Thursday, May 17, 2012
I had to buy yet another French easel this year. I have owned over 1400 of them now. My first was the best made, it was a Julian and I bought it in about 1975. I painted outdoors on French easels for many years until switching to the Gloucester easel. I used to kill a French easel every season in my Rockport period. The wind did most of them in. The easel would start to "sail" and I would hold it down and then put a rock in the back of the box. You know, in those tray shaped compartments amidships for brushes and stuff.
If the easel lifted off again I would add a bigger rock, or maybe two. I was working on the coast a lot, and there was plenty of both wind and rocks. Sometimes, however, even though I had lots of rocks in the back of the easel it managed to lift into the air and hover briefly above the ground. Then the when the wind dies a little and the easel crashes down with its stone driven load on those little skinny Bambi legs, splintering it's femurs. So I have bought a bunch of French easels from different manufacturers with varying quality.
I have bought half box easels, the smaller French easels that are too narrow. But the folding palette baffles me. How do you keep the paint from running through the crack right through the middle of the palette? I need more carry space than that anyway.
I bought the Soltek. I took it on a painting trip to Paris, they were new then and nobody there had ever seen one. It looked like the lunar lander. I set it up on the street in Mont-martre , and all of the Eastern European street artists had to come and examine it. It works pretty well, but I had a leg freeze up because of sand, I believe, entering it's sensitive inner mechanical elements and confounding them.
I tried a Gloucester easel about once and have used it outside ever since. At least unless I must travel on an airplane (and sometimes even then) or set up in very crowded places. In a crowded city a big Gloucester easel becomes a traffic hazard and dorks always trip over it's legs. Inside, the Gloucester easel is just way too big, and it's feet with their little steel spikes, slide on the floor rather than pierce it's surface. I use mine inside for demonstrations but it is not ideal for an inside easel. So I use French easels too.
I have seen and examined dozens, probably hundreds of easels belonging to students at my workshops and have seen a lot of easel problems. I have seen easels so badly made they almost cant be made to stand up reliably. And they all shimmied and wiggled when I painted on them. The French easel design has a weakness. An Achilles heel. The metal hinge between the upright standing "easel" part that holds the painting, and the box part where the drawer lives. These two flat pieces of metal are held with screws or sometimes rivets into the sides of the easel carcase where it is thin and delicate. They inevitable strip their screw holes and then the whole upper easel is no longer a stable platform on which to paint. You want an easel to be stable, no flopping around, that is very bad. I dislike pochade (pronounced "pochade" ) boxes because they are not stable. or at least mine never are.
This time I bought the Mabef easel. It got good reviews on various blogs and forums and I wanted to get the best quality easel I could. You can get a french easel for the price of a good belt at discount shopping warehouses now. But they are not well enough made to withstand the abuse of day in day out use. If you just want to just talk about painting, they would be fine. I like the easel, it is well constructed, and the hardware is precisely made. But the little tweak they have given the traditional design is what I want to show you. Those of you with French easels know that the back leg (that leg which is alone out there and furthest away from you) folds back at a hinge articulating it's middle, like a knee. This collapsed leg then folds up into a slot along the bottom of the easel.On the Mabef easel the rear leg is attached to the side of the box, just like it's two front legs, rather than springing from its undercarriage or loins.
I photo-shopped the picture above to remove the handle so you can see this little assembly. The reason this is good is that it means that all of the legs sporing from the easel at the same level, or distance from the ground. This is important when you want to use the easel sitting down, something I am likely to do when traveling. The other French easels I have owned didn't do this very well. When they kneeled that back leg was a slightly different height than the rest, and it was difficult to get the box to sit level. The Mabef bracket above solves that problem.
So I am recommending the Mabef easel. It is not one of the less expensive easels, actually it is one of the most expensive French easels, but it seems to be of excellent quality and is thought fully designed.