Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Easels Pt Three by John Softly


This the last installment of my take on artists easels consists of three of my favourites.The Herring Versatile Easel is a relatively expensive item (currently £109) for those living in the UK but the shipping costs to Australia double the price (the same applies for UK artists with regard to SunEden products from The USA which aren't cheap to start with PGW).

This easel has been in continual production for 55 years and is possibly the sturdiest easel I own. I did send e-mails to Potter in Norwich as I liked the wide support (see my view on the Potter PGW) but received no answer so I went for the Herring. Just as well I suppose as the heavier Potter would have cost more in shipping costs. The Herring weighs in at 1.5kg. I am unable to use the Easel Butler but can utilize the Best Brella. There are a couple of accessories for this easel. A metal shelf, 12" and 18" extension for the aluminium support and metal picture slides.

 Picture slides,12" extension and shelf.

Due to the shelf being somewhat narrow I am forced to use my Craig Young Paint Box as my usual palette, the CY palette box is far too large. As you can see the Paint Box fits perfectly.

The artist Robert Brindley, who uses both a Herring and a CY Palette Box, has bolted a larger shelf onto the small Herring shelf, which holds his palette and mixing palettes, something I intend to do. See it on his Town House DVD.


I have had more trouble with wooden field easels than any other type. Due to my insistence that the ensemble be solid and not move when erected. I have sold or given away three Mabef wooden field easels. The problem was with the screw at the apex, which when tightened with normal pressure did not hold the legs and support tightly.More force was needed and the obvious happened - I stripped the thread.

Both Trevor Chamberlain and David Curtis use a W & N "Perfect" easel, having done so for the past forty years, so I considered that an excellent reference. The trouble is the last advertisement I saw was in an artists magazine from the late 1960s and I believe production ceased in the 1970s. However everything comes for those who wait and sure enough one appeared on eBay in Dublin. Not only a Perfect easel but one in the original box with papers. I was the only bidder so was I wrong in thinking this the best wooden field easel? My view is that this is the bees knees of easels. 

The apex screw holds the legs and support bar firmly, unnecessary force not being required.

The inlaid W & N Logo

Currently I am using this one more than any other, even though I consider my original Manfrotto photographic tripod the most versatile due to the ball head. I have no link for this easel, but refer you to the writings of Trevor Chamberlain and David Curtis.


This easel is from Malcolm Carver, a high profile Australian watercolourist. An acrylic A3 board with weighted foot and ball head makes this the best table top easel I have found. It is also the most expensive.

The Carver easel ball head

I have other table easels but the Carver with the ball head is by far the most versatile.
To conclude; there was another high-profile English artist who used a `Perfect' easel and that was Edward Wesson. Between 1961 and 1981 Ted Wesson wrote 18 articles for `The Artist' and 15 for `Leisure Painter'. 

Ted died in 1983 before the advent of art videos and DVD's so his autobiography "My Corner of The Field", the five books written about him, the 33 articles penned by him, a couple of 16mm short films and the thousands of paintings he produced are the only insights into the man and his art. All six books mention his palette and the use of a French Polishers Mop. However in his magazine articles he delves deeper into methods, techniques and philosophy with eight quotes on easels.

My easel is a makeshift one, being an adaptation from the rather useless type often given to children. Not being a carpenter I will not attempt a description of it. Sufficient to say it is light in weight and simple to handle.( The Artist - March 1962)

Our easel should be light in weight and easy to carry. It can be one of the orthodox patterns or the camera tripod type with a swivel top and the appropriate screw fitting, which attaches to the board. There are a good variety of both types available. ((The Artist - January 1964).

The easel should be light in weight and I can think of none better than a metal telescopic tubular type. In a stiff breeze this may need a brick, but don't take one with you! There are usually some kicking around on the site. (The Artist - August 1967)

To my mind an easel is a must and the one I would recommend is the `Perfect'. This stands up to most conditions pretty well and can be used very satisfactorily for both watercolour and oil painting. ( Leisure Painter - June 1975)

Now whether we stand or sit .... one of the most essentials items in our equipment will be an easel and here we need to exercise care in our choice. One called `"The Perfect"* is most reliable, not too heavy but  fairly firm and safe. There is one lighter weight which has so many wing nuts to negotiate that, if not careful collapses as soon as we look at it. There are other more elaborate ones that look more like dentists chairs but I doubt whether they are any more efficient. As with so many other pieces of equipment in these modern times, the simpler they are the more effective they will be.
* Marketed by Winsor & Newton, this easel is now called the 116. (Leisure Painter - March 1978)

A stout but portable easel is a `must'.Don't have one that is too light; you will find it worse than useless. (Leisure Painter December 1978)

I have always preferred a box-easel which will contain everything including the canvas, and if this has legs attached,we have everything we need. I should mention that, when loaded, some ... can be very heavy. On the other hand the heavier they are they are better suited to stand up to boisterous weather conditions (Leisure Painter - Oil article March 1980) 

Now if we stand when painting, and I think this preferable the only other thing we need to carry is an easel. Of these there is a fair selection which always creates a problem. Which do we choose? There are wooden ones, one that reminds me of a barbers chair and , more recently, one that looks like a metal clothes horse. The snag with this latter is that when opened up, instead of adjustable legs, it just has two bars; so what to do if forced to work on a spot of uneven ground? No, I prefer the wooden type with telescopic legs, which used to be called the  "Perfect" (Winsor & Newton).` But, I do wish the wing nuts were on threads which have been `burred' off so the wing nuts cannot come away at the ends. This would surely be a very minor improvement and would certainly save me hours looking for pupils wing nuts in the meadow grasses or on river banks. The wonderful Le Franc easels do have this sytem and it is much appreciated by those of us who work in long grass or on river banks. (Leisure Painter - May 1980)

It would seem that Ted got his "Perfect" sometime after 1967 but still used a box easel for oil painting. As fas as palettes go he started off with a Roberson De Wint, switched to a Winsor & Newton Binning Munro and ended up with a Holbein 1000.

My experience with easels  (writes Peter Ward) is a fraction of Johns. I started off with a heavy metal easel of no obvious make which was later discarded. I have a Jakar metal easel, painted black, purchased from Great Art. This is not too heavy and easily dismantled to go in a carry case. I also have two `makeshift. ones, the first purchased from an artist who made them, after seeing them at EPC in Catalonia. I lugged mine to Spain only to find I could have used one of those. I've seen this called the `Alvaro Castagnet' easel . It is homemade with a cheap photographic tripod and two other parts, including a wooden shelf that fits on the tripod legs. Being homemade it cost quite a lot and is described fully with illustrations in an early post on here that you will find in the Index July 2014: regularly updated. I haven't used it for a while as I don't paint plein air these days. Would I buy one with hindsight? Probably not. My preferred option is the one described by John using a Ken Bromley bracket. In my case I bought a better quality tripod - about £30 - which has to have a screw top. There are plenty available and also adaptors with screw tops. I have two boards one large, one smaller each with a Bromley bracket screwed on. I used 6mm MDF but had to glue small pieces on to this, equating to the size of the bracket, which came from a piece of backing out of a photo frame. The reason was that the screws slightly protruded with the basic 6mm board, all detailed in an earlier post so if you are interested look it up in the index. The main problem is lack of a shelf so if you are  competent at `Do-it Yourself - I'm not - you can make one or get a carpenter to knock one up. When I became aware of SunEden products I  saw the perfect shelf arrangement but with the cost of carriage from the USA  equal to the cost of the product - the whole lot at least £80. My frugal upbringing in the North of England prevents me going to extremes, although I have strayed over the line on many occasions, primarily with palettes. I'm not sure that paying a fortune for a shelf is in the same league.

We now come to something I have experienced which John hasn't - The David Potter Easel.  At the time this was introduced it got rave reviews but then when have you ever seen a bad one in art magazines, especially when an advert for the product is prominent on the next page. I bought the lot which included two wooden shelves, very heavy, wheels and something else I can't remember. The easel is metal and the whole lot came to over £100. The idea is you can assemble the thing, and trundle it around when the wheels are connected. I did use it a few times but eventully looked for something less complicated and lighter. Overengineered? I think so. The one I had was an early one and it proved difficult to tilt. They did introduce some sort of modification later. I know some prominent artists have used this easel and when on a Judi Whitton workshop in Cornwall, she had one in the studio that she demonstrated with. I didn't see her lugging it around however. In the end I discarded it and sold or gave away a couple of bits. I still have the small shelf which I can use with my tripod setup but it isn't ideal, being quite heavy.

That's it then folks. Many thanks to John for this very comprehensive and mind provoking article. If you have any questions he'll be pleased to answer them.

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