(We are not financially affiliated with any of the artists or products mentioned in this post)
(Updated 01 Dec 2017) 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, and 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 two 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 gets 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 seemed 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 probably cost me somewhere around $50).
Within 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 more sturdy than that. If they ever make the panel holders with metal, maybe it will be on my radar again.
About 7 or 8 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 – 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.
That finally convinced me to make my own palette to use with my tried and true French easel.
I love 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, it helps hold my easel in place beautifully. I put 2 eye bolts on the back top edge so I can use a bungee cord to attach it solidly to my easel – it doesn’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.
The Two Best Plein Air Easels on the Market Today
Another easel I have considered and might try sometime in the future is the Coulter Easel, which looks 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 my ‘it just might work’ list.
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!
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 pallet 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, don’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 like to often paint large outdoors, so I prefer the French easel. If you plan to stay small to medium, the pochade will work well.
I also like to have my palette and painting easel separate from each other, which is why I built a large wooden palette for my French easel, but 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 or OMS or some other medium. Then you will be able to make a better decision.
If you want light and easy, I would probably choose the Craftech Sienna large (always go larger if you can because you want all the flexibility possible) with a nice 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, go with the French easel – although you may need to replace some of the metal hardware like nuts and bolts with higher quality parts.
My order of recommendation as far as making it easy to paint outdoors for under $200:
3. 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 any suggestion for our community of plein air easels you have had a good experience with? Or any that you would like to warn us about before we try it ourselves?