Super Easel

My Mabef tripod easel is older than my Prius, which is why I recommend it so often.

Two demos require two easels. Still in the value-study phase here. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Johnson.
I sometimes demo in watercolor and oils simultaneously, since I always have students in both media. I started as a way to kill time between watercolor layers. We all know how exciting it is to watch paint dry.
But it has another value, too, and that is to play up the intricate ways in which watercolor and oils are similar. We tend to focus on the differences, but we’re still working toward the same end in both media. That’s a composition that impels and compels the viewer.
There are challenges. Foremost is keeping the materials separated. I put the watercolor tools in one place (my chair) and the oil painting tools in another (my wagon) in the hope that I will not swish a watercolor brush through my Turpenoid or vice-versa. So far, it’s worked.
Whoops! That’s the first time I’ve ever done that!
My students tend to watch these demos from chairs, not standing. That requires that I keep my watercolor paper on the vertical. It’s hard to get dark washes to stay where you put them, and sometimes I have to double-coat my darks. That creates an opportunity to talk up test marks.
Mentally, it’s a question of switching off one protocol and switching on the other. It looks reasonably seamless to the student, but I find that, halfway through my three-hour class, I’m pretty tired.
Dave Blanchard calls this a “hat trick,” and pointed out that in fact I’d done a triple demo yesterday, since I’d drawn the original scene in charcoal on newsprint. That was so my ‘thumbnail’ was big enough to be seen by the group. I don’t do that when working on my own.
This hat trick is just a way to expedite demos so as not to waste my students’ time. Out of context, it would just be a stupid party trick. But it had an unexpected consequence yesterday. That was my Mabef easel falling into the water.
David Blanchard rescued my easel while I Instagrammed the experience. I’m useful like that.
I’ve never lost an easel in the ocean before, although I’ve tested the limits—on the deck of a moving boat, for example, or standing in the water in a rising tide.
I stood there looking at it while it floated below me, thankful that it wasn’t my oil-painting easel, which would have sunk like a rock. Fran Scannell ran to check if any dinghy owners had left their oars shipped, while Jennifer Johnson went for my hiking poles. Dennis Pollock found one of those mysterious plastic pipes that are always on fishing piers, and he handed it to Dave, who’d gone down the closest ladder. A moment later, my easel was back on land drying off. As you can see, I’m good in a crisis… for absolutely nothing.
And the easel went right back to work as if nothing had happened, while its dumb chum, my oil setup, stood around. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Johnson.
This easel is about twenty years old. It’s seen a lot of hard use and travel. It’s cracked in several places and held together with duct tape. The carriage bolt no longer catches, making it hard to set up. But after its salt-water bath, it swelled up and was Supereasel again. It carried us right through the demo, and when I finished, it exhaled and fell over, limp.
“It’s dried out again,” someone noted.
I always recommend Mabef tripod easels as great value for money. They’re lightweight and versatile, able to lie flat for watercolor or stand up for oils. They now come with optional arms, which are a great feature. And now I know that they float patiently by the dock when you inadvertently drop them into the sea.

Equipment troubles

It’s time to make some hard choices about my two wooden easels.
The last cutting, v. 2, by Carol L. Douglas. Watercolor, same subject as yesterday, but turned the other way. This is one of those times where a square canvas would be appropriate.

 On Wednesday, I realized I’d lost my watercolor palette on Clary Hill. The palette—$14.79 at Jerry’s—is no big deal. It was, however, fully loaded with paint. That’s an expensive nick in the wallet.

I use an old Mabef tripod swing easel for watercolor. I’ve had it forever. It has been replaced by a larger version in most catalogues, but this old friend has been a reliable, versatile workmate for several decades. A few years ago, the head cracked on one side. I compressed and glued it so it worked again. The thumbscrew no longer tightens enough to hold the arm perfectly stable, so I prop it up with my knee when painting. For big boards, I’ve been taping the support to the easel’s head rather than trying to hold it mechanically. I seem to end up using this easel in preference to newer, snazzier ones.
On Tuesday in the dripping rain, that original crack opened back up again. I duct-taped it tightly and hoped for the best. Yesterday, the other side of the head cracked. Again, I taped it together. However, with no tension in the head, the arm is free to bounce around willy-nilly on its pivot. I’m afraid my old friend may be headed for the woodstove.
With both sides of the head cracked, there is nothing to keep tension on the pivot head, and the arm can swing willy-nilly.
There are many reasons to love wooden easels—they’re relatively cheap, they’re stable in high winds, and, properly cared for, they can last for years. However, they have two shortcomings. The first is that wood is heavy. Few modern-day plein air painters have donkeys or servants to carry our equipment up steep hillsides. When I was forty, this wasn’t a big issue. As I approach sixty, it has become a limiting factor. An aluminum pochade box and a lightweight tripod weigh a fraction of what a decent wood easel does.
Wood is hygroscopic. That means the moisture content changes depending on the relative humidity. That’s the killer for all unfinished wood used outdoors, and easels are no exception. My Gloucester easel—also old, purchased used many years ago—requires a rock to hammer the pins into place, because they’ve swollen over time.
Painting earlier this year with a Gloucester easel. It’s the only easel tough enough for on-shore winds. Photo courtesy of Karen Lybrand.
That’s an easel with an interesting history. It is a traditional European design that was brought to Gloucester, MA, at the turn of the last century by painter Oscar Anderson. He made and sold them to fellow artists; old ones bear his name-plate.  The Anderson easel became known generically as a “Gloucester easel.” Today there are two versions available—a beautifully milled, expensive one called the Take-It Easel, and a mass-produced one called the Beauport Easel. They work exactly the same, although I imagine the better-made one will last longer.
It’s a very stable design, and it has the great advantage of allowing work to tilt forward toward a sitting painter. Still, I don’t like to carry it any farther than I can trundle it in a wagon. Not only is it big and cumbersome, it is held in the folded position by only a canvas strap. (Mine rotted away years ago.) And it’s useless for watercolor, because the head doesn’t pivot.
Meanwhile, the unsettled Atlantic is giving us some very interesting sunrises. This was yesterday’s; this morning we were socked in with fog.
I have a spare pivot-head easel in my studio in Rockport, and I’ll collect it on Saturday. It’s a Guerilla painter head that I adapted to hold a larger board. With its tripod, it weighs a ton, but that won’t matter for this residency. After that, I’ll take apart both my wooden easels and make some hard choices. Can they be rehabbed, or must they be replaced?

Choosing a watercolor easel

My own contraption, easily assembled from off-the-shelf parts. It functions equally well for oils and watercolors.

This weekend I got a letter from a southern California watercolor artist asking about field easels. I’ve written a lot about oil-painting easels but very little about watercolor easels. However, the same fundamental rule applies: there is no single “right” easel for every person and every situation.

En plein air pro watercolor easel.
For me, a movable mast is an important consideration for watercolor, because I want my work surface to be able to go almost flat for washes. One commercial easel with that flexibility is the Anderson Swivel Easel. The trade-off for lighter weight in aluminum field easels is that they can be flimsy compared to their wooden counterparts, but this is a good alternative to a wooden box-style easel.  At 5’6”, I find it to be slightly too short for me to work standing. But if you work from a seated position, the small storage area and slightly shorter profile will pose no great problems.

Anderson Swivel Easel
I made myself a heavy-duty variation, using a mastfrom Guerrilla Painter, a shelf from En Plein Air Pro, and a ball-head tripod I had from back in the days when we used real cameras. This is the workhorse easel in my collection—it is virtually indestructible, very stable and easy to adjust.  And there’s no assembly needed: just buy the parts and put them together. If you already have a good tripod, you can assemble this easel for less than $120.

Mabef beechwood field easel has a pivoting head. Mine has been amazingly durable and is the first easel I grab for new painting students to try.
The trouble is, it’s quite heavy. That’s no problem for painting from the back of your car, but if you let your friends talk you into long hikes, it’s just too much. For a truly lightweight easel, I’d look at En Plein Air Pro’s line. As I noted above, the trade-off for their light weight is that they are less able to endure the shocks of truly extreme plein air painting.
I also have a Mabef field easel, which is an economical answer to the pivot-head problem for watercolor artists. Its major downside is that you need to bring a table with you, but it’s my most useful teaching easel, and has outlasted a lot of fancier alternatives. While the head doesn’t pivot 360°, it can be turned flat, and that’s enough for most applications.

Message me if you want information about next year’s classes and workshops.