Friday, June 13, 2008

Large-Format Easel

One of my goals this summer is to paint bigger paintings outdoors. My French easel works pretty well up to a certain size, but the drawer doesn't hold the French Companion (or "Mistress") very well, and the large canvas, which catches the Maritime wind like a sail, can tip the easel over. The solution is the Gloucester easel:

This easel was used by Gloucester painters, most notably Emile Gruppé. Its two benefits: It is extremely stable in wind, and it can hold a very large canvas. There are a couple of improved versions of the easel available today. One is the "Take-It-Easel," sold by pastel artist Rosalie Nadeau (, and the "Beauport," sold by some of the online art supply merchants.

I got my Gloucester easel this week. I took it out a couple of times to work out the system. This is always important when you get new gear. My first time, I didn't venture any farther than the front yard, where I could hide behind a rose hedge. I didn't want to be seen by the neighbors as I wrestled with setting it up. Set-up went pretty quickly, but I had a problem with the cross-bars. They kept slipping down, and the "platform" they are supposed to make didn't seem at all steady. In fact, it collapsed, sending my French Companion tumbling into the dirt! I fixed the problem with a Bungie cord to my satisfaction.

Another issue was my little Wal-Mart chair umbrella, which has a clamp that is too small to fit on the easel's leg. I did try my Julian umbrella, which has a monster clamp but is heavy. Gravity caused it to twist and fall away from the ideal position. I'm not sure what to do, other than to have a second tripod for an umbrella. (Some of you may have ideas, and I'm happy to hear them!) One final issue was: How do you carry wet panels or stretched canvas? I'm planning on working in a larger format than is available for the plein air panel carriers. I don't really want to throw an unprotected painting in the back of the car, since I travel dirt roads, and a good deal of dust blows into the car, and thus onto the painting. (I can use ideas for this, too.)

I went out the next day to a good painting spot. I took only a 9x12 panel with me; I was more interested in making a second test of the easel rather than making a big painting. (The easel can take up to a 4-foot canvas.) I was very happy with the day, even without a working umbrella or a way to carry wet paintings. The easel does everything it's supposed to do. I even had a stiff wind blowing!

Here's a photo of the easel at work at Upper Duck Pond on Campobello Island. Yes, I know -- that little painting does look mighty funny perched way up high!

And here is the painting:

"Duck Islands"
9x12, oil, en plein air


Jennifer Young said...

Hi Michael,
Really enjoy your blog. I was wondering if you ever did find an umbrella solution for your large easel? I bought the umbrella offered by ArtWork Essentials but have problems with using it for my Soltek easel due to their legs (which aren't round like a tripod's) Seems the AE umbrella only wants to stay up when it is attached exactly upright (which, as you know doesn't really address the other 99% of the times when you need to shade your palette and painting!)

Soltek used to sell a contraption that you can use to attach to a clamp-style umbrella, but it's heavy. So if you've discovered another solution, I'd sure love to hear it!

Michael Chesley Johnson, Artist / Writer said...

Hi, Jennifer. Try the Best Brella ( This is what I use now, and it works really well, IMHO.