Sunday, April 3, 2016

Product Review: En Plein Air Pro Professional Series Oil Easel

Setup from the Rear
Setup from the Front
(NOTE:  This review has been recently updated.)

Like most professional painters, I've collected enough easels and pochade boxes that I could make a good living on eBay.  However, I'm not ready to part with any of them just yet.  Each has some quality that makes it better for some situations than other boxes.

One new easel I've added recently is the En Plein Air Pro "Professional Series" Oil Easel.  Right off the bat, I discovered three things that I like.  It can handle a panel or stretched canvas up to 22" tall.  For these larger sizes, it offers a large mixing area that is 9"x18.5"—that's over 166 square inches.  But better yet, I can set it up in under two minutes.  I can't do this with my French easel.  If I want to go out and paint an 18"x24" and not have to fuss with gear, this is the easel I'll take.

For testing, I took this setup out a dozen times with a variety of different size surfaces, both panel and stretched canvas, and in windy conditions.  Overall, I was very pleased with the system.  See the video below for a quick overview:


Palette Box

The heart of the system is the palette box.  As I mentioned earlier, it offers just over 166 square inches of mixing space, and it's made of lightweight ABS plastic and PVC reinforced with aluminum.  The lid pops up and attaches with a tiny magnet to the tripod so it shades the palette from the sun; this is a very nice feature.  Two shelves slide out on either side of the box and have pre-drilled holes that you can stick your brush handles in.  The right shelf also has a hole into which you can insert the turps jar.  Both shelves have enough room for other items like painting knives and paper towels.






The palette itself has a mixing area made of a clear PETG panel.  (Unlike acrylic, PETG is resistant to solvents.)  Beneath this palette is a value scale.  For the beginning painter, this is handy, but even advanced painters will find it helpful to have something to test values of paint mixtures against.  Although the PETG is advertised as scratch-resistant, be careful if you use a painting knife.  Mine, which has become literally razor-sharp over the years, dug into the plastic slightly when mixing.  (I get a little careless in the heat of the moment.)  The surface can easily be replaced, though, for a couple of dollars.  For cleaning, the maker recommends scraping the surface gently with a palette knife, followed by wiping with turps.

The whole box attaches to the two front legs of the tripod and is secured by gravity, making for a sturdy paint mixing unit.

Panel Holder

The panel holder, a lightweight aluminum bar fitted with ABS brackets that attaches to the quick release mount, can hold anything from a 6"x8" panel to a 22" stretched canvas.  Cleverly, it also functions as a wet panel carrier that you can tote in your hand.  The brackets that hold the panel sometimes get a little tight, making it hard to making minute adjustments without unscrewing the bracket and re-seating it.  This isn't a big deal, but it'd be nice if the brackets slid up and down more easily without having to loosen them so much.  (Update:  The maker tells me this has been corrected.) Mounted on the tripod, the panel holder can be adjusted to a variety of positions quickly.  It's nice to have the panel holder separate from the palette, since you can keep the palette flat and level but still change the angle of the panel.

Panel Holder
Panel holder used as wet canvas carrier


Turps Jar

This 4-ounce jar, made of the same PETG plastic as the palette, fits neatly into the right shelf of the palette box.  Although the directions say to not leave OMS or other solvents in it for very long, I've left OMS in it for a couple of days without any problems.  The butyl gasket on the jar doesn't leak, even though it turned over in my backpack a few times.

Tripod

A couple of years ago, I reviewed the En Plein Air Pro "Advanced Series" easel for Pastel Journal and discovered that the included tripod was rather flimsy.  Good news!  The "Professional Series" offers a better, medium-duty tripod, the SLIK U800.  It has a plastic head, which I usually don't care for.  Plastic heads tend to flex no matter how hard you tighten them, but this wasn't the case here.  It performed well on my largest test canvas, a 12"x16," on which I painted aggressively with both brush and knife.  The only problem I had was with the tripod head tilt mechanism.  If I pressed hard at the top of the canvas, maximizing my leverage on the mechanism, it would slip a little.  I wasn't able to tighten it sufficiently to stop this.  On the other hand, the tripod set up and adjusted quickly for field work.  On one day, when gusts were hitting 50 mph, I fastened my backpack to it for weight, and it held up just fine.

Showing how the palette box attaches to the tripod


Backpack

The Everest backpack, which comes with the system, is large and spacious.  I had no trouble fitting in everything I needed for my painting sessions.  I was even able to shove in the tripod, though I found that strapping it outside the backpack made for a tighter, more compact package.  It has plenty of pockets for all those miscellaneous things a painter needs to carry.  Over all, the package is a little heavier than I like, but then when you want to deal with a bigger canvas and larger mixing area, it's hard to avoid this.

Backpack, with tripod strapped to outside

The En Plein Air Pro "Professional Series" Oil Easel is a well-thought-out system.  If you're looking for an easel that offers a large mixing area, can set up in a snap and handle formats large to small, this is it.  It's priced reasonably at $325.  For all that you get, it's a good deal.   For full details, visit www.EnPleinAirPro.com

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