In the last blog post, I discussed the issues faced by ever-changing lighting conditions when painting on location. Having an umbrella setup that helps to provide consistent shade while working for a few hours can make the situation less stressful.
A few years ago, when there were fewer of us dragging our pastels out on location, we had to improvise to make everyday umbrellas work. Clever devices evolved and we were always looking over the shoulder of each other to see what the other had done. Since the popularity of working en plein air has risen, manufacturers have marketed an array of new setups. Having built a few of my own and field-tested a variety of the commercially available models, I thought I’d share a few observations.
First, determine what size will work best for your individual needs. If you travel a lot, especially by air, a small, compact collapsible model will be best. These attach to the easel with a clamp and usually have a degree of extension and flexibility built in. On the other hand, if you commonly drive to your painting locations, a larger, sturdy model that provides a wider area of shade would be more practical. In windy conditions, vented umbrellas are best. They allow for a degree of airflow before picking up and tipping over whatever they happen to be attached to.
Wind is the major culprit behind the most disruptive scenarios, causing the dreaded tumbled easel and pastel palette. For this reason, carefully consider your umbrella choices when working in blustery conditions. Weighting down an easel with a bag of found rocks or securing an easel to the ground with tent stakes are both good options, as is attaching the umbrella to a freestanding structure, rather than the easel. I’ve utilized a spare camera tripod at times, attaching a large clamp plein air umbrella or fashioning a golf umbrella with a clamp that attaches to the tripod. This allows me to easily move the setup as the light changes; plus, it is independent of my setup if it should blow over when a wind gusts.
The “Shadebuddy” is available from Dakota Art Pastels or Judsons Art Outfitters. It provides a metal stake that can easily be placed in the bare ground, and it holds a large golf umbrella in its swiveling head, providing similar options. For a good wind-hardy clamp-on umbrella, Artwork Essentials is marketing a telescoping, free tethered umbrella that allows it to gently lift off and drift to the ground in windy conditions.
Another major consideration is the color and translucency of the umbrella material. White, black, grey, or some soft neutral tones are best when dealing with anything translucent. Bright colors will reflect onto the painting, affecting its appearance. Some painters want the little bit of soft light emitted from the translucent material, especially dry-medium artists like pastelists who don’t have to compete with the shiny glare off their painting surface. Others prefer a sun-block material, often black on the inside and reflective on the topside, helping to keep things cool in severe summer conditions. These sun-block umbrellas can also prove useful in severely bright painting locations, like high-altitude locales.
It’s always advisable to fold down the umbrella when walking away from your easel for a period of time and to set your pastel palette on the ground. Coming back after a break to find your materials strung across the countryside can deter even the best of painters from wanting to venture out.
When making your umbrella decisions, seek out the opinions of other artists. This can save a few headaches in the field and monies (that can be used to purchase more pastels). Check the latest advertisements for new models. There are always improvements being made, and many of the current models are vastly improved over their predecessors. Every time I gather with other outdoor painters, there is some new-and-improved umbrella being used, which I immediate feel I have to acquire, knowing it will make my paintings better! If not better, it will at least make the experience more pleasant!