The World of Easels….

The World of Easels…

… is fairly small in the UK. For years I have been working on the easel my mother bought me when I was a teenager (thanks ma!). The Italian brand Mabef has proven its robustness as the easel (moved house and country, taken apart and put back together again many times) is still going strong. It is a fairly standard H-frame studio easel, the ones most artists who work in oils or pastel get. It is not mobile or very foldable but sturdy and long lasting.

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.

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A piece of wood and an extra canvas bring the small portrait up to the right height.

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.

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Mabef, 06 Studio Easel
Mabef, Lyre Easel
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Winsor & Newton, Welland Studio Easel
But while looking around for the ‘perfect easel’ I realised that easels where the mast was not attached to the painting tray (and therefore raise and lower the tray without moving the mast) did exist. They were around in the US.  I have no idea why European distributors never decided to stock these things, but easels such as the range by Richeson Best, Craftech, Hughes and some others makes me envy the wide choice American artists have.  Those easels have painting trays that can be raised and lowered with winches, pulleys or knobs and – best of all – a counterweight system which makes moving your tray up and down very lightweight and easy.

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.

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Richeson Santa Fe Easel
Richeson Best Dulce easels
The most tempting systems seem the ones that use a counterweight and pulley system. Using just one finger to lift and lower your painting tray seems very appealing indeed. When I work I move my canvas up and down a lot. I stand, sit down, step back and work up close and being able to move my canvas along is very important to me. I do not want to have to take my painting off the easel in order to raise/lower the tray. My current old easel’s ratchet system is very useful for this and I do not want to loose this functionality. ​
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Hughes 3000 Studio Easel
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Craftech Sienna Easel
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The Sorg Easel
Popular counterweight easels, as far as I could find them, are the Sorg, the Craftech Sienna and the Hughes Easels. All of these three seem beautiful and brilliant easels. The Sorg, however, is so tall it would not fit under my ceiling and they do not ship to Europe. I have read only good reviews about them though. The Craftech Siena seems an excellent easel, I have not been able to find out many details about shipping worldwide.
The Hughes easel is the Rolls Royce of easels, so I am told. I could not find one single criticism about this easel during my online research. I have asked many artists (in the US) how they find this easel and whether it would suit me. Hughes easels are made to order and therefore can be made bespoke, i.e. to fit under a low ceiling. They have a counterweight system that makes moving your canvas tray up and down (or from left to right for some models) very easy. Under my ceiling I could raise the tray of a Hughes easel up to 130cm and if I need it even higher I can use a second smaller painting holder to raise my canvas even higher. For very larger canvas the easel will open up to hold canvas up to 150cm.
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!

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18 thoughts on “The World of Easels….

  1. Very nice and helpful for me your summary of easels! At the moment I am building an easel myself because I don’t want to spend a small fortune to buy a sturdy studio easel with counterweight. I think I can do it for about €100 with wood and ironwork I have in my hobby machine shop laing around. You can see some pictures of the progressing work at my facebook account

  2. Hi Hans, thanks for that. If you have the skills, making your own easel is definitely a good idea! I looked at your project on your facebook profile and it sure looks impressive! Good luck with it!

  3. Very interesting information…thanks for sharing. I use a Best, University easel and it serves my needs nicely but I am ready to upgrade. I am anxious to hear your thoughts on the Hughes easel once you have used it for a while.

  4. I have a Hughes, a Sorg and a best wall mounted easel. I know, that sounds a bit over the top but I work in two locations!
    The Sorg was the first one I got, and although it allows me to raise and lower the painting, and I can fold down the easel and transport it in a vehicle, the easel itself is not as well crafted as I would have liked — I believe earlier versions were made by the designer himself but mine was made overseas and everything does not fit together well, making the whole thing wobbly.
    Also the weight system is clunky and now, 5 years later, the knobs that hold the canvas supports are striping out and will have to be replaced. So, I don’t regret buying it as it was a first easel and still has some functionality in the studio but it can be frustrating to use.
    Then about 3 years ago I got a Hughes, the 3000 model. Wow, what a difference! Absolutely a delight to use, a real piece of furniture and perfect for large canvases. The fact that it goes from side to side as well as up and down is incredibly useful on canvases of all sizes. It is a pleasure to use, and I show it off when people come to the studio as it is so well made! Very sturdy. Quite easy to assemble, good instructions and a video.
    In the winter I can’t work in my studio and I move inside to a small mudroom converted to temporary studio. I have very little space and so acquired a Best wall-mounted easel which works very well in this situation. Extremely sturdy, can handle many sizes of canvas, and cranks up and down with a pulley system. Not a Hughes by any means, but a great easel for the money, and well-made. Highly recommend for small spaces, although the assembly instructions leave a little to be desired!
    All of the easel models above work best with high ceilings if you are working on large canvases, however if you sit down to work you might be able to get away with a lower ceiling. (I hadn’t looked in to customizing for lower ceilings.)

    1. Elizabeth, I’m guessing you didn’t purchase your easel directly from me. Those who do get superior assembly instructions which should prevent any wobbliness. In addition, I recommend particulars for tuning up the easel occasionally, especially if it is folded up or moved about a lot. The early knob (it is only a single knob) was inferior; again people who purchased from me were sent a better replacement, as well as some panel hooks and wood lubricant. Replacement knobs can be had locally from any woodworker’s supply store. The weight system is definitely more clunky than the wonderful Hughes easels, but then again their lowest priced easel is well over twice the price of the Sorg, so one should expect some upgrades! 🙂

    2. Elizabeth, thank you for all that wonderful information! I have read so many good things about the Sorg easel it is interesting to read a review after a few years of use!! So glad you posted that – I am sure it will help others who are trying to come to a decision. Great to know the Hughes is still going strong. And yes I got the impression (never actually having seen any of these easels for real) the Best easels are very sturdy and a good option. Again, thanks for sharing!! 🙂

  5. I recently saw a YouTube video of a Geneva studio easel. Liked it a lot, expensive though. Not sure how it compares to other large easels price wise. Check out genevafineart.com.

  6. Hello Sophie, Thank you for your wonderful blog. Since your input was the final push I needed for the purchase, I thought I should let you know that my Hughes 3000 arrived a week ago, . It is simply wonderful. It was crated with as much care as having to ship a carton of eggs. The wood structure has been lovingly hand-sanded and lacquer finished, without a trace of roughness. Assembly only took about one hour. The hardest part was heaving the mast up the steep stairs to my studio. Once the casters are installed, it glides about easily in spite of it’s size. It really was the only easel for me to accommodate the steep ceiling angle in my studio. I had the mast shortened by 10 inches and I don’t miss it. The carriage really moves vertically as well as horizontally at the touch of a finger and I can tip the top or the bottom up to 15 degr., which is helpful in avoiding glare. I have only worked with it for a week and even a 5 hour session left me content, without a stiff neck or a frozen shoulder. Yes, it was definitely worth all those “Spätzle” lol.

    1. Hi Hanny, I can’t believe I did not reply to your comment earlier! I am so sorry! Fabulous to hear you went for it!! I am glad my blog post gave you the final push. They really are fantastic easels. You will have had some use out of it now so would love to hear your experiences. Thanks for stopping by, Sophie

    1. Hi Gerda, I am afraid your comment did not get through. Thank you for visiting my blog however! I hope you enjoyed it.

  7. Hi Sophie,
    Wondering if after several months of use you have identified any specific pros and cons regarding the Hughes easel, that would make it easier to bite the spaetzle and invest in one?
    Also, was it a very lengthy process from the time you contacted them and having it made to order, until finally it arrived? I’m so glad to have seen this before getting my second easel. I do appreciate the insight everyone, including yourself provided.
    Thanks to all,
    Barbara

    1. Hi Barbara, thanks for your comments. Well, I’ve been using the easel for quite some time now and I must admit it is a daily joy. I so love to be able to move the painting tray up and down without a sound, without any effort. I have also really enjoyed being able to paint tiny little paintings as well as huge ones without having to organise anything or change anything. It just all goes on without any problem. So I can only think of positives…. the only negative could be the price but that is all dependent on personal circumstances. I could have gotten an easel for £100 instead, and you can argue whether it is wise to pay so much more for an easel that does not move or wobble, takes all sizes, is quiet, lets you move things up and down with a fingertip, is beautiful, moves around on its wheels easily, I could go on and on. I use my easel every day so for me it was worth it! I love it.

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