New Product Review: The Outside Studio "Sketcher's Atelier"

May 15, 2015 | 4 Comments

Putting together a sketching kit is an important part of being able to regularly sketch out on location. If you don’t have a lightweight, compact, easily accessible kit then the chances are that it will be ‘too hard’ to get out when you see something that you want to sketch. Another big aspect is working out a system for how you are going to use these tools – how you are going to hold/balance them or do you need to be sitting down at a table with everything spread out before you. So developing a way of sketching standing up and sitting on a stool, or bench is very important. As Urban Sketchers we love comparing notes and seeing all the ingenious ways others manage their kit.

A few months ago Nancy Gruber sent me a pre-production version of her “Atelier” – a portable studio she has been developing to help with this balancing act. I want to share with you my thoughts after my initial testing.

For anyone reading who worries about ‘honest reviews’, I can assure you that everything I write on this blog is my own opinion regardless of whether they are free products given to me to test/review or whether they are items that I have purchased myself.
Any opinions that I share are always based on the way I work, which in some ways differs from many of my sketching friends. I do try to explain why it suits or doesn’t suit me in the hope that you will be able to make your own assessment based on the way you work.

And so onto the atelier… from The Outside Studio website:

Nancy’s Story:

I have always been an artist.  Just like most of you, I have been on a constant quest to accumulate art supplies.  Some are used, some treasured friends (brushes, palettes, etc), others stored for lack of use.  When I began gathering the best supplies to carry, sketch and paint, the choices were not the greatest.  About 9 years ago, I designed my first Atelier (small writing desk-type) and used it for awhile.  Then got busy with life, put it away ….  Plein-air sketching and painting has always been the most enjoyable for me.  Being outside – recording what I saw, and remembering with all my senses, is what makes me feel whole as an artist.  A year ago I discovered that little “sample” Atelier, stored and forgotten.  These products are inspired by that wonderful need to “just be outside and sketch!”  I needed a system that was easy, comprehensive and durable.  So, there you are, but wait – there’s more…….
The need to give back to the community is something I have pondered for a long time.  How can I make a difference as an artist? These products have been developed to be made in an assembly template – to create future jobs for those who are challenged in my community.  We have just begun this journey, our journey.  As more information about this endeavor develops, it will be posted here with a link to a future site with all the details.   Thank you for supporting our efforts, for change – one community at a time!    

” Brown or Black in an imitation leather-like cloth specially coated and embossed to simulate leather.  Extremely durable and water and soil resistant.” From the website.
Please note: I am testing a trial version that wasn’t lined inside with this material.

It comes in a number of different sizes and configurations.  I was sent the size which is designed for an A4 moleskine. Basically it is a folder that can hold you sketchbook and your kit, and then the folder opens up and wraps around becoming a support for your book.

My first questions when I opened it up was
– how flexible it would be to different ways that I would use it and
– how would it go if I used it with a Alpha 9×6 which was my current sketchbook?

So the start of my testing process wasn’t to use it as designed – are you surprised at that?

Here are a number of different configurations that I have tried:

Starting with my Landscape 9 x 6 Alpha: It worked a treat and I was able to include my two water bottles in the same space. Nice! Water containers secured by blu-tac at the base.

Getting the Atelier with the Alpha ready to close up.  Amazingly the width of the Alpha and this size Atelier are the same – it is held in place by a bull dog clip (you can just see it at the top). I have moved the water containers to the end so that they would provide support of the magnetic closure.

Here is the closer photo… not very clear but the water containers fit perfectly! Wow!

Time to test with with an A4 moleskine (since that is what it IS designed for!!!)

The book fits perfectly but, because of its span, I needed bulldog clips on the corners to hold it flat against the support of the Atelier. I managed to fit in the water containers in the top compartment by overhanging the paint tin. BTW it is VERY important for me that my paint tin is always in this orientation so that I know instinctively where each colour is ie. I can’t use the paint tin with the same ease if it was located vertically.

But what about doing a vertical sketch? No problems, slide the book through the slot under the top compartment!

And finally, one more way to use it for a single spread. If you are like me and always place your paint tin on your dominant side (for me the left side) this use of the Atelier will only work from one side of your book. I purposely sketched close to the spine of the book to see if the compartment walls got in the way – they did a little, so I slide the book to the right a little and it was fine. You might also notice that I rotated my paint tin so it was horizontal (in the must have arrangement) and this worked fine.

My thoughts:
– I find the compartment works well. Although not having a spot for a water container, I have adjusted the original design and fit in two containers and some paper towel very nicely.
– It is remarkably versatile for different sketchbooks and ways of using it – with the addition of a few bull dog clips I have been able to modify and customize to suit.
– The support for the sketchbook when sketching is great – I love the little ledge (a clever design!) but did find that I needed bull dog clips to hold down that big flapping A4 moleskine. This might not be an issue with the smaller sizes.
– The first time I used it magnetic close kept popping open while I was walking the streets holding it, but this is easily fixed by a bull-dog clip or, some support underneath. Nancy has advised me that the magnets on the final model are stronger.
– The unit is a little bulky – it feels a fraction too high to feel comfortable – but amazingly it is the exact height to fit my water containers and that is a really important feature for me. The overall height of this version of the Atelier is a little high to comfortably fit into my shoulder bag – I would end up carrying it all day in my hand and suspect this would be too bulky for one of my hard-core sketching days! This large A4 Atelier is better suited to dedicated sketching outings, when you didn’t have to carry your gear everywhere. There is an elastic strap designed for it – this would help a lot – and according to the website a bag coming soon too!
– Like everything we add to our kit, it is extra weight (600gm)
– I know that Nancy closes her paint tin which allows for room for her pens…but well, you know me… I have a LOT of pens. I am not sure I would take my pens out of the front pocket of my bag.
– How robust is it for the extreme amount of usage I would put it through? It is very sturdy but I haven’t yet tested it for true Liz-Steel type rough treatment, but of course I am a heavy-duty user. Note: I am testing a trail version that was not lined inside with the ‘leather like material’ but have been impressed by the external finish!  I think it would be fine for most people’s general sketching usage.
– I am finding it great to use at home. If I want to sketch something around the house, or even during a little local walk, then it is perfect. I will be setting it up with my backup palette so it is ready to go whenever I want to go out and sketch in the garden. It would be great for using in the car.
– For the record I have not had a chance to take it out on a serious full day sketching adventure… but I will keep you posted when I do.
 – BTW Nancy has left handed and right handed versions available – she thinks of everything!
– Just have to add again, how clever is the design! Everytime I use it and do something different, I am able to work out a way that I could use the Atelier. Incredible.

So in summary, if you are looking for a very nice, good looking, practical solution to your sketching kit I would recommend you check out the Atelier range  and see if there is one to suit you.  Please contact Nancy if you have any questions.

Postscript: How is it different from what I am using now?

I have been using a simple signboard for my setup in recent months – thanks to the inspiration of a Marc Holmes idea –  see more here. I am still refining it, but it works very well. Basically all I do is clip everything to the board, and the support for the spine of the book does wonders for how much easier everything is to handle.  I haven’t got the right size yet but my current setup is working well.

How does the Atelier compare with this?
– The Atelier is lot neater solution and  MUCH smarter looking,
– I love the elevated compartment for my paint – it feels a little more comfortable to be elevated and if I tilted the assembly when I had a big watery wash in my palette it wouldn’t get all over my book!
– Water container is a little more securely held in place
– It is heavier and bulkier – the signboard weights practically nothing and is slimline.


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