Easel Position to Subject

A question from Lisa Stauffer, “When you work outside, how do you position your easel to the subject?”

Here I am, standing at the easel, pastel sword in hand.

Thanks for the question. The most important thing that governs my easel subject placement is “Dominant Body Side.” Are you right- or left-handed? Depending on your predilection, this can play a major part in the decision as to where to place your easel. Right-handed painters are more comfortable looking to the left and visa versa for left-handed painters. Because we paint with only one hand, that side of our body should be turned slightly towards the painting to allow for unimpeded shoulder/arm movement. Do this test: Stand square shouldered and move your dominant hand in front of your body to the opposite side. Feel the tension? This stance should be avoided when painting.

Your head also needs to be centered to the painting so that proper visual perspective can be retained on the flat painting surface: otherwise, objects may end up looking distorted in the final artwork. To facilitate this, you’ll need to stand with your dominant body side near center of the painting and slightly turn your head to look over your shoulder at the painting. This position allows you to look straight ahead at your subject with ease. If you sit while painting, a similar body position should be attained. Sit slightly sideways to the painting surface with your dominant body side nearer the painting. Don’t slump. Sometimes it is helpful to scoot to the edge of the seat. This straightens posture and provides more ease of movement.

While this is the most recommended position in which to paint, it is not always the most convenient. The plein air artist needs to understand the sun’s movement and position their easel accordingly. Things can change quiet a bit in just a few hours, not only on the scenes appearance but also on how the surface and palette are illuminated. Working with both in open shade is the most desirable but not always the easiest to find. If you are able to position your easel so that both are in similar light, even if it is full sunlight, your body stance may need to be compromised.

When confronting the battle of easel and subject, imagine a sword fighter’s stance. The pastel stick is your sword and the surface your opponent. Just like a sword fighter, you’ll have better muscle control and power if your dominant body side is forward. Some days you win, some days you loose. It is all in the fight!


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5 thoughts on “Easel Position to Subject

  1. Ruth

    Hi Richard! I LOVE your work!
    I am so proud of your "persistence in well-doing". Life takes up so much of our time on just ordinary things, it’s hard to carve out the space needed for the most rewarding activities. How do you do it? No matter how hard I try, my laundry pile keeps coming back! I am an artist too, and after my 7 kids grew up I started a non-profit to help kids character development through art and media. Check out some of my work here at these links:

    By the way – the great picture of you above reminded me that I should tell you to protect your eyes from Macular degeneration when you’re drawing outdoors in bright sunlight by wearing UV protective sunglasses. You can get really good ones these days that won’t change the colors but will still protect your vision. Macular degeneration is the worst thing to happen to an artist, because it destroys the central part of our vision where we focus our attention. We don’t need that!
    Blessings, and hope to see more of your prodigious talent in the future!
    Best, Ruth Elliott

  2. richard mckinley

    Laura, the shadow is obscured by my hand and arm, hard to see in the photo. At times I do utilize an umbrella but if wind is present, I prefer to forgo it and deal with the direct sun. the pleasures of plein air painting!
    Thanks, Richard

  3. Laura De Crescente

    Thank you for your ‘sword fighting stance’ advice ..

    I refer to your photo .. Doesn’t that shadow from your hand bother you? Do you ever utilize an umbrella to avoid that shadow?

    Thank you ..

  4. Lee McVey

    Richard, I read this article with great interest. I am left handed and have always felt comfortable looking left or just left from straight ahead while at the easel. I’ve compensated for so many years of living in a right handed world that I can’t use left handed scissors.

    I wonder, because of all these years of compensating and my position feels very familiar, if it would just cause grief to try to change my easel position now. Can you comment on this? Thanks of any thoughts you have on this.