This post is an adjunct to my extensive article on pochade boxes. In it, I will showcase some alternative outdoor painting systems and portable easels.
While plein air painting goes back further among individuals, it was with the invention of tin paint tubes and the portable “Box Easel” in the 19th century that painting en plein air, or “in the plain air” became the practice of significant numbers of artists.
Together, the new, easy to carry tubes and easels made it much more practical than it had been to carry what was essentially a compact artist’s studio into the field.
Today, amid the renaissance of plein air painting that has taken place over the last 20 years or so, modern pochade boxes have become the outdoor painting platform of choice for many plein air painters, but box easels and other types of painting systems have their adherents.
I’ll attempt to list some of the major types and variations.
French Box Easels
These are modern versions of the 19th century box easels, now often referred to as French easels or sketchbox easels. They consist of a tilting panel or canvas holder hinged to a painting box.
For transport, the easel folds down to become the top of the painting box, which also usually has a drawer insert that acts as a palette holder in use. The entire arrangement is supported by wooden legs that are adjustable in length with wingnuts and fold against the sides and bottom of the box for carrying.
Jullian, a long standing French manufacturer, likes to take credit for the invention of the box easel in the mid 19th century by its founder, Roger Jullian. It could be true, but I think it remains unproven.
French box easels come in full and half sizes. There are a number of brands and configurations — as well as custom variations from some manufacturers — most ranging in price from $80.00 to $200.00 or so (USD). Painter Michael Hodgkins gives a nice introduction and overview of how they are set up in the this video.
Advocates of pochade boxes and other portable easels and painting systems are often critical of French easels as bulky, awkward to set up, and prone to breaking. However, they handle many thing well — like supporting relatively large paintings and carrying lots of supplies. They can also double as a studio easel.
Amazon has an Art Alternatives Sonoma Sketchbox Easel.
Artist’s Loft is sold by Michaels craft stores.
Jullian also makes a variation called the Rexy Watercolor Easel, that is configured to allow form a more horizontal painting surface, and comes with a removable paint box.
Anderson makes an unusual Swivel Easel, a variation on the French box easel that is used in a seated position.
Gloucester Easels (Anderson Easels)
The Anderson Easel was used in northern Europe in the early 19th century, but unlike the box easel, it did not have a built-in provision for holding supplies. It experienced a revival in the U.S. in the service of American painter Emile Gruppe and his Gloucester School of Art, where it became known as the Gloucester Easel.
It consists of a wooden tripod with adjustable legs — much sturdier than those of a field easel — that are held together with crossbars when in use. The height of the canvas holder is adjusted by setting its pegs into holes set into the legs at intervals. While not as simple to set up as a pochade box or field easel, it seems easier to deploy than a box easel.
The wide tripod stance gives Gloucester Easels exceptional stability, and they are well suited to holding very large canvases and working in windy conditions. They provide room for a large shelf area inside the legs when set up, with plenty of space for a palette and supplies at that level. When you see painters working at a large scale on location, they are often using one of these.
Lightweight Field Easels
Probably the simplest and cheapest outdoor painting easels; they are also the least sturdy option for holding panels or canvasses for outdoor painting.
Field easels consist of lightweight tripods of either wood or metal, with extendable legs and an attached panel holder. They usually offer no shelf for a palette without an add-on of some kind.
In most wooden versions, the panel or canvas holder is a separate hinged arm, adjustable in length, set into the top of the tripod. This can be adjusted from vertical to horizontal positions, the latter allowing the easel to be used for watercolor.
In some versions — usually the most inexpensive of the metal ones — the panel holder can be a simple brace across the front legs that holds the bottom of the canvas or panel, along with an extendable arm that adjusts to hold the top. These can only be adjusted in angle by setting the back leg lower than the others, but the configuration allows for holding larger canvasses or panels.
Field easels collapse down to a size a little longer than the length of one leg section, usually about 24″ (60 cm) or so, and many come with a carrying case.
Wooden field Easels come from a variety of manufacturers — too numerous to list here — most ranging range in price from $16.00 to $130.00 USD.
Field Easels also come in metal versions in a similar price range.
These metal Creative Mark Napoli metal field easels are more expensive than some, but look like a quality version of the concept.
Dakota Art Pastels makes one with a dedicated design for pastel painters.
[Addendum: Dedicated plein air painter Marc Dalessio has been kind enough to comment on this post and point out: “For tripod easels, the metal ones are vastly superior to the wood ones. The wood ones are really terrible and should be avoided.” See this post’s comments.]
Tripod Based Palette and Panel Holders
That’s just my loose term for several variations in portable painting systems. The most prominent of these are known primarily by their brand names, rather than being identified with a classification of portable easel. They are usually in the $200.00 to $400.00 range in price.
These systems are hybrid arrangements, usually consisting of a collapsable photographic tripod — like those used with pochade boxes — combined with a rocking panel holder like those in high-end field easels or an extended vertical arm with a panel holder that can also be adjusted in angle.
They often incorporate a tri-panel folding palette that attaches to the front legs. (Larger variations of these folding palettes, when used with French easels, are sometimes called “French Mistresses”. I don’t make this stuff up, folks.)
Unlike pochade boxes — on which the palette and panel holder are part of the same unit and therefore close together — the separation of palette and panel holder allows for the palette to be as low as below the waist, and the panel or canvas to be at eye height if desired. The fold-out palette generally offers more mixing room than other outdoor painting options.
The Coulter Easel was designed by painter James Coulter and is manufactured by Art Box and Panel. A wooden panel holder and fold-out palette are mounted to a metal tripod.
The Soltek Easel has a paintbox and built-in tripod legs a bit like a metal version of a box easel, combined with a panel holder that extends up on a vertical arm that can be adjusted in angle, including flat for watercolor. As of this writing, their website is still partly unfinished. There is a (low-res) promo video on YouTube.
The Daytripper Easel comes with a metal fold-out palette. Painter Patrick Saunders demos one on YouTube. They also make a smaller “Fly on the Wall” version that can be used with or without a tripod (for painting in your lap or on a table).