(No financial affiliation with any of the artists or products mentioned in this post)
(Updated 24 April 2019) Wondering which is the best plein air or outdoor easel? Not a week goes by without my inbox filling up with excellent questions from our Master Oil Painting students. I do my best to answer each one personally. Every once in a while I come across a question and I can’t help but think “they can’t be the only artist wondering this can they?”
A couple weeks ago one of our newer, and very excited, students wrote to me asking which outdoor easel they should buy. Even though it’s not an especially easy question to answer it’s a great one that I’m sure plenty of other artists have asked themselves.
Choosing an outdoor easel can be a bit complicated, especially when we have limited funds, because there are so many competing factors to think about. Wouldn’t it be nice to just buy all of them and test them individually?
In this blog entry I’ll discuss what I’ve done to customize my own outdoor easel, what I think are the three best plein air easels on the market right now, and even what the best options are when you’re working on a tighter budget ($200 and under).
My Customized Plein Air Easel
My French easel was a Christmas present from my parents when I was 16, back when pretty much everything was made of higher quality materials. Today we have to be more careful in our selection because craftsmanship and materials have been slowly slipping for many years now.
The reason quality parts matter so much is because when we are outdoors in the middle of a painting, a poor quality easel can completely derail our creative efforts.
Have you ever had the easel leg’s wingnuts loosen while you were painting? Having your easel tip over in the middle of a painting is devastating. Maybe you’ve also had to deal with low quality wood warping and misshaping, making it nearly impossible to position your painting correctly.
Frustrating isn’t it?
I purchased a Soltek easel back in the late 90’s for about $500. Jim Wilcox, who designed the easel, is one of the best plein air artists in the country. His easel concept is brilliant – unfortunately the execution fell below my expectations.
Occasionally one of the legs acts cantankerous and gets stuck up or down, or doesn’t want to stay in place at all. If that was the only defect it had I would still be happy with it though, because it’s so portable and convenient.
The real problem is the plastic parts.
During a painting excursion in the heat of summer, the plastic tabs holding my painting in place became soft and the weight of my panel bent them enough that my painting fell out in the middle of a brushstroke. The plastic bottom panel holder also eventually cracked and would no longer stay in place without a strong clip on the post underneath.
As you can see I did my best to repair the panel holder because in the early days I couldn’t find parts to replace it. A couple years ago I finally tracked down replacement parts and ordered both the top and bottom panel holders so I could give the easel another try (the parts cost me somewhere around $50).
In less than a year, with no actual outdoor painting, the new holder also cracked. I have no idea how, since I wasn’t actually using the easel.
Maybe I over-tightened the bolt and caused the plastic to crack over time (it did not crack while I tightened the bolt). Regardless, I need an easel a bit sturdier than that. If they ever make the panel holders with metal, maybe it will be on my radar again.
About 10 years ago I thought I would lighten my load and try out a more compact set – so I purchased the Craftech Sienna Plein Air kit – everything. I got the backpack, the metal tripod (which is an excellent tripod), the panel holder, the brush holder that attaches to the tripod legs, and a watercolor palette insert (in case I wanted to dust off my watercolor brushes) – and of course the easel itself.
Overall I think it’s a nice easel. I had trouble with the easel portion getting loose while I painted and I would have to put some muscle into the nuts on the side, but they haven’t broken which is a plus.
I feel comfortable recommending this as a good outdoor easel.
However, I soon realized I missed the versatility of my French easel, especially with the size of painting panels I tend to use – often on the larger side. I also don’t like my palette so close to my painting, or so small.
So, I removed the panel holders and started using the easel as a standalone palette for a short time as you can see in the first photo. The palette worked fine, but I yearned for something that would allow me to mix larger piles of paint like I do in the studio.
That finally convinced me to make my own palette to use with my tried and true French easel.
I loved everything about my new set up except for the weight. I made the palette with ½ inch oak, and with a glass palette insert.
It is heavy. On the plus side, the weight helped hold my easel in place beautifully.
I put 2 eye bolts on the back top-edge so I could use a bungee cord to attach it solidly to my easel – it didn’t slide or slip at all. The mixing area measures 17 x 24 inches with a 12-inch shelf on each side to hold brushes, paper towels and walnut oil.
Happily, I no longer use the palette I made.
I found out one of our members, Michael Schlee, is a master wood craftsman. I asked him if he would be interested in creating a palette for me that would be lighter than the one I made.
That is how the Happy Painting easel became a permanent part of my plein air painting gear.
I love my new palette. It is beautiful to look at and entirely functional in the field. I have plenty of space to mix my colors and there are two large shelves for brushes, paper towels, palette knives and walnut oil.
It is also much lighter – only about 4 lbs instead of the 20 lbs of bulk I made.
The middle compartment is 14×24 inches – with two 14×12 inch shelves. I also love that the palette can be positioned low on the tripod legs to make it easy on my arm while mixing paint.
With my French Easel the palette sits easily on the pull-out shelf.
Now that I have fallen in love with the LederEasel (coming up in the next section) Michael is in the process of finishing a tripod holder for the Happy Painting Palette.
Right now I am using the palette holder that came with my new LederEasel. It is solid wood and steel (not flimsy aluminum) and yet it’s super light.
The Leder palette holder is ingenious, but it was designed for a lightweight palette, not the 4+ lbs my palette weighs in at.
Ed told me it might not hold the weight of my palette. I took a chance anyway so I could try out the LederEasel during the Kiawah workshop.
When I placed my palette on it the second day of the workshop, I heard a faint crack. Fortunately, it held up through the 5 days of painting, but I didn’t want to risk using it like that during the Plein Air Convention this week.
So, when I got home, I made some modifications to the palette holder by wrapping metal around the wood to keep it from cracking or separating further.
The Leder palette holder is beautifully crafted with solid wood and metal parts, but it’s not designed for my 4lb palette.
Some of the Best Plein Air Easels on the Market Today
When looking for a plein air easel I want something that will hold a large 24×30 panel as easily as a 6×8.
An easel I considered was the Coulter Easel, which looked crazy easy to use and transport…
John Poon, who I used to show with at the Greenhouse Gallery in San Antonio, is a fantastic artist and he put the Coulter Easel on the ‘it just might be for me’ list.
Take It Easel
Another incredible plein air artist, Stapleton Kearns, uses a Gloucester Easel and says that the Take It Easel is the best on the market today and is perfect for outdoor painting – you don’t have to worry about the wind blowing it over.
I’ll likely try this one soon!
The DayTripper Easel is one some of our members highly recommend.
My new go-to easel, however, is the LederEasel. It is half the cost ($119) of the DayTripper, a fraction of the size of the Gloucester, and super convenient.
The Leder is made of solid wood and lightweight, rigid 16 gauge steel – no plastic or aluminum parts. It is easy to adjust for thin or thick panels and canvases and holds my panels solidly without any fear of my panel slipping out.
It also separates into two parts with a quick click to fit snugly into the wonderful case that comes with it.
The LederEasel doesn’t reach the 34 inch panel height of the French Easel, but 24 inch high panels (LederEasel’s top height) are usually big enough for me nowadays when I’m out on location. That still allows for a respectable 24×36 horizontal painting.
Whatever you choose, if at all possible, get the best quality you can. The better craftsmanship will pay off. Even if you don’t depend on it for your livelihood, a well-made easel will make your outdoor painting experience so much smoother.
Painting is complicated enough without messing with sub-par equipment.
Some other factors to consider are weight, size of painting panel you want to use, ease of setup, portability, and palette size.
Plein Air Easels $200 or Less
French easels tend to be heavier than pochade boxes, which is fine for me, but many don’t like carrying that much weight. A good tripod and pochade box can fit in a backpack and be carried more easily.
On the other hand, a French easel will hold paint and brushes inside, as well as a simple wooden palette, so it can carry most of your supplies.
A pochade box, unless you get something like the Craftech Sienna Plein Air All in One or the Guerrilla, doesn’t hold any supplies. Then again, you can fit the easel, tripod and supplies in a backpack, so it is kind of a moot point.
Where the French easel shines is in the 34″ canvas or panel height compared to the Craftech Sienna Plein Air Large size box that will hold a painting 17″ in height. I love working with 24×30 inch panels, so the LederEasel or the French easel work out much better for me. If you plan to stay small to medium, the pochade will work well.
I also like to have my palette and easel separate from each other, which is one of the top 2 reasons why I built a large wooden palette for my French easel. Most professional artists that paint outdoors are just fine with the pochade style where the easel and palette are connected and close to one another.
Part of choosing an easel is using them and seeing what you personally prefer.
If you have an art supply store nearby, you may want to go in and see if they have both the French and pochade easels to try out in the store – set them up, carry them around, see if they will hold your brushes and supplies (like a jar of walnut oil, odorless mineral spirits or some other medium). Then you will be able to make a better decision.
If you want a well made all-in-one I would probably choose the Craftech Sienna Large (go larger if you can because you want all the flexibility possible)
Choose one that will work with a metal quick release tripod (any good camera tripod will work – preferably with plenty of knobs to get your painting level in any terrain).
If you want to paint larger than the pochade can handle (or the 24 inch height limit of the Leder), go with the French easel (although you may need to replace some of the metal hardware like nuts and bolts with higher quality parts) or the Gloucester Take It easel.
My order of recommendation (making it easy to paint outdoors) for under $200:
1. The LederEasel is the hands down winner! (Note: Although the LederEasel and palette holder are only $119, you still need a palette and tripod to go with them)
4. Any of the Guerrilla Easels (although I don’t think they are engineered as well as the Craftech)
And don’t stress too much!
I gave a whole lot of information because I want you to be aware of the pros and cons that I have encountered. But really, I think any easel you get should work well for years of outdoor painting.
Do you have a suggestion for our community – a plein air easel you have had a good experience with? Or any that you would like to warn us about before we try it ourselves?