(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?
You can read my updated Plein Air Palette and Easel blog here: masteroilpainting.com/plein-air-easel-palette/
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I LOVE my Coulter easel. It is steady and study even on the windy Oregon coast.
That’s a huge consideration Judith – occasionally if the wind is strong I have to grab my french easel and hold on for a bit until the wind has passed. I can tie down my easel, but having tripod legs that widen out far enough to make it stable in windy conditions is definitely a plus.
I have the same issue re French easel and weight. So I got an old golf cart at a garage sale, removed the holders for the golf bag, had a an aluminum box made for it. The long narrow “box” is like a carrying shelf or box affixed to the cart and rides low on the cart. I can slip my french easel and a huge umbrella in it like a carrying box, plop on a small aluminum chair and tie things down with a bungee cord or two. Everything rides fairly high off the ground and because of the large wheels I can go almost anywhere. When setting up I can get a largish stone to weight it all down and open up a beach umbrella for shade and tie it to the weighted (with large rock) golf cart . Am safe from sun or rain and don’t have to lug the stuff, just drag it all along! I take a lightweight bag with me and extra bungees which I use to anchor…put rock or sand/gravel inside bag and put that inside the narrow aluminum box (on the golf cart) to weigh it down in case it is windy. When done leave rocks there..where I found them. But inspite of having a perfect setup I am always still (mainly by habit, I think) on the lookout for something better.
My latest craze: ditching the French easel and affixing a pouchade box to an aluminum telescopic camera tripod. Then loading everything up on the golf cart.
Carol, What a great idea! Would it be ridiculous to ask it you have a picture of your golf cart with special box and your on-station plein air set-up?
muy buenos tus temas, son importantes para los que nos gusta el arte y la pintura , un saludo desde Venezuela amigo .
Blick is having a sale now on French easels. Full and half box. I’m guessing half box is half the size of full box.
Black Friday or end-of-year sales are a great time to experiment when our budgets allow. I like to try a new easel/palette combo once in a while just in case something will make painting on location a bit simpler. So far, my 35 year old French easel is my favorite, but a friend has just made me an easel similar to the Coulter, with a few modifications, that I think might replace my French.
I also don’t like the heavy weight, but, I’ll take my French box…I have three of them…over other stuff I’ve tried. So, I just bought a little trolley that holds not only my French box, but turp, paper towels, panels, etc. Really handy!!
That’s the way to go Susie! I have the Kelty RedCoud 90 backpack which is massive, but my French doesn’t fit inside with my large palette – that’s the main reason I experiment with alternatives once in a while. The easel Michael designed for me to use on a tripod comes in two sizes, and they are so convenient and light, that it’s a tough setup for the French to compete with. The complication has been getting the palette he created so it will also work with the tripod. I think it may be ready, but I haven’t been able to field test it yet – hopefully very soon. The main thing is to paint without limitations as much as possible and still be able to hike in anywhere we want.
Where are the palettes Michael designed for sale?
Great question Kathy! Michael is now ready to create palettes for anyone who would like to order one. He just recently finished his experiments and updates so he (and I) is thrilled with the design. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 308-750-4169. He even designed a shelf that works beautifully for using the palette with a tripod – for those who don’t want to use a French easel.
Love my coulter easel!
That’s great to hear Niki – I hope this post sends a lot of customers his direction! I love the innovation that is happening with easels and palettes today.
I’m going to try my Leder Easel with a Coulter Box.
Diane how did that combination work together?
let me preface this comment with “I don’t like plein air” I am distracted by the heat or cold, bugs, or just the wonderful views or smells around me. I had a French easel, which was too heavy for me to get to what I wanted to paint. I now use an Italian (Capelletto?) brand folding, field, wood easel, which weighs just 4 lbs. and folds up to fit in a backpack or bag easily. It is obviously not heavy enough to be real steady, but with my pastel or oil palette box on the foldout arms on the front, a bungee cord or two, it works really well for the few outdoor trips I make.
Smart Carol – if things are too complicated a lot of artists just won’t bother especially since painting on location is already difficult to begin with. We each need to evaluate our individual circumstances and decide what works best for us.
I really like the Strada easel I’ve been using for the last couple years. I have the large one with two shelves. I think what I like best is the ease of use, and no knobs on the outside to get in the way. I used a French easel for about 10 years before that.
The Strada does look convenient and quick to setup – I saw them while at the Plein Air Convention, but have not used one. I’m super attached to having a large palette down at waist level, but I may need to try a Strada sometime in case I’m somewhere I need to pack especially light. I’m glad it’s working out well for you Debra.
I have contacted the Coulter Easle folks twice in hopes of purchasing but no reply. I need a tripod for the DSLRs camera I was given so the coulter system could deal with two needs.
Bill or Kristy if you know how to get through to these folks please let me know. I am off to Hawaii in a couple of months and would like to take an Easle.
The Coulter folks got back to as did the Tobins. I am having a tough time deciding between these two. A plus with the Coulter is the commercial tripod which I presume would also work for my camera. Whichever I end up getting it has to travel friendly..for both a sailboat and commercial air travel. I dream of taking it when we kayak but this will likely remain a dream.
If Bill or others could chime in on plus/minus of each and better yet your own experience I would be very grateful.
So glad to hear they got back with you Janne. I called about the Coulter Easel, but no answer, and then I saw your new comment.
The tripod is a standard camera tripod with quick release so you can easily switch between your easel and camera. I think the Coulter would be the simplest system for travel, especially in small spaces like a boat deck.
I have not ordered one yet so I don’t know the field experience pros and cons, but I actually found the Coulter Easel because I thought of the same idea and looked to see if anyone else had tried anything like it. I love the idea of simplifying and condensing, and a single board easel with a palette that attaches to the tripod legs is pretty simple. The less I need to do and the quicker to set up the better – as long as my panel is sturdy in wind and my palette has plenty of mixing space I’m good to go.
Hawaii sounds like a fantastic place to paint this time of year – have fun!
https://www.masteroilpainting.com is very informative,
Thank you Matilda, I’m so glad to hear you are enjoying the posts. I do love all the feedback we get from so many artists – it’s fantastic to hear and learn from so many different artists’ experiences and insight.
Thanks for continuing to write such amazing blog posts!
This is exactly what I was looking for. Thanks for wrnitig!
You’re welcome Cathy!
I have tried both the and Coulter and Strada easels. I wanted to order a Daytripper but couldn’t get them to answer messages so I figured their customer service was nonexistent. I sent both the Coulter and Strada back for different reasons and both the manufacturers were very helpful with the returns. The easels are nice designs for those more interested in light weight and easy to assemble easels. I found that I am more interested in a stable surface to paint on so I replaced my 40 yr old Frenchie for a new Mabef Frenchie–it is made in Italy and does have a quality feeling. As heavy as ever–but it does keep almost all my supplies in it and keeps me organized. My painting group of professional artists have many different tripod set ups and were dumbfounded when they saw my new Frenchie. I have to say, though, that there were some real deal breakers with the tripod easels I tried. The Strada doesn’t hold a 1/4″ panel–I couldn’t jam it under the upper lip no matter what I did. I moved to 1/4″ from 1/8″ for stability and didn’t fancy wasting all those panels. Also–the palette is noisy–rattles because it doesn’t sit flat in the box. Both move a lot when in use. I’ve been burned enough with shipping costs so until another easel comes on the market with an intelligent, quality product I’m sticking with my heavy, but stable Frenchie.
Great feedback Elizabeth, thank you! That rattling would be distracting and I also use 1/4 inch panels – I need an easel that will accommodate about any size I throw at it which is an advantage of the French. I have also had trouble with some easels that moved around while painting, or let my panels slip out and that will not work at all – the panel needs to stay in place no matter what the weather is doing or how vigorous I paint. I love the convenience of a tripod, but the pure practical painting possibilities of the French style still stands supreme I think. I am optimistic and excited about the new easel/palette/tripod combo Michael is designing, but if the palette doesn’t quite work with the tripod, I may experiment with attaching tripod legs to a French box for greater stability in wind and uneven terrain – that way I can still set my large palette on the French box.
Please help me! I am a pastel artist and need a sturdy but light easel to travel with. I am also tall (5’10”) and had to return 2 due to height.
Due to the pastels- I need a tray. Any easel suggestions? Easy to assemble is very important also.
I love your idea of a custom-made palette for the French easel. I may make one a bit smaller and lighter…Great article!
Perfect! After reading this post, I looked over the various recommendations, especially the Leder Easel. I had not seen that one before. I immediately pulled out my credit card and got one on order!
I need a lightweight system due to physical limitations. (AKA getting old!!) This is perfect for me!
I have been working to design my own system and have gone through several prototypes. My next one was going to be based on the same ideas as the Leder, but the Leder is so well executed, I saw no reason to spend the time to make one.
My palette system will be a tad different. I use the Masterson resealable palettes and simply place them on a lightweight plywood shelf. I built a similar shelf support as the Leder but, again, the Leder is so well executed that I will use it. If I have trouble with it cracking, I’ll just make a new beam with some T-Track for the hooks. Easy fix!
Thanks for this post!
Love my Strata large easel it gets me in and out quickly while chasing the light. It’s simple strong and easy to set up. For me plein air is not camping out but more an educational drive up
Bill, I was really surprised to learn that the crosspiece on your LederEasel palette holder has cracked, and I’ll be sending out a new one as a replacement.
I’ve been using the palette holder for a few years with a pastel box weighing more than 4 pounds so it makes me wonder if the expanse of the palette you’re using has more to do with the problem than the actual weight. Most people that have purchased the LederEasel are using a smaller palette so no cracking problems have occurred. I’ve tested for weight so I know it can hold more than 4 pounds which indicates to me that the overall size would need to be less than the French Mistress type that caused the problem for you.
I’m happy that your experience using the kit has been good enough to select it as your “go-to” Plein air easel and I thank you for your support
If anyone is interested in purchasing my LederEasel kit and has any concerns, please contact me directly at email@example.com.
Thanks for the thoughtful review of En Plein Air easels. i also started with a french easel that was a gift from my parents, just about 40 years ago. i have used it for 4 years, or should i say 4 times–a yearly workshop–and have struggled with various pieces falling, sometimes at the worst moment, as you described. the straw that broke the camel’s back was the small piece that attaches the middle leg–it broke and i replaced it with a piece of walnut, and that broke too. I broke down and bought a Sienna pochade box, but found that although it is a fine box, I share your dislike of having the palette so close to the painting.
On your advice, i have just ordered a Leder Easel. i may have to rig something to hold my palette which is a John Singer Sargent style from Boston Fine Art (a beautiful palette). not sure how it will sit on the supports, but willing to try. thanks again!
Hey if you’d like to make another go at fixing that beloved Soltek easel, I’d *highly* suggest trying some Sugru self-curing glue/rubber to make that repair to the cracked parts.
It makes a strong bond, and is UV and high temperature resistant once cured (overnight-24 hours). Just look it up on YouTube. I’ve used it to make repair to a lot of gear and gadgets over the years. https://youtu.be/AyyrbXGFdWg
Great to hear Dan, thank you! I will try it out. I’m always on the lookout for glues that work.
I’ve never done plain air painting w oils. Actually, am new to oils. How does the palette work that you show w all the colors lined up at the top edge? I’m trying to imagine the cleanup and how much oil adheres to the wood frame on that top edge.
That’s a great question Heather! I’ve had really good luck with the oils travelling well, but once in awhile, especially when it’s really hot, some of the oilier paints will slide across the palette when it’s in my backpack. I’ve never had the paints leak onto anything else in my backpack even when travelling by plane. It’s a good idea to break in a new palette by painting a coat over the area where you plan to have your paints. That way the paint sticks better and doesn’t slide much, if at all. For the most part cleanup is easy (as long as I take the time to do it right away and don’t let it dry up on my palette. I use the same razor scraper for my plein air palette as I do for my studio palette. Then a bit of Turpenoid Natural and a paper towel wipes it all clean.