How To Paint | The Pros and Cons of Sitting or Standing

Standing vs sitting. No matter whether artists are in a studio or classroom situation, the numbers are nearly equally divided between those who sit and those who stand when painting. Asked about their preferences and artists’ answers are as varied as the artists themselves. This prompted me to reflect on the 40-something years that I have been painting and to analyze why at times I have chosen to sit or stand and to ask myself whether it made a difference to the process and end result.

Pictured here are two pastel artists who attended my Grand Marais, Minnesota, workshop last August. While one worked seated and the other standing during the week, they both had very successful outcomes.

Bravura vs. Control: The first observation is that a painter does have more mobility and freedom of expression when standing to paint. If bravura and loose painting styles are your goal, it is often easier to accomplish this when standing. It’s akin to swordplay. However, when control and delicate detail work is required, a seated position is more conducive, like playing chess.

Getting Comfortable: Another reason an artist will choose to sit or stand is because of physical limitations. The stamina required to stand at an easel for prolonged periods of time may not demand the same physical exertion required for running a marathon, but the muscle tension required is considerable.

Tips When Standing During Painting: There are a few things that artists can do when positioned in front of their easel that will help keep them limber:

  • Lower the height of the painting so that you are not reaching above shoulder height. This can greatly help with shoulder and neck strain.
  • Position a small block in front of the easel upon which to place a foot when painting. Periodically shift the block from the right to left side of the easel to alternate skeletal pressure. Artists that suffer from lower back pain have found relief by utilizing this alternating block/foot method.
  • Remind yourself to frequently step back from the easel. This serves the dual purpose of giving you a different perspective on your painting as well as muscle movement.

Tips When Sitting During Painting: There are also ways to keep yourself more comfortable when sitting to paint:

  • Position your body at a 45-degree angle to the painting with your painting arm leading. This provides more mobility of movement.
  • A high stool positioned in front of an easel can make this seated position very similar to standing.
  • If lifting your arm is difficult, place the painting in your lap and hold the top of the painting with your other hand. This may sound like a cumbersome position, but can be very useful when painting en plein air with pastel.
  • You can also sit in a low chair with your pastels arranged on the ground next to you (within easy arms’ reach) while the painting rests in your lap. No easel is required for this setup, making it quick and easy.
  • Since the seated painter is limited in their ability to step back from the painting to gain perspective, you must rely on frequent visual squinting to blur your vision and simulate the effect of distance.

In conclusion, there are advantages and disadvantages to both painting positions. No matter which is your preference, the overriding importance is comfort while painting, which allows you to focus and make the marks required to portray your intent.

pastel by marla baggettaLearn more about color, style, value, texture and overall composition in a new online class with pastel artist Marla Baggetta! Click here to find out more information about the artist, the course, and registration at Artists Network University!Sign up now; the course starts November 6! (Note: Baggetta offered her tips for using value sketches and color studies in the February 2011 issue of Pastel Journal. See an excerpt here.

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2 thoughts on “How To Paint | The Pros and Cons of Sitting or Standing

  1. SusanR

    Thank you for addressing disabilities and adaptive techniques. The simple tips such as the angle or holding the painting in your lap are surprisingly helpful. I find your directness and enthusiasm “infectious”! In fact, when I am uninspired, all I have to do is watch your watercolor underpainting DVD and I am off and running!
    Thanks again. Susan

  2. mchesleyjohnson

    If I’m painting all day, I typically stand in the morning and then sit in the afternoon to rest my back. I do like your “alternating block” idea for standers!