Tuesday, April 3, 2012

What's the Best Easel for Outdoor Painting?

Thomas Cole's paint box
I'm like many outdoor painters in that I'm a bit of a "gearhead."  I love gadgets.  And for the outdoor painter, there's no more fascinating gadget than the field easel.  After years of evolution - from Thomas Cole's modest lap paintbox to some of today's turbocharged, multi-tasking pochade boxes - there are many to choose from.  So, what's best?

Well, that all depends.  Where you paint, when you paint and how you paint will make some easels better for you than others.   And, things change.  What worked for you yesterday may not work for you today.  I have maybe a dozen or more different easels and boxes.  Some I use all the time; some I pull out for specific occasions; some I should probably just put up for sale on eBay.


Heilman "Backpack" pastel box, mounted on tripod  (in Jerome, Arizona)

The main thing I'm looking for in an easel is stability and sturdiness.  It has to be able to stand up to the wind and to my innate clumsiness.  If it doesn't meet these basic qualifications, I don't use it.

I have three basic easels I use.  First, is my 9x12 Guerrilla Painter box.  It's well-built, holds all my paint and panels, and fits on an easily-detached tripod, making it very portable.   If I don't want to bother with the tripod, I can use it in my lap or on a picnic table.  Although I've added an optional part that lets me put up to a 12x16 panel on it, I typically use it for 9x12 panels and smaller.


9x12 Guerrilla Painter pochade box for oil, mounted on tripod ( at Zion National Park)

Second is my Gloucester-style easel.   Thanks to its three long legs and two crossbars, it'll stand up to a gale.  I have to carry a separate palette box - I use an Easyl Classic for this - which fits on the crossbars.  I use bungee cords to secure it.  The Gloucester-style easel will also hold a huge canvas.  I've painted as large as 24x30 on it, and I know it will go much bigger.  (Pictured below is the Beauport, but because of a  number of issues with this Chinese knockoff, I recommend the American-made Take-It-Easel.)

Gloucester-style easel, with separate paint box on crossbars (on Campobello Island, NB)
Finally, I use a French easel.  Mine is a Mabef, and it's made of hard maple with durable hardware.  (Don't get the cheap ones made of a soft wood like elm; they last less than a year with heavy use.)  It's heavy, but it's sturdy, and it can also accomodate a variety of sizes.  If I'm painting larger than 9x12 but smaller than 16x20, I'll probably use this one.  I also take it as a spare on road trips.


Mabef French easel (in Sedona, Arizona)

The best advice I can give for someone looking for a good easel or pochade box is to take a workshop.  At workshops, not only can use see what the instructor likes to use, but you can also see what the other students are using.  Usually, at my workshops, I'll see a half-dozen setups.  It's a great way to evaluate them without having to buy one of each!

23 comments:

Helen Opie said...

Like you, I've had a number of easels in my time, and my 3 current ones are a 9x12 Geurilla pochade box, a (Grumbacher label) French easel bought in 1976 and in regular use since then - and beginning to wear out all over - and a Gloucester easel, a Chinese knockoff with American improvements to make it work. This last will take a 4x6 foot canvas, but since that is too big to fit into my car, I only use it for large paintings (above the 38" height that fits on my French easel. I had a cheapo Chinese half-French easel which spent its spare time shedding hardware. I gave it to someone with a caveat about its bad habit.

In inclement weather, I sit in my car with my Guerilla box, sit on my rear bumper under the lid of my hatchback with my French easel on the ground outside the car sheltered from drizzle by the raised hatch lid. I hang a gallon bottle of water on the underside of my French easel and put a large squarish rock on my palette if it is really windy, and haven't tried out my Gloucester easel in such weather.

I agree, gatherings of artists are wonderful places to see many types of painting rig without buying all of them. I'd hoped to get a 6x8 Guerilla Thumb Box for using in restaurants and hanging from my neck like a cigarette girl's tray in night clubs, but I no longer see them in the Judson's catalog...sigh. So I, to, still seek yet other gear for painting outdoors.

Wtunet said...

curious to know what type of tripod you use with Heilman box?

Nikolai said...

Living in Canada and the USA is a big advantage if you want to get an easel or pochade box. In Europe, and espacially in Germany you can get only a french easel. The market is very small. I had to import mine from Montana, the Alla Prima Pochade Box from Ben Haggett.
But the russians have their own easel/box for painting everywhere. They call it etjudnik, I found some links. The smaller one (in the youtube link) is called »California« :-)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dSjpLseO4F8
http://www.hammond.ee/public/product/R1602.JPG

Michael Chesley Johnson said...

Thanks, everyone, for the comments! Nikolai, we have that Russian easel in the US, too. It is called the Yarka, and I have never liked it because of the position of the legs; you are forced to straddle the one leg in front. Wtunet, the tripod I use with my Guerrilla box is one that came with my Artwork Essentials years ago. Guerrilla sells one just like it.

dgcasey0325 said...

After taking the workshop with you in November and seeing how awkward my pochade box was for me, I did what I said I was going to do and that was buy a Coulter easel. I love it. I got the standard size (large) and it fits my tripod that I already had perfectly. I picked up a Kelty backpack off eBay that it fits into, along with the tripod, all the paints and brushes, a roll of paper towels and a couple of bottles of Diet Coke in the side pouches with some ice packs. I love it. I don't have any problems with setup anymore like you saw back then. Now I can be set up and ready to paint in less than five minutes.

dgcasey0325 said...

After taking the workshop with you in November and seeing how awkward my pochade box was for me, I did what I said I was going to do and that was buy a Coulter easel. I love it. I got the standard size (large) and it fits my tripod that I already had perfectly. I picked up a Kelty backpack off eBay that it fits into, along with the tripod, all the paints and brushes, a roll of paper towels and a couple of bottles of Diet Coke in the side pouches with some ice packs. I love it. I don't have any problems with setup anymore like you saw back then. Now I can be set up and ready to paint in less than five minutes.

dgcasey0325 said...

After taking the workshop with you in November and seeing how awkward my pochade box was for me, I did what I said I was going to do and that was buy a Coulter easel. I love it. I got the standard size (large) and it fits my tripod that I already had perfectly. I picked up a Kelty backpack off eBay that it fits into, along with the tripod, all the paints and brushes, a roll of paper towels and a couple of bottles of Diet Coke in the side pouches with some ice packs. I love it. I don't have any problems with setup anymore like you saw back then. Now I can be set up and ready to paint in less than five minutes.

dgcasey0325 said...

After taking the workshop with you in November and seeing how awkward my pochade box was for me, I did what I said I was going to do and that was buy a Coulter easel. I love it. I got the standard size (large) and it fits my tripod that I already had perfectly. I picked up a Kelty backpack off eBay that it fits into, along with the tripod, all the paints and brushes, a roll of paper towels and everything else I need. I love it. I don't have any problems with setup anymore like you saw back then. Now I can be set up and ready to paint in less than five minutes.

dgcasey0325 said...

After taking the workshop with you in November and seeing how awkward my pochade box was for me, I did what I said I was going to do and that was buy a Coulter easel. I love it. I got the standard size (large) and it fits my tripod that I already had perfectly. I picked up a Kel ty backpack off eBay that it fits into, along with the tripod, all the paints and brushes, a roll of paper towels and everything else I need. I love it. I don't have any problems with setup anymore like you saw back then. Now I can be set up and ready to paint in less than five minutes.

dgcasey0325 said...

After taking the workshop with you in November and seeing how awkward my poc hade box was for me, I did what I said I was going to do and that was buy a Coulter easel. I love it. I got the standard size (large) and it fits my tripod that I already had perfectly. I picked up a Kelty backpack off eBay that it fits into, along with the tripod, all the paints and brushes, a roll of paper towels and everything else I need. I love it. I don't have any problems with setup anymore like you saw back then. Now I can be set up and ready to paint in less than five minutes.

dgcasey0325 said...

After taking the workshop with you in November and seeing how awkward my pochade box was for me, I did what I said I was going to do and that was buy a Coulter easel. I love it. I got the standard size (large) and it fits my tripod that I already had perfectly. I picked up a Kelty backpack off eBay that it fits into, along with the tripod, all the paints and brushes, a roll of paper towels and everything else I need. I don't have any problems with setup anymore like you saw back then. Now I can be set up and ready to paint in less than five minutes.

Michael Chesley Johnson said...

Hi Dave - Glad you got your gear figured out! I remember Jim Coulter demonstrating the easel a couple of years ago, and it looked both simple and rugged. I may have to get one!

Allison Dollar said...

I have been thinking about a new set up for outdoor painting, as what I have now is not working, and I want to thank you for posting this. It's definitely given me some new ideas, and I think I know what I want to get now. Thank you!

Michael Chesley Johnson said...

Thanks, Alllison!

Tobin nadeau said...

Hi Michael,


Great Blog!
As the builder of the Take It Easel, I thought I'd make a quick post! I hand build these easels in Vermont, and they are designed to last a lifetime. I appreciate your recommendation of our easel over the Chinese knock-off (Beauport)...it's missing parts, has extra parts, and has parts attached in the wrong places! I have had so many frustrated artists buy a Take It Easel after having bought a Beauport. To ease the frustration i started a rebate program...if you have a Beauport and buy a Take It Easel, ship me your Beauport, regardless of it's age or condition, and I give you a $50 rebate! I re-build your old Beauport to make it functional and I donate them to a local art school. I always welcome emails (tobin@takeiteasel.com) or phone calls (802-999-7123)!


Happy Painting!


Tobin

Michael Chesley Johnson said...

Hi Tobin! Thanks so much for your comments. I remember interviewing Rosalie several years ago about the easel. You are totally right about the Beauport. Buy American! I know Stapleton Kearns loves his, and so do several other painters - and students of mine - who have the Take It Easel.

Carlos said...

Hello,

I would like to ask you if you know the Yarka small size? Even despite the issue of the front leg, as you mentioned here, what do you think of this Yarka easel?
I am a hobbies who is willing to try outdoor paintings, but only if I have a light easel with all the necessary material in front of me (I mean I am not much of inserting a tripod, nor having a separated box, just all-in-one.
And I am interested in this model for it is similar to the soltek.

Thank you

Michael Chesley Johnson said...

Hi Carlos, and thanks for your note. I haven't used the smaller size Yarka, only the bigger one. I understand what you mean about having everything right in front of you. That would be very desirable! I suppose if I had the time, I might try re-hinging the lid so it opens in the opposite direction. This would let you avoid having to straddle the middle leg, and you could still have the box open in front. If you try it, let me know how it works for you!

Carlos said...

Oh Thank you Michael for the pronto reply!
Well, in fact I have redesigned a "TABLE TOP EASEL DRAWING SKETCH BOX" in order to re-oriented the box, and in this case (if it were the yarka model) it would have resolved that thing with the front leg.
I also like box easels with its length parallel to me, allowing me to be more close to the canvas.
But I am not sure if redesigning the yarka will make it function properly.

I have some pictures of the redesigned box. If you would like to see them, just tell me so. At the end it is a nice thing done, BUT I still have to add the tripod (wanted to put legs like the soltek/yarka) and that is a lot of work. Now the redesigned box weight about 3Kg, with the tripod will reach about 4,5Kg, and that make me to stop working on it. Yarka is just 3Kg WITH legs ! :)

Thank you again
Keep painting

Michael Chesley Johnson said...

Well, try the Yarka and let me know how it goes. And yes, I'd love to see some pictures of your box.

Carlos said...

I will be back

Thank you!

Carlos said...

So, here are the pictures of the easel I was working on lately.

It allows to hold a wet canvas (62cm max height)thanks to the upper mechanism which also hold a canvas on the other direction, when we are painting.
It is a bit unstable for I did not have the time to improve its box stability.

Here the links to the photos.
Thank you
http://imageshack.us/a/img842/4383/tripodi.jpg
http://imageshack.us/a/img547/2083/tela2.jpg
http://imageshack.us/a/img836/9129/tela1b.jpg
http://imageshack.us/a/img35/2375/exterior3g.jpg
http://imageshack.us/a/img841/2211/exterior2p.jpg
http://imageshack.us/a/img580/7657/exterior1r.jpg
http://imageshack.us/a/img827/7638/encosto7.jpg
http://imageshack.us/a/img62/1797/encosto6.jpg
http://imageshack.us/a/img442/2248/encosto5.jpg
http://imageshack.us/a/img651/6893/encosto4.jpg
http://imageshack.us/a/img198/8686/encosto3.jpg
http://imageshack.us/a/img824/7259/encosto2.jpg
http://imageshack.us/a/img809/1241/encosto.jpg
http://imageshack.us/a/img835/7985/detalhe2.jpg
http://imageshack.us/a/img42/5629/detalhe1w.jpg
http://imageshack.us/a/img834/5108/completop.jpg
http://imageshack.us/a/img534/7962/caixaaberta2.jpg
http://imageshack.us/a/img542/7051/caixa10.jpg
http://imageshack.us/a/img585/1932/caixa9.jpg
http://imageshack.us/a/img823/6069/caixa8.jpg
http://imageshack.us/a/img441/1240/caixa7.jpg
http://imageshack.us/a/img11/1507/caixa6.jpg
http://imageshack.us/a/img12/3231/caixa5.jpg
http://imageshack.us/a/img547/7517/caixa4.jpg
http://imageshack.us/a/img94/1402/caixa3w.jpg
http://imageshack.us/a/img37/8048/caixa2.jpg
http://imageshack.us/a/img16/974/caixa1i.jpg


Michael Chesley Johnson said...

Thank you, Carlos! Nice to see.

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