Art Easels: How to find the best easel for drawing and painting

When I first started art school, my dad made me an easel out of thick, sturdy cedar 2"x6" boards - a simple tripod with jointed legs that folded flat for carrying, and a removable, adjustable ledge. I used that easel all through school, and it still serves me well. The ledge could be easily raised or lowered, bolting into pre-drilled holes on the front legs of the tripod, so that I could comfortably work on canvases up to three feet in width.

Anything bigger was a bit unwieldy, and required further bracing, so I often used a plastic covered, hard chair, with some large text books under the plastic to further elevate the canvas. My chair-and-book system may have looked a bit "jury-rigged," i.e., makeshift or temporary, but it served its purpose, and was reasonably stable.


Studio easel

Portrait of painter Caspar David Friedrich in his (artist's) workshop
Portrait of painter Caspar David Friedrich in his (artist's) workshop | Source

Types of easels

There are two basic types of easels, though there are many styles available - almost too many to choose which is best for you. The important thing to keep in mind is that the easel must be suitable to you and how you want to use it.

Studio easels or lyre-back easels, are often larger and more stable than portable easels, and built for constant or heavy use. They can be made of word or metal, and are built for durability and ease of adjusting. They come in a variety of styles, often a braced or squared tripod. As well, studio easels are not intended to be easily portable, so they are usually fairly heavy.

Portable easels also come in a variety of styles, and are made of lighter materials for ease of carrying. The best known styles are the French box easel and the water-colorists' lap or table easel. Tripods, especially aluminum tripods are easily portable, but can be tricky to use comfortably in rough terrain. Some easels, intended mainly for use out-of-doors, have spiked feet that can be pushed into the ground for added security.

It is certainly possible to use a portable easel indoors, and many people do. The same cannot be said for studio easels, which are intended for use on a flat (and indoor) surface.


Tripods

When people say the word "easel" the style that springs to mind is usually a basic tripod easel, one of the simplest to set up and move. Tripods only have one back leg, so you must adjust your style to suit any "play" or torque in your easel's frame. If you apply paint vigorously, you might want to use a squared off or studio easel.

My first easel was a wooden tripod, and once I grew used to its inherent instability, it was a joy to use, both because it was so easy to adjust to different canvas sizes, and because it was easy to move so I could "follow the light" as the day progressed.

Painters' Tips:

"follow the light" - If you depend on natural light for your painting, It can be most useful to have an easel that you can reposition to take advantage of the light as its angle changes with the passing of the day. You will also want to augment the natural light, as the color temperature of the light will change from cool in the morning, to warmer by afternoon, to more golden and then dusky in evening.

I reworked a painting, repainting it several times to adjust the color temperature, before I realized what was happening. As the day progressed, the light changed and I was repainting whole areas so my the colors in painting would look right in the changing light.

"north light" - The best way to avoid the problem of changing color temperature in natural light is to use an artist's favorite light source - north light, or light from north-facing windows. North light is the best because it is indirect, and so its color temperature changes very little through the day.

If you are unable to use natural north light, adding one or two artificial light sources is a good alternative. I often use an easel light, which shines a clear, almost uncolored light directly onto my work.

Artists' lights are also available in floor and table models, and are great when you are matching thread colors for your stitching or embroidery, as well as for any other arts or crafting project where you need a clear, bright light.


Easels and studio tables

The box easels on the left are a bit tricky to dis-assemble and re-assemble, but once you get the hang of it, they are quite stable and easy to carry. They are very popular with plein-air (open-air, out-of-doors) painters, and water-colorists.

Studio easels, sometimes called lyre-back easels, come in many variations. It's entirely up to the artist using it. My chair and book adaptation was useful and cost-effective, and really, all I could afford at the time.

As well, it fit in the space I had available. Though artists are known for their creativity, not all want to use a jury-rigged set-up like mine - and who would with all these options available?

"jury rigged" - There are several theories about the origin of this usage of "jury" in the phrase "jury rigged," according to online sources:"

  • From the Latin adjutare ("to aid") via Old French ajurie ("help or relief").
  • A corruption of joury mast, i.e. a mast for the day, a temporary mast, being a spare used when the mast has been carried away. (from French - jour, a day)
  • In sea-going tradition, a contraction for injury

Though it is always possible to make do with whatever you have on hand, the right tools can make such a difference to your being able to paint or draw with ease and convenience.



Drafting Easels

Drafting easels are not meant to be portable, but they are incredibly versatile if you have the space for one. Not my top choice for painting canvases, the table is great for drafting, drawing, design work, and almost all crafting.


Table-top easels

Some artists find it easier to work at a table. In this case, a table-top easel may be your best choice. There are a variety of styles and sizes available, but most will not support a canvas over eighteen to twenty-four inches.

Whatever style you choose, make sure it will hold your work securely upright, and as close to perpendicular as possible to prevent "key-stoning" or image distortion.


What is your favorite style of easel?

  • Box easel (Ravenna style)
  • Tripod
  • Studio (Lyre) easel
  • Drafting table-style easel
See results without voting

So, which is your favorite?

The best way to find your perfect style of easel is to experiment. Try out a few different styles, and find out which suits your painting style and needs. Do you often work out-doors, painting from nature? Then something portable might be your best choice. Do you take photos and work in the studio? You may find that you need a portable easel as well as a studio table to accommodate your projects.

While you are finding your favorite easel though, don't neglect art easels for your budding artists, like the ones shown below.

The main thing to keep in mind, is that rather than being a source of annoyance, your easel should be comfortable and easy to use, and actually help you create your art works.


Ravenna - birthplace of Ravenna Easels

A markerRavenna, Italy, birthplace of Ravenna-style easels -
Ravenna, Italy
[get directions]

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6 comments

Cagsil profile image

Cagsil 4 years ago from USA or America

Hey RedElf, I've thought about painting, but never actually had the drive to follow thru on it. I know I'm no artist and that would be obvious by the things in which I've drawn in my past. Great Hub on Easels. It has taught me something new which is cool by me. :) Voted up and useful. Thank you for sharing. :)


RedElf profile image

RedElf 4 years ago from Canada Author

Thanks so much, Cags! Painting is great fun, and you might even surprise yourself with the results if you gave it a shot :D Glad to add to your stores of knowledge!


angela p profile image

angela p 4 years ago from Richmond, Virginia

Great article! I have used many a drafting table in my engineering classes and at work. Did not know there were so many types of easels. I have learned something new today.. thank you!


RedElf profile image

RedElf 4 years ago from Canada Author

Thanks so much, angela p. and you are most welcome for the info. I have used a number of different easels over the years, and still have my very first tripod - it's just so easy to travel with it.


Les Trois Chenes profile image

Les Trois Chenes 4 years ago from Videix, Limousin, South West France

Nice introduction to easels. Quite complicated once you start to think about it. voted up


RedElf profile image

RedElf 4 years ago from Canada Author

There are so many variations on the basic styles it can get almost confusing :D Thanks for commenting LTC!

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