Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Easels by John Softly

Once again I have enlisted the aid of my good friend John Softly whose research and experimentation of the subject is second to none so here we go.


This review of watercolour easels is by no means extensive as models are restricted to those I own and have purchased over the last twenty years. 

I am somewhat pedantic as I like a painting surface to be sturdy, and my easels need to have little or no movement when erected. This has led to some expensive mistakes which were either sold or given away but the search for, what I consider to be the best easel, is at an end and the irony is the most versatile easel is possibly my first, made from a photographic tripod. Whether wood or metal is a matter of choice, and the balancing act between strength, stability, versatility and weight is paramount. All the easels pictured are strong and stable, but the versatility and weight varies between models.


This was my initial easel prior to equipping my studio (tin shed) with a drafting table. Many artists use box easels and the Mabef is one of the best. Heavy (5.5kg) and a pain to erect and dismantle it is stable and once in situ solid and versatile. There are after market shelves from American art suppliers but are difficult to set up. I rarely use the tripod these days but keep it oiled. Linseed oil is the preparation for all beech easels and applied annually to keep in good condition. 


Manfrotto 190 with Sun Eden Travel Adaptor and Easel Butler (Ikea) tray

Tripod Ball Head - the lever on the right frees the ball and the small lever on the left releases the Quick Release Plate.

This tripod was purchased for photographic work and as such was a great workhorse. Fitted with a ball head with legs splayed in three positions it was an ideal tripod to adapt as an easel/. Weighing in at 2kg it is a little heavy but with add-ons very versatile. Initially I used Gatorboard in conjunction with a Ken Bromley Tripod Adaptor but updated this with a Sun Eden Travel Adaptor, which fits all photographic tripods. After trying several methods of making a shelf I decided on an Easel Butler and, in a sub-tropical climate (Australia), an umbrella is an essential. The Bestbrella claims to be the best there is and I concur.

The Easel Butler - tray pulled forward - positioned in the lowest position - three positions available.

Hanging shelves and brollies off the tripod legs can make the ensemble front heavy - the oft quoted method is to hang a weight from the apex. A weight on the back leg is better as all the weight is situated on the front and unless a counter weight, I use a water bottle in the bag from Easel Butler which is purpose-made, is used the ensemble is inclined to lean forward. The splayed legs of the Manfrotto, which has three positions, help enormously in windy conditions,but once they are splayed the Easel Butler cannot be used.

Legs of Manfrotto splayed in the middle position

The new Manfrotto 190 is now a lightweight, carbon fibre, expensive tripod   but the older aluminium model can be found for under 50 pounds on auction websites. Anyone considering purchasing a tripod to use as an easel should go for a ball head or a headless one that can have a ball head added. A ball head can move anywhere on the XY axis with ease, whereas a pan head is restricted.

This setup is ideal most of the time but there are lighter, more compact, tripods that are almost as sturdy, and are ideal for travel, taking up very little room in a suitcase. 


Gatorboard with Bromley plate.

The cheaper method of attaching a support to any tripod is via a Bromley tripod adaptor plate. This needs to be screwed onto your support - Gatorboard - is possibly the superior board but, not readily available in the UK. First however a wooden plate must be glued to the board. The pictured plate is ready to accept the tripods quick release plate. I used 6mm MDF (PGW). Some web sites may suggest a small T nut with a quarter inch thread will suffice. This method has neither the surface area or strength to hold a half sheet board and should be avoided.

The Bromley Plate

For those who don't want to spend 50 + pounds on a Sun Eden travel adaptor see above, however this  tripod an do everything that the Manfrotto does. It is lighter (1.2kg) and will take the Sun Eden Travel Adaptor, Easel Butler and Best Brella. Not as sturdy as the Manfrotto with only one low position for splaying the legs, and is restricted to light weight supports of half a sheet or less.

The big plus with this easel is its compact size when closed. Together with the dismantled Travel Adaptor and the Easel Butler length is only 35 cm, yet when erected iis a full size easel. The brolly is better attached to the back leg for stability and is less wind resistant than larger tripods, but does everything you expect despite being so compact. I close this first installment with a novel, but nevertheless practical, do-it -yourself easel from the pages of Jack Merriots excellent book "Discovering Watercolour".

Strangely enough this works! 

This completes my photographic easel holdings and all my remaining ones are purpose-built but with the same criteria - strong, sturdy and versatile - more in Part Two. 

Best Brella:-http://www.bestbrella.com/index.htm
Nest Travel Tripod:-http://www.protog.com.au/buy/nest-pioneer-compact-travel-dslr-camera-tripod-235/NT235KBK  Website: nest-style.com/tripod-kits. Just try `googling Nest'.

The bottom two links don't seem to work however you can get to Best Brella at Bestbrella.com

This completes Pt One. When Pts 2 & 3 have been published  John will answer any questions put to him.

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