Which French Easel is Right For You?

Ask the Experts: Technical Questions Answered for Artists

by Michael Chesley Johnson

Which French Easel Is Right for You?

Q. I’d like to buy a quality French easel at a reasonable price. What features should I consider?
Charity Goodwin, Stanberry, MO

A. A French easel is a field easel that includes a box for storing supplies and a handle or straps so that you can easily carry the easel when it’s folded. There are several different types of French easels on the market today. Some are less expensive than others, but, as with most things, you get what you pay for. I’ve found that the hardware on the low-priced models tends to be flimsier because the wood of these models is typically soft elm or beech. Although lighter than the maple or oak that the pricier models are made of, the wood of elm and beech easels also tends to split easily. Having durable components is important for any easel that’s intended for field work. Even if your studio easel doubles as a field easel, you’ll still want something sturdy.

French easels come primarily in two forms—the full box and the half box. The half box is a bit lighter, more compact and easier to transport; however, it has less storage space than the full box. Depending on your medium and how much gear you pack, this difference may not be important. I know more than one pastel painter who uses a French easel but doesn’t store the pastels in the easel’s drawer. Instead, these artists choose to carry their pastels in separate boxes. Painters in other media, such as acrylic and oil, may need more space for tubes of paint, so storage space might be an issue.

Another consideration with the half box is the wooden palette that’s included in the box. Typically, the half-box palette is the same size as the full-box palette, but the half-box palette is hinged so it can be folded to fit into the half box. This hinged palette won’t accommodate painters who like to store used paint on the palette inside the box. If you’re one of those painters, but you still prefer the half-box model, consider using a separate palette box, such as a Guerrilla Painter covered palette tray.

Some models have other nifty features. French easels with wheels are handy if you tend to load your easel with heavy tubes of paint and you travel primarily on pavement; however, the wheels don’t work well on gravel or over roots. Some easels have aluminum compartments in the drawer; these compartments are usually adjustable. Other easels have metal tips on the legs rather than rubber feet, and these give the legs a better purchase on bare ground.

Find more “Ask the Experts” Q&As here! Michael Chesley Johnson, longtime contributor to The Artist’s Magazine and the author of Backpacker Painting: Outdoors with Oil & Pastel, teaches plein air workshops throughout North America. View free previews of his video workshops at artistsnetwork.tv. Visit his website at www.michaelchesleyjohnson.com.


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