The World of Easels…
But I must admit now that I am painting full time it is perhaps not as sturdy as I imagined. I paint highly detailed work and want my canvas to sit completely still. A simple wobble can be very distracting when painting an eye lash. My easel is narrow and a wide canvas needs wide support to keep it completely still, and small canvas needs to be at the right height to protect my back. I find myself having to come up with “creative” solutions a tad too often in order to work on it. Looking and asking around I find that most of my fellow artists work with similar easels or have a few easels to choose from in their studio. Many friends also come up with similar “creative” solutions to make their easel do what they want it to do.
What types of easels are there? Generally there are table easels, sketching easels (wood or metal, tripod, easily foldable), watercolour easels (can go vertical as well as horizontal), tripod easels (folds away well), and H-frame studio easels. For studio work we generally do not need table easels or sketching easels and if you work in oils and pastels like me a watercolour easel is also not necessary. That leaves us the tripod and H-frame easels. Generally the H-frame easels are the heaviest, sturdiest and most robust working easels out there, although some tripod models can compete.
If we look at a few art materials stores we see that the choice of brands for studio easels is fairly large (Mabef, Loxley, Winsor & Newton etc) but unfortunately the choice in models is not. Most brands offer one of each model. So a studio H-frame easel from Mabef is fairly similar to one from Winsor & Newton.
The standard H-frame easel follows the same design: A ratchet or winch will lower and raise the painting tray which is attached to the central mast. The central mast, therefore, raises and lowers with the tray. Now this is where I get into trouble and I cannot imagine I am the only one. My ceiling is 234cm high; yes I live in a box-standard 1970s family home (and it is lovely!). No Victorian high ceilings for me, I’m afraid. The ceiling height means, however, that I cannot raise my painting tray very high, before the top of the mast hits the ceiling. Small paintings, especially, are very hard to get to a high enough level. I am 160cm short and so therefore my length can’t be the problem.
To solve the problem of not being able to raise my painting tray high enough, I can either work sitting down or create an extra support on my easel. I have seen artists use (and used myself) left-over canvas, boxes and planks to raise the tray. Some managed to find a spare top painting holder, turned it upside down and so cleverly created an extra painting tray (albeit a tad narrow). Of course chopping a bit off the mast will help as well (something I did years ago) but making the mast shorter will, of course, limit the maximum size of the canvas the easel can support. If you want to work on a large canvas, you’d lower the painting tray to accommodate it, but now the mast might not be tall enough to support the canvas.
Since I live in the UK, which is filled with 1970s housing, I cannot be the only one with this problem. I decided I wanted a bigger easel to accommodate my growing canvas size, but I was reluctant to spend a lot of money (those H-frame easels come in all sizes and prices) only to have to chop a bit off, not being able to stand while working, and struggling with very small or very big canvasses. Cutting out a hole in the ceiling into my son’s bedroom did not seem a good idea either. So I muddled on with boxes, bits of wood, clamps, string and what not. How very arty of me.
For years I kept an eye on the easels in the US, realising that it would be impractical and expensive or perhaps impossible to buy one directly. I was delighted to find that a stockist in Norwich started stocking Best easels recently and I was very tempted by the Santa Fe and Dulce models. The Santa Fe has a winch system which will move the painting tray independently from the mast (although you do need to loosen some knobs first it seems). It seems a very popular easel with American artists. A downside is that the top painting supports don’t move down very far and that the easel is very large indeed which also means it can take very large canvas (up to 269cm!). The Dulce models work with tightening knobs but the tray also moves independently from the (very wide – giving lots of support to small canvas) mast. The downside of knobs is that the tray could perhaps fall down if you don’t tighten them enough and that you have to remove your canvas off the easel in order to raise or lower the tray.
I will tell you in a few weeks whether it proves to be all that it promises….. 😉
In the mean time, I’d love to hear your easel experiences!