Easels are our main tools and a source of personal pride. A requirement is a steady unit that you can push against. The capability to tilt and crank are also handy. There are 22 current designs listed in Artist Materials, by Ian Hebblewhite. Talens and Maimeri models now have electric elevation and inclination. Winsor and Newton still make the trusty “bench donkey.” Often, having more than one easel is a source of creativity. Different offices yield different business.
I’ve worn out and buried three of those beautiful mahogany French ones, as well as a couple of folding table-toppers. When backpacking I use a Churchill cigar-box, clipping 8 x 10 inch hardwood panels to the inside lid. My studio easel is one my dad helped me build 20 years ago. It’s heavy and solid (I call it “The Packard”) with nevertheless quick adjustment and an attached light. Visitors to the Painter’s Keys site may have noticed the “Art Dog,” which tows behind the bike. Also there’s the floating easel “Alexander Mackenzie” which will be used again this summer.
While there’s a sense of continuity when you paint with a time-honored design, it’s also useful to work with one you might build yourself. “A poor thing, but my own,” said Shakespeare. The impressionists, particularly, were an inventive bunch. I like the one that Camille Pissarro rolled out into his orchard. During a creative ebb last fall I built a version of it. I call it “The Pissarro” — a bit lighter, but just as handy.
Pissarro didn’t just throw his canvas against his easel. He wasn’t familiar with “Velcro.” Other words that he wasn’t familiar with were “radio, television, computer, and internet.” No wonder he was able to concentrate.
PS: “My painting does not come from the easel. On the floor I am more at ease.” (Jackson Pollock)
Esoterica: Easels along the lines of ones we now use have been built for more than two thousand years. Going by the sag and the lay of the paint it appears that Roman funereal portraits in Egypt were done on a vertical frame that could be tilted when the subject happened to be horizontal.
“The Art Dog”
I found the best easel during a trip to Jackson Hole last year. It’s aluminum, extremely versatile and compact, and I slid it easily into my suitcase when I went to teach my workshop in England last year. It’s up for painting within one minute! Talk about “state of the art!” It’s called a Soltek easel and it was invented by Jim Wilcox, a western and landscape painter who lives at Jackson Hole, WY. It’s a bit pricey (…..ahem…..a lot pricey) but it’s the cost of a painting folks, and what a toy for us outdoor painters!
(RG note) The Soltek easel can be seen at http://www.soltekarts.com/soltek_products/soltek_pro_nc.html
Sara Genn, Vancouver, BC, Canada
We had a visiting prof in the fine art department at Queen’s University – her name is Landon MacKenzie — she teaches full time at the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design in Vancouver. She’s said to have an easel that she can lie on and it moves around over her large canvases on the floor. That way she can paint in the middle of her big ones while lying on her stomach.
My position of choice is the back seat of my car. For some reason when I stop driving and get into the back seat my attitude changes and a relaxed state of mind takes over. I have the stereo on low. I work on Canson Ingres and clip it on a hardboard panel on my knees and with my pastel box beside me I just go ahead and work in an even and steady way that I could not do at home. I guess my car is my easel.
Dick Brown, Washington, USA
More than once when the urge has arisen I have driven a sharply pointed 2 x 4 or 2 x 6 into the earth. They can generally be found lying around any place. A canvas or panel can be held with four regular nails — two at the top and two at the bottom. It’s remarkably steady. I have also tacked panels to trees, and have been careful to remove nails when I leave. Where there’s a will there’s a way.
Isobel, Ontario, Canada
My favorite easel is the one my family bought me when I declared that I wanted to paint more than just a hobby. It was a wonder, adjustable everywhere and strapped onto my back pack, allowed me the freedom I had only envisioned in my earlier daydreams. I still use it after many years and it is not just a support for a painting….it is a sign of a dream coming true.
A patch of golden sun
Over the past three years, I have ‘lost’ all my possessions and money accumulated over 49 years. What I perceived as a hopeless void in the beginning has transformed my life and being. For the first 23 years of my life I drew and painted on any surface available (sometimes to my parent’s dismay) as if possessed. The next 23 years I tried to fit into a world of child rearing and planning for the ‘future.’ I have now been blessed for the last three years with the rebirth of the obsession to paint. I now live in a tiny apartment with no heat, minimal hot water and constant noise from below. I share this space with a friend who brought me here from the hospital in October and who has quietly and persistently shared what little he has with no question. Last night he asked me why I was not painting as I had been before losing my house last fall. I replied that there was no place on the floor, which is where I paint. This morning at 5 a.m. my friend left for Utah to be with someone who is dying and not supposed to live out this week. When I came into the little living room after he had gone I saw that he had cleared as much space on the floor as possible. The 6 x 6 foot square lies exactly in the sole place which receives sunlight during the day. My ‘easel’ has been recreated. It is held up by supports more powerful than the finest wood or steel.
Richard Lake, UK
In the Painter’s Pocket Book by Hilaire Hiler, once a well-thought-of reference for artists published in the ’50s and ’60s, it says, “For the portrait painter who must to some extent impress his client by the luxurious quality of his apparatus the most monumental easel on the market may not be a bad investment and for this he may pay 25 pounds or even more.”
An easel I designed about 10 years ago has been in use ever since. It’s a French type easel. You can stand up to it or use a director’s chair. It is a great traveling easel as it is very compact when folded up, yet will hold a huge canvas. Up to 34″ high. It is fully adjustable also for height and canvas size. It can hold a 5″ x 7″ canvas or a 32″ x 40″ with ease. It has lots of storage bins for paints and brushes and a small shelf to put stuff on. I pack it to every show I do so I can paint during the boring hours and I find that it helps to draw a crowd. I build and sell them. I’ve made quite a few for other people and every one just loves them.
(RG note) The “Hoodoo Two” can be seen at http://server46.hypermart.net/hoodootwo/easle.jpg
Bed of Roses
I’m one of those artists that never uses an easel. My preferred way of painting is on my bed. I don’t know why, and in many ways it can be very uncomfortable. But when it comes down to it I won’t change, because it is not comfort I seek at those times, it’s inspiration. And, I must say I’ve had many an inspiration from a kink in the neck and a sore back. The truth isn’t out there, it’s right here…
Freedom at the edge
It was my ingenious brother who solved my easel woes. I like to have freedom of movement, continuing a brushstroke right off the panel in any direction, unimpeded by a “lip” or “peg” on the easel, there usually to anchor a canvas in place. He inserted a strong, fully adjustable clamp of wood with a hacksaw-blade inset top and bottom that grips into the panel or canvas and holds it in place.
I am a belly dancer, so I paint with a lot of Turkish music, especially Omar Faruk Tekbilek. He is truly amazing, and plays with many different musicians, so there is variety, from the sublime Sufi inspired to wild ruckus drum songs. My dancing and my painting have definitely influenced each other, and the music is the driving force in that inspiration. After traveling in the Southwestern U.S. I painted a large series inspired by that landscape and the ancient and living cultures. The Navajo flute player Carlos Nakai would take me right back to those canyons and kivas, so the work just flows out of me. The same thing happens with Andean music after returning from Bolivia. This music is tied to the landscape. I also love Irish music — the Chieftans, eg: Santiago. The two Putamayo collections I love are Dublin to Dakar and Cairo to Casablanca.
Paula Sue Butts, Folsom, California, USA
I have three easels in my studio and my granddaughter and I are constantly playing musical easels. What fun we are having! Instead of having a French field easel I have a lightweight $70 one for the field. It seems to be easier for me to carry supplies on each arm for a short distance. Since I have tendonitis I find it painful and hard to lift a lot of heavy weight. I finally ordered a table-top easel and hope this will be a great setup for a picnic table or sitting in my vehicle and painting. I do like the Pissarro easel. It looks like that it is a rollable wonder.
You may be interested to know that artists from 79 countries have visited these sites since January 1, 2001. That includes Gloria Tiede from somewhere, who says that having an Airedale is the secret to an artist’s success. And Lee, from West Virginia, who says “Life is a smorgasbord, and some people are starving to death.” And Christine Ritchie, of Detroit, Michigan, who says, “I’m with Jackson Pollock, the floor and walls will do.”