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Mosaiculture and Magnets

August 22, 2013

This summer the Montreal botanical garden (Jardin Botanique) is the host for Mosaiculture International. It’s a show of topiary follies. Painstakingly planted and clipped sculptural works on a grand scale. I’m estimating some of the larger ones being 30 feet across.

It’s certainly a spectacle, attracting big crowds. Get your tickets online to avoid a significant wait; but alas, no Access Montreal discount for the speedy service.


At best the plantings can feel like forest spirits. A sculpture of organic material – clay, dead wood, antler, moss, lichen, (on a steel armature) combine with plant species selected for color and texture to create figures of living foliage.

At worst, it’s high-kitsch. Enormous blooming bumble bees knock over pots of cartoon flowers. Leafy lemurs, flowery clown fish, and succulent gila-monsters amuse kids and oldsters alike.

I’m not going to try and convince you it’s worth the steep admission – it is after all just an extravagant walk in the park. But if you’re looking for something to sketch (or photo) in Montreal right now – it was many years in the making, and might not happen again soon.


I’ve been talking a lot lately about painting on location, with the big easel and the whole shebang. I thought this time I’d try out something completely opposite. A real guerilla operation. This is a trick I saw at some sketchcrawl – perhaps it was our workshop in Portland?


The idea is to use super strong magnets to clip water bottles and palettes onto a drawing board. (One magnet goes right in your bottle of water, the other goes underneath the board – jumping from your fingers and clamping on).

It gives you some freedom to walk around, wave the board in the air, and generally not worry too much about holding stuff while you try and see through a crowd of tourists. Certainly, if you’re walking all day, it’s nice not to have to carry a tripod or easel.  I used it standing for short periods of time, but more often it’s a kind of lap desk.


With strong enough magnets it’s not a fragile setup. Things won’t fall off on their own – but the magnets will slide if you push them – so could end up nudging things off the edge. If that happens, the magnets will snap together with wicked force. I got some nice pinches getting used to that behavior.



I’ve seen a variation on this, a sketcher had a large panel of sheet magnet (sold as something to make photographic fridge decorations) contact cemented to their board. Making a kind of bulletin board for art supplies. Her Altoid tin watercolor kit stuck on nicely.

This trip I was experimenting with Line over Color – (reversing the normal approach – loose, exploratory washes first, tightening with line after). Something I’ve seen offered as a class at the USk symposium, but never had the chance to do.





So, there you go – something worth trying out. I think this magnetic setup is best suited for clipping a bottle of india ink to your board and doing big brush drawings in the field. It would probably be great at life drawing. I’m going to try that next. Something a little more streamlined than clipping on my full size folding palette. Perhaps just a few bottles of pre-mixed watercolor. Should be interesting to play with.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. Frank Bettendorf permalink
    August 22, 2013 7:36 PM

    Nice post with several concepts/ideas to think about. I feel challenged by the loose washes and then adding the line, but something worth doing. Thanks.
    Frank B in WA

  2. Doug Moench permalink
    August 22, 2013 9:40 PM

    Marc, the various steel watercolor boxes like those from Holbein, Kremer, Schminke stick like crazy to those super magnets. Glue a couple onto your board (bottom) & your WC box will stay put. Gotta be careful with them, especially around kids. If they ingest them, big trouble. Just a public service announcement. 😊

    • marctaro permalink*
      August 22, 2013 9:56 PM

      True enough (ingestion warning) same goes for my tube of cadmium red I think.

  3. August 22, 2013 10:35 PM

    The problem with children swallowing rare earth magnets is that one magnet in one part of the intestine will attract another magnet in another part of the intestine. With very strong magnets like Bucky Balls (which were recalled for this very reason) the things are impossible to separate without surgery. That’s why its such a problem for small children.

    Marc — I’m going to remind you of the sketchdeck design I showed you several years ago during a break at the last San Francisco Sketch Crawl you participated in. I’ll send you an email.

    • marctaro permalink*
      August 23, 2013 12:09 AM

      Yes I seem to recall – didn’t you have slots for ink bottles and such cut into the surface? Or is my memory making that up. And it went around your neck like the old hot dog vendors :)

  4. August 23, 2013 12:15 AM

    Marc, thanks for posting this! I noticed that you have a stack of boards there with clips on the side. Do you tape extra sheets of paper on those before you leave home? Also what do you do with your wet painting once you’ve finished and ready to move to the next location? Flip it to the bottom?

    I finally got around to getting the Lamy Joy pen and black ink you suggested a while back. There’s a couple sketches I’ve done so far on my blog. Love that ink and wash! Thanks again for the help!

    • marctaro permalink*
      August 23, 2013 12:25 AM

      Yup, right on both counts – I carry two or three boards with a pre-taped sheet on both sides. Usually when wet I can leave them leaning against a wall or lying in the sun for a few minutes and that’s enough to dry. One fellow also suggested finding a coffee shop washroom and blow drying them under the hand dryer. Works well in winter.

    • August 23, 2013 12:27 AM

      I had the bottles velcroed to the board. The “sketchdeck” itself was just three sticks tied together in it’s most basic form. One long stick supported from the ground, and two sticks were supported by clips at my belt. Easier to show in a picture. I’ll get on it for you. By the way, I LOVE the magnet attachments idea.

  5. August 23, 2013 12:54 AM

    Here is a photo of me working on the sketch deck in Chinatown: and the next two photos show the bare bones version. The two short arms attach by clips at my belt. All three sticks are tied together at the end. Altogether they make a handy support for a large sketchbook or drawing board.

    • marctaro permalink*
      August 23, 2013 12:58 AM

      Yes! Thanks – it has been a while hey? That is a clever gadget – light weight – which counts for a lot on a full day out.

    • marctaro permalink*
      August 23, 2013 1:00 AM

      I completely mis-remembered the design. Funny how inefficient the brain is about these things.

  6. August 23, 2013 1:00 AM

    I’ve made several variations of it. The three sticks are the simplest version. I’ve made a height adjustable version and a completely collapsible version too.

    • marctaro permalink*
      August 23, 2013 1:01 AM

      Height adjustable would be great – to allow for sitting part time?

  7. August 23, 2013 1:26 PM

    Yes, shorter to allow for sitting, but also longer if you are standing on the upside of a slope.

  8. August 26, 2013 3:07 AM

    What pen do you use for the sketching?

    • marctaro permalink*
      August 26, 2013 10:05 AM

      Ball points – any gel pen rolling ball type and a brush pen – the Pentel GFKP cartridge.

  9. June 20, 2014 2:54 AM

    I kinda appreciate the use of these “Rare Earth” magnets as we model makers use them a lot in construction.
    But I’m also a Fiddleit to fix kinda guy.
    So two thoughts, why not get hold of some “D” ring fittings and place them about one third of the way down each of the short sides, that way you could use a camera strap to add a touch of “stability” to the platform.
    Second a length of piano hinge and a thinner section of wood with two 45 degree braces at the top that would give you a platform for placing liquids on with less chance of spillage. you could even have a hole in that piece to use as a carry handle.

    • June 22, 2014 10:52 PM

      If I visualize your strap – it would be like a hot dog vendors tray? I did see a fellow do that back in SF (he may still be are reader, he’s commented a few times). He also had a ‘third leg’ on a hinge that could swing down, and become a kind of mono-pod desk. (If I recall correctly). These things can certainly work – but I find I move around too much. I rotate the board to get nice lines, hold it up in front of the view to sight check, move it out of peoples way when they brush by, put it down to rest my hand, (or just to get out my phone) – things that make having it around your neck awkward for me. Ultimately I show this so people can mess with the idea (as you suggest) – but really, I’ve decided to either go big (and use my camera tripod easel) or go small (and just use a sketchbook and coroplast support).

      • June 22, 2014 11:42 PM

        Hi Marc — I’m in the middle of rebuilding my studio with actual insulation and new sheetrock and . . . BEHOLD . . . a four by eight foot skylight! If you give me a few days I’ll take some photos of the sketch deck I use.

        Speaking of which I sold the domain name so that no longer leads to the demo page. I had to face up to the idea that I would never become a manufacturer and an money offer that was hard to pass up. It almost paid for my skylight!


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