Whether you’re a hobbyist who dabbles in watercolors or a serious student of the fine arts, you need a comfortable and sturdy painting easel to support your work in progress. Painting easels vary widely in price, features and style, so how do you know which one to select for your studio? Your choices will be based on the media you use, the size of the canvases you work with and the places where you paint. Pronto’s Easel Buying Guide will put you on the path to painting like Picasso. Beret on? Brush in hand? Let’s get painting!
If you work on small-scale paintings, prefer to sit while painting and have limited work and storage space, choose a table-top painting easel. If you use larger canvases and like to stand, choose a floor easel.
H-frame easels are the sturdiest design, but they’re also the least portable. Consider a tripod frame or a French easel that includes a box for supplies and carries your canvas. Choose taborets if you’re purchasing the easel solely for studio use.
Choose a heavier steel or wood easel only if you know you won’t need to move it often. Aluminum tripod easels are lightweight and offer unlimited freedom of leg adjustment, but they’re not as sturdy as wooden tripod easels.
Different types of paint require different canvas angles. Make sure the easel you choose can adjust vertically to accommodate the media you like to use.
Match your easel budget to your level of skill as a painter. Beginners don’t need to spend much to get a good work surface. Look for canvas supports that are adjustable, and make sure you’re comfortable with the method used for adjustment.
Paints made with a water base of pigment mixed with acrylic resin, which allows them to be thinned with water to make a glaze. Acrylics dry very quickly and are a favorite of artists because of their versatility.
A portable wooden easel with a built-in box that stores art supplies and a back-mounted holder that allows you to attach a canvas for easy transport.
An easel with two parallel posts that frame a movable center canvas support, resembling the letter H. These easels typically have flat bottoms and are best for studio use.
Paints made with natural oils (linseed, walnut or poppy) as the medium that binds the pigment. Oil paints are slow-drying and allow the artist to rework and blend colors.
Dry drawing materials made of powdered pigment bound by gum into a stick. The pigments in pastels are similar to those used in oil paints.
A French term that means “in the open air.” It refers to paintings done outside, rather than indoors. Plein-air was especially common with Impressionists, who were interested in the influence of natural light on color.
A low, drawered cart with wheels that can support an easel.
An easel that is supported on three adjustable legs.
Paints whose pigments are mixed with a water-soluble binding agent, such as gum arabic. Watercolors are available in tubes or in dry-block pans.
To find the easel that best suits your artistic needs, start at the beginning: Where will you be painting? How do you like to paint? What kinds of paint will you be using?
There are two main types of easels: table-top and floor-standing. If you have limited space, work exclusively on smaller canvases or like to sit while you are painting, you might consider a table-top easel. However, if you want the flexibility to paint outside your studio, you’ll need to make sure there’s a sturdy table at hand on which to place your easel.
Floor-standing easels are larger than table-top easels and are ideally suited to artists who like to stand while painting. French easels are a type of portable floor easel that functions as a traveling studio. The three-in-one design of French painting easel includes a sketchbox in which to store your art supplies, the easel itself and a canvas carrier. A French easel’s legs and canvas-holding arm collapse for easy carrying, while the canvas attaches to the back for transport. French easels allow you to position a canvas in numerous ways and are suitable for painting with all media.
Many sketchbox or “paintbox” easels are ideal for beginners, because they come with a supply of paints, brushes and other art materials, so you can get started right away. If you’re a landscape painter who works in natural surroundings (plein-air), choose an easel that is specifically made for outdoor use, with lightweight materials and a design that is compact and easy to fold.
Floor-standing easels come in two styles: the tripod (also called an A-frame or lyre) or the H-frame. The main portion of an H-frame easel has two vertical posts and a horizontal crossbar support that resembles the letter H, hence its name.
For folding and portability, tripod easels are generally the most mobile. Also, if you don’t have dedicated studio space, an easel that folds up for storage when not in use the best choice. Professional artists who work in studios often prefer a taboret, which is a floor-standing easel mounted on top of a cabinet with doors and drawers that hold their paints, brushes, rags and other supplies.
Easels can be made of various woods (the most commonly used is beechwood), aluminum or steel. Your personal taste and practical concerns will dictate which material is right for you. Steel is heaver than aluminum, which is generally lighter; the weight of a wooden easel depends on the type of wood used.
If you don’t think you’ll need to move the easel very often, or if you paint on larger, heavier canvases, you might look at an easel made of a very durable hardwood or steel. Aluminum and wood are the best choices for an easel that will follow you to scenic panoramas, but your creativity will be limited to the canvas sizes that these easels can support.
Aluminum tripod easels are the simplest to set up and adjust. These easels have telescoping legs that are locked in place with pressure rings or levers for unlimited freedom in setting height and tilt. Because they’re lightweight, these easels may feel less stable than wood easels while you’re working.
Look for wood easels with sliding legs held in place by pressure screws for the simplest setup on uneven surfaces. If you paint outdoors, look for an adjustable canvas holder that grips both the top and the bottom of the canvas to reduce the chance that sudden gusts of wind will send your canvas sailing.
Make sure you choose an easel that’s designed for work and not display. Display easels are made of lighter wood or thinner aluminum tubes, and they are less stable and less durable than real working easels.
Most easels give you a range of degrees for canvas positioning. Make sure that the easel you buy can be placed in the position that is best for the type of paint you like to use.
If you work exclusively with watercolors, choose an easel that can be positioned at an angle so thin paints won’t run or drip. Conversely, if you paint with oils, you need your canvas to be near-upright or upright to prevent dust from collecting in the paint as it dries. If you work in acrylics, choose whichever easel angle is most comfortable for you—acrylics are thick enough and dry fast enough that position isn’t a factor.
At any price point, look for an easel that allows the canvas height to be adjusted up and down so you can reach all the parts of a canvas with ease. Consider how this adjustment works; some easels use cranks that can get in the way while you’re painting, although they’re among the easiest to use. Other easels require you to remove your canvas before adjusting the bottom canvas support, which is not a problem in studios but may be less than ideal outdoors.
Easels range in price from about $50 for basic, beginner models to more than $1,000 for handcrafted, rare hardwoods that qualify as masterpieces themselves. Match your budget to your skill level and spend or invest accordingly: a novice or casual painter does not need to spend a lot of money to have a sturdy and pleasant easel, while a professional artist may consider investing in a top-of-the-line custom piece a necessity.
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