painter has a new design (2 sizes) that they call the French Resistance Pochade, but I'm skeptical. It's essentailly a thinner box with a couple compartments, the largest of which you could use as a palette.... however is a long narrow rectangle that's about 1 1/2" deep which means actually using the space as a mixing palette is uncomfortable at best. Credit them with recognizing this and coming out with some jerry rigged add on palette. The improvement in their system is the panel holding set up, you might check it out at their website if you're interested....

    I'm actually toying with getting an additional OBm (11x14) as I do like the panel/canvas support system better than any other, though the new system in the Guerilla Painter's French Resistance Pochade is a major improvement.

    Besides the Crafttech Sienna there is another called the ProChade by Artwork Essentials. I'm not a fan of either as the workmanship/materials don't look up to the Open Box M/Guerilla standards.... good hunting.
    Jim Janssen

  2. This is a great post! I have an Open Box M with minor adaptations on it...and was surfing/shopping for a better and sturdier tripod to put my box on, and I stumbled upon your review. If you care, my in-depth blog post on the adaptations for pastelists can be read here:

    It's funny, we are always looking for that 'perfect' system for quick set up and functionality. I have found my box to be a bit heavier than I planned, but I'm lugging around pastels, so hey, that's a given. Other than that, it's the best around!

  3. Jim and Brenda, thanks for your input!

    Jim I'm skeptical of the guerilla French resistance model. It actually looks like a modification of an Easy-L. I dislike badmouthing the products from Guerilla (Judson's) because the people are so darn nice. Their customer service is top notch too. Just that that products always seem to be lacking that extra something that makes me FORGET about the product when I'm painting.

    Brenda, cool modifications on your box. I like the rubber feet idea. I put a leather handle on mine and a latch, but didn't mess with the hinge system. Now you have me thinking because I've got an Easy-L down the basement. IMO this has the best hinge system. Of course they don't sell them a la carte (I don't think), but hey if I got them why not use them?

  4. Thanks for the great review. I am considering purchasing the OBM 11x14 palette/panel holder. but I'm it possible to carry at least one wet painting inside the palette/panel holder after a painting session? Or do you have to use a separate wet panel carrier?

  5. Hi, In answer to your question it's possible to carry one wet painting still attached to the panel holder IF it's smaller than than 11x14 AND if you never used the palette to hold paint. For example i don't actually use the palette surface, preferring to hold my own palette, so the inside surface is dry. Sometimes I'll store a 6x8 or 8x10 in there. Unfortunately if you use the palette surface for any type of mixing when you close the box it's possible for paint to transfer to your just completed painting. SO if you use the OBM the way it's intended to be used then NO, you can't use it as a holder. Hope this answers your question.

  6. I purchased the Sienna Plein Air Pochade box and returned it immediately. It was way too wiggly for me.

  7. Another option is the Alla Prima Pochade. I have a 10x12. I handle up to a 16x20 panel or canvas on it. By far the most elegant design and finish. No hooks or latches, no wing nuts. All done by magnets. Holds 4 panels inside. Two drawers hold paint and medium. A few brushes go in a quiver inside. Takes a tripod. Mine is a $90 all metal Sherpa and it is light, simple, and works well. There are drawbacks. The laptop style hinge seems a bit prone to wobble but I am not bothered by it nor are 6 friends who also use these. I also have a Julian, an Open Box M, and a self made I use for light travel. My buddies who have Solteks are not impressed with them. I use all my outdoor rigs for different conditions - the French for going large or painting in a storm, the OBM for still life in the studio or for a morning with a limited palette - light weight. The APP for everything else.

  8. I ordered that wet painting carrier from Open Box M and I thought it was a is a joke. I thought perhaps my palette would fit in there, but it doesn't. I am back to using my plastic case that holds 6 11 x 14's and cost $ much better, very light and works great.

  9. I am seriously thinking about purchasing Open Box M, but I'd like to hear from someone who has used Prochade by Artwork Essentials (Kevin MacPhearson)

    1. I have one, hardly used and its falling apart. The wood is coming unglued in a couple of places. Also it's quite small making it dysfunctional. A very flimsy piece of equipment, almost toy like. Not for serious artists.

  10. I know people who use it, but after ordering one for myself and calling them 15 times within 1 month, with no response, I would say stay far away from these people.

  11. Open Box M was the first company in the world to think of attaching a painting easel to a tripod. They are a 'ma and pa' shop that had to undergo serious downsizing in order to compete with the current market just like many other made in America companies. Their easels are THE BEST hands down... if they aren't answering the phone after fifteen calls, maybe it's just the Holidays. Have you emailed them? just wondering...

  12. I think the poster was answering the comment directly above theirs asking about the Prochade by Artwork Essentials. As to OBM being very busy around the holidays I've found that to be true, but very nice people when you get a hold of them.

  13. I'm not a professional painter but would like to paint more frequently with an easy set up. My questions are, which set up, OBM or Soltek, with tripod is lighter weight? Also, seems like the OBM needs to be carried separately from the tripod whereas the Soltek can be one unit inside a backpack, is this the case?
    BTW, love the feedback. I bought a French easel because it seemed "old school" and classic but it doesn't seem as sturdy and it's quite heavy so I'm coming from this and hoping for something better but not so modern looking.

  14. Hi SNTG! Great questions and i think I can answer them or come darn close. #1 "Which set-up OBM or Soltek with tripod is lighter weight?" Answer: About the same and I'm going to explain. The weight of the Soltek is about 9 lbs. The weight of the OBM depends on the tripod used. If you get a heavy-duty Pro tripod, then combined weight of OBM and tripod can be well over 9 lbs.If you get a lightweight tripod for the OBM then their combined weight will be very close to 9 lbs.
    #2 "OBM needs to be carried separately whereas Soltek can be one unit inside a backpack, is this the case?" Answer: Yes! Soltek is very compact and fits in backpack. Even without a backpack it's very portable. OBM is broken down from tripod for transport.
    The answers to these two questions seem to favor the Soltek over the OBM, but this is because we're talking about portability. the real strength of the OBM is in its positioning of the painting surface.
    Hope this helps! A lot of artists imo buy French Easels because of your reasons only to regret the purchase...I include myself in that group. Good luck and paint a lot!

  15. I own the Open Box M 10x12 Pelican Pochade, holds what I need and then some. The panel holder is light weight, made as if it were furniture, and the panel holder itself is ingenious. I have a part that is bent, Doug from Open Box M is sending me a new part and the fix is simple.
    I too have multiple pochade boxes; Guerilla 9x12, Guerilla 6x8 ThumBox, and Guerilla 5x7 Pocket Box. Add to this my Jullian half-box French Easel, several metal folding easels, and the Craftech Sienna.
    My original Guerilla Box 9x12 and 6x8 Thumbox is not made in China, the 5x7 Pocket Box is but looks like it could take a beating and survive. The Craftech Sienna is in the trash, not worth the inferior wood it's made of, shakes with every brushstroke and it too is made in China.
    Of all I own to paint plein air, the Open Box M is, in my opinion, the best pochade available (made in America, by Americans, and built to last).

  16. I love my open box m (I have two---a small and a large). I also have back issues. I'm thinking about buying a lighter weight tripod ( I have a heavy manfroto 190 pro b that I bought with the original setup) but I'm worried about the tippy factor.

    Has anyone used their box with a lightweight tripod? in the wind....?

  17. Has anyone used their open box m with a lightweight tripod? I have a heavy Manfroto 190XPROB that I bought with the setup but I have back issues and would like to lighten up my load. I'm wondering about stability issues, or painting in the wind with a lighter tripod.

  18. I'm also looking into buying a plein air easel. Has anyone purchased the Coulter Plein Air System? Website for it is

  19. I love my guerilla medium french resistance pochade,I hook my pallette on with a strip of Velcro ,the mini mite brush washer fits in,I can store my paint tubes 6-8 ,plus medium brushes etc. I use a guitar strap for carrying around town & country. Feel really cool with my little box. Sometimes have a back back to carry small tripod (Suntek) and other panels water snacks ...and you can carry your wet panel on it when your done.Im a happy plain air to Paris soon!!!!

  20. I just found this blog and can add my two cents worth regarding the Coulter System. I started out with a Monet easel (French easel on wheels) then discovered Jim Coulter's website and plein air easels. Several people in my painting group have EasyLs, Solteks, etc. but I like the simplicity, pack ability and light weight of the Coulter system.

  21. Can anyone comment on the Anderson Swivel easel? I have a low budget and an awkward set up right now that discourages me from attempting plein air as much as I need to.

  22. I realize this is a couple of years old, but would love to hear what you DO use for a panel carrier.
    Thanks in advance. Cooper


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.