The French easel used by the Impressionists in the 1800s is the same French easel you’ll find in any art store today. This would seem hilariously anachronistic if not for the fact that there are no fundamentally new designs with which to contrast it. There have been minor design modifications but all field easels, not just the French easel, are still basically boxes with three telescoping legs attached. One would think that there would be a truly novel approach to their design by now — an iPhone to replace the flip phone; a Tesla to replace the Model T. Yet, amazingly, market forces have left the field easel untouched by dramatic innovation and entirely resistant to the modern expectation for consistent upgrade cycles. One reason for this, of course, is that they get the job done. What else do you need, really? They are portable, you put your canvas on them and you paint. Done. Also, a tiny market made up of artists who are relatively happy with what they have does not exactly make for a sizzling niche for an innovative business. Lastly, even in the best of circumstances, painting outdoors is a logistical pain in the ass and I think artists consider the fumbling and bumbling of portable easels to be an inevitable part of the process. After all, oil painting was meant for a cozy studio. Artists were asking for trouble when they began to venture outside with their newly invented paint tubes and fold-up easels — and they got it, in the form of paintings blown into their faces, rain, bugs, bears and onlookers asking, “whatcha paintin’?” We had it coming to us. Oh to be a watercolorist, with their adorable little brass boxes with the water bottle, color cakes and sable brush nestled ever so neatly inside. Sigh.
A proper tool will effectively disappear as you lose yourself in your work, yet most field easels periodically demand your attention like a cat that keeps sitting on a book you’re reading. Poorly placed knobs that get stuck or lost, adjustments that require fumbling no matter how many times you do it, and canvas-holding designs that cover portions of the canvas or that don’t hold the canvas tightly, are just a few annoyances that artists encounter during the course of a painting. These are all minor problems, but small frictions add up which is why I’m constantly on the lookout for designs that rid of, or at least mitigate, one or two of them. As a result, my studio is a vast wasteland of broken, forgotten easels.
While I have yet to come across a truly revolutionary design, I did buy an easel about a year ago that has turned out to be the best I’ve ever owned. It’s made by a company called Strada and they make three different sizes. I bought their largest, which is a lean 15" x 11" x 1.5.” Made of aluminum, the overall design borrows from the computer laptop in that it opens and remains at any angle without the use of knobs or latches. This feature ended up being a big deal for me — I never realized how often I wanted to adjust the angle of my canvas until it became something I could do without pausing to put my brushes down to loosen a couple of knobs. The vertical top bar (the one that slides up and down to hold the painting against the lower ledge) also stays where you put it. Also, when you close the lid, that same bar serves as the latch that secures the lid without protrusions, leaving a sleek, compact box. Because of this, you can carry the easel comfortably under your arm like a book or slide it in a backpack without it getting caught on something. You can also buy aluminum shelves for added surface area which are stiff and secure enough to hold the full weight of all of my working tubes of paint.
But it’s not perfect. The lid has a slight springiness to it like what you would encounter if you painted on your laptop screen. This was annoying at first but, after a week or two, I stopped noticing it. A bigger issue for me is that the easel is designed to hold relatively thin panels — 1/8th to maybe a 1/4 inch. Stretched canvasses won’t fit. If you use 3/8th-inch panels like I do, you can get away with sandwiching the surface tightly between the ledges, but I still find myself knocking one side of a panel off sometimes. However, Strada added two pieces of hardware to their store to address these issues (or perhaps they were always there and I just didn’t notice. ) One stiffens the back and the other allows for the use of a stretched canvas. I won’t buy the former because I’m ok with that springiness now (and I’d hate to reintroduce a knob) but will probably buy the latter when it becomes available (it is currently sold out.) Which brings me to the price: it’s relatively expensive. I own their large easel, which costs $300. The side trays cost $25 each. The two smaller hardware additions would add another $50. But after a year of hard use with no signs of wear and tear (aside from it being covered in paint) it is clear that it is built to last. So, for me, it’s worth the premium. It’s a terrific easel and I highly recommend it.