In the 18th and 19th century, French painters had to lug big heavy French easels and all their paints into the field if they wanted to paint out-of-doors. With the invention of the small pochade box (pochade is French for “quick color sketch”) those types of painting trips became much easier.
Today I’m going to show you how can make your own pochade box out of a cigar box just like the old impressionist masters. Best of all, the total cost of making this little pochade box should be under $20.
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Here’s what you’ll need
A cigar box
I’ve bought many different cigar boxes on eBay, but you can also visit your local tobacco shops or liquor stores that sell cigars. Look for a box with a recessed cover. The recessed cover allows enough depth for your panel to sit. Many cigar boxes have a flat cover, which won’t work for pochade boxes.
My favorite cigar box brands are Bering, Hemingway, Te Amo and House of Windsor. These boxes are appoximately 8×7×3 inches deep, which works well with a 5×7 panel that sits in the lid.
Various hardware and pieces
You will need mending strips, a couple screws, two wingnuts and flathead screws, a hook & eye, and new hinges.
You’ll also need some lath, a palette (cut out of plexiglass or masonite), and some spacers for parts of the box. I’ll explain more about this below.
OK. . . here we go!
Brace the cover
Since the cigar box cover will be supporting your painting panel, you’ll need to make the cover stronger.
I made a support with two small pieces of metal called mending strips, which are easily found in a hardware store. I used two small screws to mount the mending strips to the box: one on the lid and one on the box.
I then used a small flathead screw and wingnut to hold the metal strips together while keeping the lid up at the desired angle. See picture below:
Install new hardware
Most cigar boxes have cheap hardware that will not hold up to outdoor painting. Replace the hinges and add a new latch (a hook and eye works well) to the front. Small hinges and latches can easily be found in a good hardware store or craft store.
Make a panel holder
Cigar boxes have small fillets of wood that extend up from the lower part of the box into the cover. You can use these wood fillets keep the panel in place when the box is closed.
For my box, the 5×7 painting panel fit the cover exactly horizontally. To be sure that the panel doesn’t move while I’m painting, I used a hook screw to hold the panel in place. Another option is to use double stick tape to hold your panel in place while you’re painting.
Cut a palette to fit
I went to a glass/window manufacturing shop and had a piece of plexiglass cut to fit my box. Make sure to leave a finger hole by cutting the edge off one of the corners at 45 degrees. This will give you easy access to your paint tubes and supplies below.
You will also want to keep the protective paper on the underside of the plexiglass. This keeps your palette opaque rather than see-through which helps when mixing paints.
Take the box with you for the exact measurements or be sure to measure the inside of the box before you cut your plexiglass (masonite works for a palette too).
Add palette support
Your palette will need to have some support to keep it steady while you are painting, and also so that it will lie flat and cover the paints and other items in the lower part of the box.
I cut 2 lengths 1 1/8 x 3/16 wood, mat board or foam core to fit the inside of the box. These pieces of lath are placed flat against the front and the back sides of the box, and form a thin shelf on which the palette rests.
Place small palette holders
You are almost finished with your new box! The last thing you need to do is construct something to keep the palette in place when the box is closed. This will also act as a protective barrier to keep your wet palette away from the panel when the box is closed.
For my box I used those round plastic surface savers. They can be found in hardware stores. I cut mine in half and hot glued them to the inside of the lid. Just make sure to measure your painting panel so it will sit inside these spacers.
Three bonus tips for plein air painting
1. Cut down your paintbrush handles so they’ll fit inside your pochade box.
2. Take a limited number of paints, and make them water-soluble for easy cleanup.
3. Store baby wipes for easy clean up
I hope you’ll all try building your own pochade box. . . I keep mine in my car and use it while waiting for my kids during soccer or tutoring. On hikes, I can pack it easily along with a camera and whip out small studies.
Enjoy, and go find your own places to use your new pochade box—even if it’s in your own backyard!
For more tips and resources from Lori McNee, please visit her blog, Fine Art Tips.
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