Updated March 2019
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.
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.
Mabef is one of the most established easel brands I know. My own easel is a Mabef and it has served me for 30 years and counting. Mabef easels are strong and durable and hugely popular. Most have a handy ratchet system to lift or lower the painting tray. I cannot fault a Mabef easel and would always recommend them to anyone.
Just like with any H-frame easel, the mast moves up and down with the tray and you need a very high ceiling to accommodate these types of easels.
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 (5ft4”) 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.
Easels with a fixed Mast
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 Richeson Best easels recently and now Jackson’s sells them too. 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 so you will need a big studio. A big easel also 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. Coming from a ratchet system, this was a deal-breaker for me.
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.
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 and looks beautiful too.
But 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. Hughes easels are not cheap, however, and so are not for everyone.
Choosing an Easel
Choosing an easel can be difficult. Easels come in all price ranges and in all qualities. There is not an awful lot of choice in models, but with European stores now also stocking US brands, the range is growing all the time. A sturdy easel (without any wobbles) is vital though. It might feel very arty to work with rickety, old and paint-splattered furniture, but a good and sturdy easel is just a joy to work at. No, it won’t make your paintings any better, but it will improve the pleasure of the painting process.
Budget is important. I ended up going for a Hughes easel. Not a cheap option. But I figured it was a piece of furniture that I would enjoy every day for the rest of my life. I can’t say that of many pieces of furniture in my house. So for me, it is worth it.
That does not mean I would rate the normal H-frame easels any less. If your budget does not reach that far then a Mabef easel will serve you a lifetime. You might have to be creative with the mast and your ceiling, but many artists managed this all their lives without much troubles. The choice depends on personal preference, working methods and budget.
Finding a large, sturdy easel that would fit under my ceiling proved tricky. For years I stuck with my good-old Mabef because there was simply no alternative available. In the end, I decided to go for a Hughes easel. It was made especially for me, and I provided them with the specifications of my studio space. It would all fit beautifully and it did. Read more about my dream easel in this post.
It arrived! Read more to see if it lived up to all that it promised to be….. 😉
In the mean time, I’d love to hear your easel experiences! Which type of easel do you have and are you happy with it?
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