Dear Artist,

Here’s an alternate to easel painting that’s worth thinking about. Working with small canvases or panels on the lap, while unprofessional in appearance, has some features not available in traditional painting systems.


Stretched canvases are easier to hold onto than most wooden or composite panels. They are generally lighter as well.

Apart from the fact that in some places it’s not possible to work with full paraphernalia, lapworking provides surprising spot-on accuracy — more than in arm’s-length easel or pochade-box painting. Rotation of the work, tilting, and holding it out are also quick and easy. Apart from the lap, stability can be had by resting the support against the edge of a table or perhaps an inactive fishing rod.


The leg pressed into service as a stabilizer. The side of a table or a chair can also be used. It all comes quite naturally.

Specific effects as well as more controlled brushwork are two benefits. For artists who need impasto, the work can be quickly tilted to the light to see evolving texture. At the same time, washes, run-downs and watery blends work like a hot damn when you have this kind of tilt control. As longish straight lines tend to wobble, horizons and other straights can be laid in with a home-made, clip-on bridge.


One of the features of lapworking is the ability to quickly rotate for both abstract effects and as well as handier cutting in.

Lapworking is by no means the final answer, but it’s particularly useful where work is started on location and finished in the more controlled environment of the studio. You might find that the “hobby-horse” feel of lapwork generates the languid ease that helps get you into the “zone.” While it appears nonconforming and casual, ideas and motifs flow remarkably well. Further, when the work is already in your hand, it becomes easier to put it down and pick up another. In lapwork there’s a feeling of embrace as you move lovingly here and there, following whims.


A homemade bridge holds tightly to the sides of a horizontal 11 x 14 inches. I find this is an excellent size for location work.

All processes from musical composition to philosophy can be victimized and limited by systems that are tried and true. In our game it’s often the departures from the norm that bring about style and flair. I stumbled on lapworking while trying to paint in close quarters. Lately I’ve found it to be valuable in places where there are acres of elbow room. As Confucius said, “An inconvenience is an unrecognized opportunity.” Also, bystanders take you less seriously when you appear to be only fooling around. Believe me, this can be a good thing.

Best regards,


In relaxed situations, the work takes on a lackadaisical, dreamy mode, and work evolves somewhat effortlessly.


PS: “It is a bad plan that admits of no modification.” (Publilius Syrus) “More of me comes out when I improvise.” (Edward Hopper)

Esoterica: The high size for lapworking is about 12 x 16 inches. Beyond this, panels and stretched canvases become too cumbersome for most artists to hold with one hand. Stout watercolour paper (even the 140 lb stuff) starts to flop when wetly handled. Mounted watercolour papers (such as cold-pressed panels or Ampersand Aquabord are the answer. You’ll feel so good about lapworking with them that you’ll start throwing them around like Frisbees.


Running colours
by Anne Copeland, Calimesa, CA, USA


“Secret life of trees 2”
original painting, 8.5 x 11 inches
by Anne Copeland

I am a fiber artist, and I sometimes paint my pieces. When I decided to do this little series on “The Secret Life of Trees,” I found the best way to do a watercolor-like technique was to work on my lap. I have used at various times a large-size cutting board, the cardboard at the back of my sketch paper, or even a handy piece of foamcore. It allowed me to create a watercolor-like effect without the paint running down the wet cloth where I didn’t want it to go. I found it actually very comfortable. I am not sure I could do my work in an upright position because of the nature of the medium. I suppose if I started to use canvas to do my work, I could do it differently, but for now, this technique works very well for me.


Miniature masterpieces
by Carolynn Frances McDade, Benton Harbor, MI, USA


watercolour painting
2.5 x 3.5 inches
by Carolynn Frances McDade

It was a pleasure to see your Lapworking article arrive in my mailbox. I am a small format watercolor artist, and most of my paintings range from 8″ x 10″ down to 2.5″ x 3.5″ in size. The 2.5″ x 3.5″ paintings are, specifically, Artist Trading Cards, or ACEOs (Art Cards, Editions and Originals). ACEO’s are collectible, miniature works of art and are very popular with artists and collectors alike (primarily at eBay where their current popularity originated, but their charm and affordability have caused an explosion in popularity). Everyone who sees these miniature works of art seem to be fascinated with them. I’ve introduced my artwork to several people over the last year and a few have become collectors. In fact, I have had friends and visitors to my home who were so taken with these little works of art; they wanted to own them at first sight!

My “studio” is in a small corner of my room, so I am accustomed to working on a table top or from a foam board on my lap. I rotate and work on my little paintings from every angle… it does make for more exacting work, and since I’m usually a “tight” painter, the smaller works of art are just perfect for me. I have been creating ACEOs for about a year. In that short time, many collectors all over the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and Switzerland now own my original, little treasures!


Critical conscience
by Donna DeGroat, Charlottesville, VA, USA

Having spent some time in Finland, I initially thought that “Lapworking” might be information related to employment in the Finnish province of Lappi or Lapland. Realizing that I wasn’t being offered a rare opportunity to work with reindeer, I continued reading. I have been “lapworking” for some time. Sometimes my best work has its beginnings in my lap. There is some kind of rare intimacy that occurs working in this fashion.

If I intend to lapwork, I often choose to sit in places where adequate lighting is compromised. Using a small Ott-Lite True color behind or to the side of me usually solves this problem. It seems to me that one’s ability to hold the canvas, manipulate the canvas, and communicate with the canvas is enhanced.

There is a painting that I need to do and have not begun. I have been thinking that I needed to begin the painting in my lap. Ironically, some hesitancy set in as my critical voice asked if “real” artists would start their work in their lap. Thank you for hushing the critical voice. My intention is to begin the painting this evening and entering the intimate world of Lapland.


Small pieces in the lap
by Sandy

I too work in my lap for small pieces and have found there are many advantages. Canvases (mostly square) 6×6 inches up to about 9×9 are all done in my lap, sometimes two at a time positioned side by side which provides a quick way to note interesting observations and changes. They go fast so there aren’t many problems with weather, time, my focus, or interruptions. I can go into a parking lot to paint on the way back from my usual location. The car door ajar, on my butt, captivated with no easel to fuss with.

One other thing that occurs with these small pieces in my lap is an almost voyeuristic intimacy in the final product: no two people can share the view; the looking of it, to the same effect, one is always off angle. The painting manipulates the viewer (which sometimes doesn’t benefit the painter!) because it causes them to “come closer my friend, look at me” and in shows they can disappear into the wall against larger paintings which do not dictate a relationship like that. However, anything larger than a 9×9 inch canvas I seem to be struggling against the limited range of my anatomy, the chair, focal distance and no step back.


A magic show
by Jack Dickerson, Brewster, MA, USA


“Marching Trees”
acrylic painting, 44 x 48 inches
by Jack Dickerson

In the lap- I take a very large pad of paper to do charcoal sketches, especially of trees and seascapes. I used to think I was being very seriously observed… But have found out that people are only curious. I really don’t think they have any judgmental intentions at all. 99.9% of onlookers are simply curious and interested in something that 98% of people simply can’t possibly comprehend how we artists make this happen. We all know that the majority of the time, our viewers think that what we do is magic. People like to watch a magic show, as they don’t see how we make it happen. So the next time anyone is painting around a bunch of people, remember this. They are not there to judge, or to criticize. Those are perhaps our own insecurities. They are there simply to watch how this amazing thing (for them) unfolds.


For the sake of art
by Mary Buergin, New Boston, NH, USA


Mary at the Grand Canyon

I was able to paint on a precipice with winds that wouldn’t accommodate my easel but there I sat, for hours, able to really absorb the light and colour. Although I wasn’t able to take a step back often from the piece, I focused more on accurate colour and value mixing. The painting wasn’t half bad but the down side was my derriere was killing me!





Emergency painting bag
by Nancy Bea Miller, Philadelphia, PA, USA


Nancy using lapworking methods

All my plein air work is done by lapworking; I just didn’t know there was a term for it. I call my lap-working gear my emergency painting bag. I keep it full stocked at all times, in the back of my car for those unexpected moments when there’s suddenly time to paint. Nothing beats this system for speed of set up and lack of conspicuousness. And as you say, the sheer intimacy of contact with the panel in your hand and palette on your lap is wonderful!

The one occasional problem is finding a place to sit. For that reason I keep a small 3-legged folding stool laid across the top of my painting bag. If I am hiking to paint, I transfer the painting bag to a large back-pack and am able to strap the stool to one side of that. Soggy ground, sharp rocks and ant-covered logs need be no problem if you’ve brought your own “lap-maker.” If I do end up finding a nice smooth rock or other comfortable perch, I then use the stool as a small side table to hold my brushes or rags etc. I’ve seen other lap-painters sitting on blow-up cushions on the ground but haven’t tried that myself. Of course that has the advantage over my folding stool of being virtually no weight to carry and packing down to just a few inches after use.


Handy system
by Janet Lee Sellers, Monument, CO, USA


by Janet Lee Sellers

I have a handy lapwork system that is really simple. I take an ordinary 3 ring binder, fill it with sketch, watercolor, or a canvas sheet, and flip the covers together/ open so the front and back create a lap desk, complete with inclined work surface on top, and flat on the lap at the legs. I put in a zippered pencil case upside down, because with the notebook open for lap work, the case is actually faced up while working. An extra water bottle serves for the water media paints (even my oils are water soluble).

To view the painting during the work — take a 10-foot look as I call it — it will stand up on a table, chair, the ground, or convenient tree branch. For oils, bring a cheap plastic box frame the size of the canvas, fix the canvas sheet on top of the notebook with a clip, and cover it to go home — reduces the chance of smearing. I have been known to duct tape the box on for safety, too.

There is 1 comment for Handy system by Janet Lee Sellers

From: Michelle Philip — Jul 17, 2008

This is sheer genius! I love it when you can take an innocent everyday civilian object (3-ring binder) and press it into service as an art slave. It has it all – the rigidity, the incline, it’s waterproof, and it is a display easel. Good for you, and thanks for sharing.


Just the right angle
by Stephen King

Never having tried smaller paintings until reading a book on the subject, I purchased a supply of 5″ x 7″ canvas covered masonite panels on which to experiment with oils. Realizing these do not work well with a traditional easel or box, I cut a sturdy piece of cardboard to approximately 11″ x 14″ using double-faced tape on the back of the panel to attach it to the cardboard. I enjoy painting the small canvas with a painting knife and was well pleased if not surprised by the flexibility of moving and turning the board to just the right angle for my stroke. It is not the prettiest or most professional looking set-up, but I have not found a better method for ease of control. I still do mostly larger paintings on studio easel or plein air box, but always look forward to my “relaxing” times with small panel and laptop painting.


Activating lapwork
by Marilynn Brandenburger, Decatur, GA, USA


“Under the bridge”
oil pastel, 18 x 14 inches
by Marilynn Brandenburger

I’ve been lapworking for years. I love the intimacy I experience by actually handling the work as I make it — the sort of tactile pleasure craft-workers experience. Lapworking also gets me up and moving more than when I’m at my easel. I paint, hold the work out to assess it, get up out of the chair to set it up and view it at a distance, pick it up and sit back down. Up, down, up, down. That keeps the blood flowing and the muscles from freezing up. Gotta be good for the circulation and hence the creative juices.




Painting oils on the fly
by George Perdue, Georgetown, ON, Canada


“Cool enough”
oil painting, 24 x 30 inches
by George Perdue

Here is a sample of my version of lap painting. The little black box contains everything I need to paint oils on the fly — here in London. This approach is the result of painting in Killarney Park last year lugging a French Easel on some tough trails in the heat. I have been using loose canvas or thin (1/16th inch) wood panels. Bigger sizes I have to carry outside the box, but up to 8×10 inches fit inside and carry easily when wet. The whole thing fits inside a back pack along with water and a snack. It works great and produces some really fascinating small pieces that look fantastic framed and a lot of pieces that can be the reference material for studio work. Now if I can just find a way of getting to some of these places without a footprint I’ll be home free.


Fun with the feet up
by Valerie Norberry, Kalamazoo, MI, USA


“Farmers market”
watercolor painting, 5 x 4 inches
by Valerie Norberry

Oy Vey, from lap-dancing to now lap-working? Sounds like a plan. I myself use a clip-on drawing board for my house portraits and sit in an easy chair with my feet up. I don’t worry too much about my angles being absolutely 90 degrees on the house frames. Sometimes I use an envelope for a straight edge. This is art, not drafting, although I did learn some of that, as well. My drafting table tends to serve as a kitty bunk bed, I have a small cat bed on it and my Himalayan, Princess, often naps there. My place is just too crowded to use the table as I should, so I resort to the Masonite, lap or hand-held drawing board, that has a cut out handle and clips, these can be obtained from the art store for about $10.00, fully made.


Poorly prepared grounds
by Sharon Rusch Shaver, Gallatin, TN, USA


“Cape nude”
oil painting, 22 x 28 inches
by Sharon Rusch Shaver

What is a poorly prepared ground? I always oil paint on a surface that I have prepared with a color thinned with Gamsol or some kind of turp. I have wondered and worried that the layers I add later may pop off, and have done that, if under any stress. If painting lean over fat is the way to go, how should I be preparing my ground! 30 years I have been painting and I don’t even want to think about what I have done that you consider “poorly.”

(RG note) Thanks, Sharon. Your Gamsol and turps, while not standard, may be fine depending on how absorbent your favorite surfaces are. Grounds and primings are one area where an artist should not scrimp. Excellent info can be found by reading the specs for various grounds. My remark came about because I was watching someone working in oils on an unprepared chunk of construction-grade plywood. This sort of surface sucks all the binding (linseed, in this case) oil out of the paint and into the wood. It was an extreme example of painterly badness.

There are 4 comments for Poorly prepared grounds by Sharon Rusch Shaver

From: annon. — Jul 15, 2008

Sharon Shaver… the rule is fat over lean not the reverse.

From: Vincent — Jul 15, 2008

If Sharon has been painting 30 years lean over fat with no disasters, that is truly mazing!

From: Melissa Evangeline Keyes — Jul 15, 2008

Fat over Lean! Get a craft of oils book and learn, if you don’t want your paintings peeling as a bad sunburn. It’s not so difficult to learn.

Or go to acrylics.

From: Debra Ward — Jul 16, 2008

Sharon Rusch may be having painting problems not from the ground, but because, as she says, she tries to paint “lean over fat”. To my knowledge,she should be using fat over lean. It may just be a typo, but if not, she can expect all kinds of grief from older painting done in this manner.



Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Lapworking



From: Neeman — Jul 11, 2008

Laptop working for watercolor means you can stop in an instant and work anywhere.

In a small bag I have a short tripod stool, a masonite board the size of the bag, watercolor blocks, and of course my paintbox.

Park yourself in a corner in the shade and you are off to work.

Set up is a minute!

The drawback is you cannot step back to view your work from a distance.

From: LHicks — Jul 11, 2008

On a 22″ x 36″ Depend protective bed cover or diaper, laid across your lap, you can set your pochade box or canvas and wipe your brushes on the absorbant upside, the aqua plastic below protecting clothes.

From: Colin McCabe — Jul 11, 2008

After trying many methods I now do all my plein air watercolors by holding my board on my lap, I simply tape the paper to a plywood board, sit on a small folding stool and have my palet and brushes on another stool beside me.

From: Faith Puleston — Jul 11, 2008

Quote: “All processes from musical composition to philosophy can be victimized and limited by systems that are tried and true.”

I’m not sure that the average plumber, doctor, philosopher, or even houswife would be enthralled to read this particular pearl of wisdom, Bob!

The secret is surely to have the systems and processes down (or up?) to a fine art. It is only by knowing and understanding the value of (efficient) processes that we can avoid the pitfalls. A system does not and cannot victimize anything. But of course, one can become a victim of one’s own convictions…….

From: Barbara Tibbets — Jul 11, 2008

A few summer ago, my husband and I traveld across country (WA to NY), on a Gold Wing motorcycle. Not much room for my art supplies but I managed a tiny pack of 300 lb 3×5 in. sheets, travel w/c paints in pans, brushes, etc. I collected a dozen small paintings and actually framed a few. Now that’s lapwork.

From: Paul — Jul 11, 2008

Now I can just put some tube in my pocket, some brushers in a backpack, along with something to mix paint on…aluminum pie plate? and a few bits and bobs and I’m off, with my stack of small canvases…

From: Joan Brumley — Jul 11, 2008

I purchased some small aqua board, and I love working on it. But what do you do for preservation of a watercolor on it?

From: Rich — Jul 11, 2008

Been working on the lap for a few years…gives a feeling of more control and closer lets me see better. I do go a bit larger though but usually when I have something to rest the support on…

From: Paul Sherman — Jul 11, 2008

I found painting with the painting laying on a rock in front of me worked well while we were in Acadia National Park last fall. It was a fairly tough, tight climb down to the rocks, so taking an easel was not convenient. The painting worked well and had a good feel to it.

From: Gina — Jul 11, 2008

I always felt ‘unprofessional’ when using this way of painting…it’s nice to find out I’m not….

From: Jill Cantrill — Jul 11, 2008

How does your handy bridge work for lap painting? I couldn’t see how it stays off the surface of the painting. It looks like something I would use, I work 11×14″ outside a lot.

From: Diane Edwards — Jul 11, 2008

I love painting on my lap because I can sit in my recliner next to my husband watching sports and participate in our life. I use the arms for my easel rest and a side table for my pastels. Also, I can put my feet up and enjoy painting, very restful and enjoyable.

From: Ken — Jul 11, 2008

Like Jill Cantrill, I would like to see more of the bridge you speak of and perhaps make my own.

From: H. Helen Hampton — Jul 11, 2008

The bridge Robert mentions is sitting on the card table in the last photo in his letter above. It appears it would cling on to the canvas.

From: Don Getz — Jul 14, 2008

I probably do 90% of my watercolor journaling, with the 9×12″ journal parked on my lap! I cross my legs and prop the journal against the upper knee, raising it up, so that I am looking directly at the painting / sketching surface. I use one of “Cheap Joes’ folding canvas chairs which I have rigged up with a detachable shelf on the left side ( as I am left handed). My Yarka palette with American Journey pigments and a plastic dish of water fits nicely on the shelf.

From: Naomi McLean — Jul 14, 2008

Thank you for making it “legal”! Please tell us how to make a bridge?

From: Ellie Snyder — Jul 15, 2008

From my friend Annabel: “I like the concept of lap painting. Not too far from lap-dancing actually – they’re both closely held, intimate and result in a satisfying conclusion!”

From: Eveleen Power — Jul 15, 2008
From: J.R. Baldini — Jul 15, 2008
From: Mary Kilbreath — Jul 15, 2008

I made my own bridge years ago from an 18 inch long, 1/4inch round dowel. It is threaded on both ends, to which you attach on each end a wooden (threaded) ball, of a size comfortable to your hand. (1 1/2″) Rest the one end in your non-painting hand, the other on the canvas, or easel, resting your brush handle against it. Easy, cheap, couldn’t paint without it.

From: Comments moderator — Jul 15, 2008
From: Comments moderator — Jul 15, 2008
From: Kathleen Harrington — Jul 22, 2008

I bring a laptray and paint watercolors while we travel. I find plenty there’s plenty of room in the passenger seat. I divide a 9×12 into small format and ACEO size sections and get quite a lot done as we drive. I wait to cut the finished works apart when I get home.






Chestatee bend

watercolor painting
by Diane Mize, Georgia, USA


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.

That includes Marilena Fluckiger of Vancouver, BC, Canada who wrote, “Oh, my… at first, I thought you were writing about lap dancing! Then I realized you weren’t. Then, I thought, wait… maybe you are! ‘In lapwork there’s a feeling of embrace as you move lovingly here and there, following whims.’ ”

And also Ellie Siskind who wrote, “The pieces I am presently working on, 14 x 24 inches, are so easy to manipulate either flat on my work table, on the easel sitting or standing; I will try lap as well.”

And also Karen R. Phinney of Halifax, NS, Canada who wrote, “I am off overseas in a couple of months (by plane, not ATV!!), and will paint en plein air while there. I thought of taking my easel, but now I will just “lap paint,” because I only intend to take 8×10 inch and 9×12 canvas boards anyway (got to keep the weight/bulk down!).”

And also Sharon Pitts of Montclair, NJ, USA who wrote, “I just returned from teaching a watercolor workshop in France and did all my painting on my lap. A handy tip is to wear sandals and use the openings in the shoe to hold your brushes. Working outdoors and on one’s lap definitely adds freshness to the work.”




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