It's Plein Air Season! Looking for an Easel?

Recently I have received many questions regarding supplies and gear for painting

en plein air

Your first big investment will be a portable easel. I'm not talking about one of those little three-legged jobs that can barely hold a display poster. I mean a "big girl (or big boy)" easel or "pochade" panel/palette box with tripod that can withstand at least a little wind and many years of use.

The difference between an easel and a pochade box or panel/palette box is basically this... an easel is a stand-alone thing based similar to equipment you might find in your studio but typically smaller, collapsible, and portable.  A pochade is a panel holder and palette in one that needs some sort of additional support for its "legs" (such as a tripod with camera quick-release plate). The top "lid" portion holds your panel while the hinged lower section is used as your palette.

Rather than show images of all of these here, I am including some links to a few examples. If for any reason these links do not work, just do a search online and I'm sure you will find them. The standard

French easel and it's little sister the smaller half-French easel



Anderson Swivel easel


Guerilla Box


Artwork Essential's EasyL


Open BoxM


Coulter Plein Air System


*Beauport Large Format Easel


The Stonefield Easel

; the

Alla Prima Pochade



, and many, many more! There are even websites with

building plans

so that you can make your own. With so many choices, it can be totally overwhelming.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself when considering which easel to purchase:

  1. Will I be walking more than a few feet with my easel and plein air gear?
  2. This is important to know because the weight of all of your supplies adds up really quickly. Think about carrying a big wooded box (like the French easel), paints, mineral spirits, brushes, sun screen, water, painting panels, extra mediums, your camera, a sketch pad, snacks... you get the idea. Unless you plan on painting within a few yards of your car, pay particular attention to the overall weight of the easel or pochade box.
  3. (Note: As long as I'm talking about French easels here, if you DO prefer this style, consider a Soltek instead. Wooden easels are sometimes prone to swell in humid environments making them difficult to close when you break down at the end of the day.)
  4. Will I be traveling by air to painting destinations?
  5. If so, everything will need to fit into a suit case for air travel. That is different than just throwing it into your back seat and trunk! Think about the outside dimensions and consider how many other things you may need to do without in order to pack a large easel. If you choose a pochade, you will also want to make sure that the tripod collapses short enough to fit as well.
  6. Will I paint larger than a 9x12 or 12x16?
  7. This one is super important because there are painting size limitations to each of these easels. If you are pretty sure you will never paint large, however, there is no reason to super size your order. If you see yourself tackling enough canvas to sail a boat, take a look at the Beauport.
  8. Are you a backpack person or a roll-cart person?
  9. Keep in mind that you cannot roll everywhere. Think of your roll-cart the same way you do a piece of luggage. While it may be easier on your back, you will find some painting locations will not work for you. But if backpacks or satchels are not your style, you may want to look into a Fold Away Cart, Rolling Plein air Packer, or even this combo roll-cart-chair called the ArtComber.
  10. What is your budget?
  11. Notice this is not the first question because, although cost has to be considered, it is not the most important answer. A good easel will cost a good penny. The great news it it should last you a life time. So rather than buying several cheap versions that fall apart quickly, go ahead and bite the bullet and put a little extra money into your easel.

What do I use and why?

Although I have tried many of these or friends of mine have them, it seems I always come back to my

Open Box M

. I have two different sizes. The smaller one works well if I know I am flying with limited packing space. I can still paint up to 16" wide on it so really, I'm not sure why I have a larger one except that I bought the larger one first.  The larger one is called a 10x12 and will accommodate panels up to 18" wide. The palette/mixing area is 10"x12" (hence the name). Just for the luxury of the extra mixing space, I use the 10x12 most of the time. 

The Open BoxM is light weight and it fits into my back pack with all of my other gear stuffed around it. After I attach the palette/panel holder to my camera quick release plate on my tripod, I can tilt the palette at an angle (see image below). Also see that the palette (bottom portion) is not very deep. I much prefer both of these attributes as opposed to paining on a horizontal surface or into a deep-lipped lid like some other brands have. Tilting the palette helps me keep the sun off of my mixing area (which tends to mess up the accuracy of my values). Unlike the Soltek, Anderson, Beauport, Coulter Plein Air or Stonefield, there is no open space between the panel holder and the palette so no extraneous light seeps through (again... messing with my values and color mixing ability). 

So, that's a lot to chew on and you need to know that for every product out there you will find an artist who loves it and and one who hates it. I realize that isn't much help, but my opinion is all I can offer. 

If I could add an additional easel to my collection, it would be one that would allow me to paint slightly larger. Maybe I'll get one of those when I grow up.

*Since this post, I have had a prototype of a new type of paintbox made. More on that as it develops.  Also, I have been been contacted by someone who would like to submit the following for your consideration... Thank you Tobin!

Please consider posting a link to my website, (maybe even replace your Beauport link with a link to my site!) I build the Take It Easel, after which the Beauport was terribly ripped-off/copied overseas! please take a minute to check out our site!

Happy Painting!

Tobin Nadeau

Owner, Builder, Take It Easel