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Handmade Brass Watercolour Paint boxes, are they worth it?

During this summer in June I was lucky enough to take part in a six day watercolour course with Alvaro Catagnet. Alvaro’s work is known worldwide for its loose style, vibrant and intense hues and really dark darks. I have been working to loosen up my style of painting and to get away from focusing on the wrong details.

The week with Alvaro was hard work, he did two paintings a day which we then had about an hour and a half to follow him with our own interpretation of the. Always working “plein air “and “alla prima”, fast and furious with little drying time, using big squirrel mops to start the washes and only dropping a couple of sizes for the detail. Finishing the calligraphy with a reservoir rigger.

What I noticed in the very first day was how fresh Alvaro’s paint stayed in his palette. This meant that he was able to pick up lots of really fresh paint with each brush stroke. This allowed to easily achieve the intense hues and colour and contrasts that his work is known for. Whereas I seemed to struggle to be able achieve this despite having the same paints used straight from the tube into the palette.

Alvaro at work

It became clear the more closely I watched that Alvaro’s palette was made of brass and had much larger paint wells that the plastic cloverleaf palette that I was using. As the week progressed it was also clear that the paint in the brass palette stayed wet and fresh during the day whereas mine seemed to dry out more quickly. Indeed my paint would continue to dry overnight and always needed refreshing with a spray in the morning, whereas Alvaro just seemed to open up his box and get to it.

Further research after the course confirmed that a lot of the professional watercolour artists whom I followed used metal paint boxes. I resolved that despite the cost I would get one as obviously this would improve my painting! My research on the internet turned up about five paint box makers who made brass paint boxes. The only problem was that all of them were quoting at least a year for delivery.

I am an impatient painter and having taken the decision to get a brass paint box I wanted to have it to use for the rest of the summer and I wanted it now! What does that say for our consumer society of today where we are used to next day or even same day deliveries, almost instant gratification.

As just wanting a paint box now wasn’t going to work, I decided the only way to get one sooner was to make one for myself. So I set out to design and make my own version, working from photos of Alvaro painting I had taken during the weeks course I was able to scale off the sizes in relation to the squirrel mop that I know he uses. Using these sizes I made drawings of all of the parts so that I could make them in brass.

I should say that I decided to make two boxes at once as my wife is also a watercolourist and I didn’t want to lose my new box too soon and if the brass box proved to be an improvement then we would both benefit.

Working in the evenings only it took about a week to get the brass parts made up and about another week to do all of the soldering to make up the box. The attached photos and video will give you a feel for the process. I decided to only enamel the interior of the paint box with matt white for the paint wells and mixing areas and not to paint the outside. I left this the natural brass finish with a 240 grit polish, anti-oxidising treatment and final hard wax polish to finish. I decided on leaving the natural brass finish as I felt that this would wear gracefully developing a nice patina over time. Hand polishing took some time and I fully intend to get an electric polisher when I make the next ones. Making them myself, I didn’t save any cost as the finished brass palettes cost pretty much the same as those on the market but I did get them a lot quicker, four weeks from start to finish.

Have a look at the video to see how a brass paintbox is put together.

So the big question is, are brass paint boxes better that plastic ones? For me the answer is yes.

Currently most of my painting is done at the weekends as I am fully employed in my own business during the week. This has the result that previously my plastic palette dried out from lack of use during the week, meaning that paint that had been fresh from the tube would be like using a dry half pan the following week. This made it difficult to get the intense hues as easily as when the paint is fresh. As you can’t get a lot of pigment on the brush without scrubbing it around in the paint well, this is not good for your brush.

I find that the brass palette keeps the paint fresher much longer, in fact even after a couple of weeks of not using the palette the paint will have only formed a thin skin with the paint fresh underneath. From weekend to weekend the paint remains fresh and moist.

The other advantage I have found is the larger paint wells (about the size of a full pan), these allow me to lay the whole of the side of my large squirrel mop down on its side and pick up a load of pigment which helps me to achieve the intensity of hue more easily.

Are there disadvantages? The current version of my brass palette that I am using is heavy by comparison with a plastic box and it is my intention to make a lighter version using a lighter gauge of brass. I also have found that I am using a lot more paint than before, but I see the benefits of this in the paintings I have been producing since I changed to the brass palette; they are full of colour with super intense hues and great contrast.

So would I go back? The answer is definitely no; I am fully converted to a brass palette!

My Classic Type 1 version one in use
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