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.


Sergio Lopez said...

where does the back leg go after you retract the legs?

Philip Koch said...

I'm shocked Stape would stoop to using a French easel. After all I have this image in my head of him happily banging away on a painting outdoors in gale force winds with his beloved Gloucester easel. (It's rumored that for snacks he's known to break off whole tree branches and just munch on them as he works). I know some time ago he disparaged French easels as being "for girls" on this blog. Guess he's just more multi-faceted than we've known.

More seriously, one of the things I complain about with French easels is they literally do make you stoop over a whole lot just to reach the palatte (which most artists place on the pull out drawer so it rest in front of them as they work. Unlike mighty Stape, I'm only of average height and after several hours of painting Im so hunched over I feel I'm de-evolving into some sort of pre-human beast.

One of things I like about Stape's blog is you can count on him to come up with REALLY detailed descriptions of the practical side of making paintings. And let's face it, nothing really happens until you get your materials and your tools to help you out rather than hold you back.

willek said...

In my opinion the French easel is the Strat of the the art oil painters world. I don't think any of the new easels compare to its compactness, versatility,utility, handiness, clever design and portability. Sore you have got to know about its weaknesses and learn to handle them as musicians get to know their Stradivaris'. I put half a 16d finish nail into a 1/8 in hole to keep the drawer from falling out in my Julian; and insert 3x5 sheet of bent copper into the bottoms of the brush drawers to keep the smaller brushes from falling out. I often wonder how the design evolved and who was the originator.

Steve Baker said...

I'm with you on the height issue Philip. Outside I use an open box M and that only works because I found an antique tripod. It's half again as heavy as the modern ones but it's tall enough I don't spend the whole time bent over.

Sonya Johnson said...

I have a Mabef French-styled easel, though it doesn't have the same rear leg arrangement - mine does fold and tucks up under the easel, and mostly stays put.

I bought mine like 10 years ago, but didn't start actually using it regularly and outdoors until last year. Towards the end of the year, the leather handle broke. So, there was that. I replaced it with a piece of double thickness climbing rope, so that won't be an issue ever again.

My main problem is the screws of which you speak - they loosen up and if I forget to tighten them, it annoys the crap out of me when things jiggle when I try to paint.

I bought some backpack converting straps for mine, and use them if I'm going to be lugging it more than a couple hundred meters, otherwise, it threatens to pull my shoulder out of its socket. They work great; I got mine at ASW.

If I'm hiking several miles and want to paint along the way, I bring a completely different set-up along (as a pastelist, it's easier to do this). The Mabef definitely stays at home then!

Paul Murphy said...

Great Post. I currently use a really nice pochade made in the States by Ben Haggett.. Alla Prima Pochade. It's the 'Blackfoot' type and holds panels up to 10x12".
I've been thinking about a French easel for a while in order to paint larger boards and not known which was best between the Jullian and the Mabef so this really helps, thanks for the informative post. Paul

Maria Randolph said...

I had a Dick Blick French Easel and I hated it. I found it very flimsy, cumbersome to set up and I don't like having to hold my palette or worry about it blowing over.
A few months ago I purchased an Open Box M system (size 11 x 14) and I really love it. The pochade box docks onto a Manfrotto tripod which is very heavy duty and adjusts to any height. Open Box M sells lightweight carrying cases and/or pelican carrying cases for their units. I purchased the heavy duty pelican case and I'm very happy with that also. I don't paint large canvases in the field so this system is everything I need and then some.

Charles Valsechi said...

I just bought a Mabef recently and had it malfunction within two painting sessions.... not happy at all... I am returning it and am thinking of switching to Julian.

Deborah Paris said...

Interesting about that third leg on the Mabef. I tried one afew years back but found it too flimsy. I have an old Julien that was my mothers. It served her well for many years from Maine to Mexico and now it's mine. Every few years my husband has to rebuild the hardware on the box, but it's worth it. I used an open box m also for a number of years but now pretty much stick with the julien. It's old school, but I like it.

Todd Bonita said...

I literally have a french easel down stairs in the trash rite now. After several repairs, the screw malfunction you detailed in this post is the exact reason it's there. I am sick of buying them and having them break constantly. Just got the Soletek and so far the love affair is strong and passionate. I've heard about the sand in the leg hassle but Soletek will fix it or tune you up for fifty clams...I'll take that over the French easel of the month club any day. Great post, you almost had me with your Maybef support but it's too late for me, I've already snapped!

Carlos said...

Hello Stapleton Kearns.

I read what you have wrote about easels. You mentioned the Soltek (is the one I am willing to buy) and you just said it has a problem with one of its legs. I would like to ask you, what about now? Is it working fine? Did the Soltek enterprise fixed it?...

One thing it is difficult for me to understand is that even despite the comments all around internet about how heavy the French easels are, its problems and so on, most people still buy them !
I came to a conclusion and it is for the new era-painting-style-easels are a kind of expensive for most people... (that is why I am not able to buy the soltek right now :))

If you happen to know someone who is willing to sell its own used one, please let me know.

Thank you for your work