What to Look for in an Art Easel

An art easel is an essential tool to practice your craft whether you're an aspiring artist or dabble in acrylics from time to time. With so many options before you to decide on like price, features and style, how do you know which one to select for your studio?  By focusing on the media you use, the size of the canvases you work with and the places where you paint, you will be able to find the right painting easel for your budget and artistic needs.

Easel Styles
To find the easel that best suits your artistic needs, start at the beginning: Where will you be painting? How do you like to paint? What kinds of paint will you be using?

There are two main types of easels: table-top and floor-standing. If you have limited space, work exclusively on smaller canvases or like to sit while you are painting, you might consider a table-top easel. However, if you want the flexibility to paint outside your studio, you'll need to make sure there's a sturdy table at hand on which to place your easel.

Floor-standing easels are larger than table-top easels and are ideally suited to artists who like to stand while painting. French easels are a type of portable floor easel that functions as a traveling studio. The three-in-one design of a French painting easel includes a sketchbox, where you store your art supplies, the easel itself and a canvas carrier. A French easel's legs and canvas-holding arm collapse for easy carrying, while the canvas attaches to the back for transport. French easels allow you to position a canvas in numerous ways and are suitable for painting with all media. 

Many sketchbox or "paintbox" easels are ideal for beginners, because they come with a supply of paints, brushes and other art materials. If you're a landscape painter who works in natural surroundings (plein-air), choose an easel that is specifically made for outdoor use, with lightweight materials and a design that is compact and easy to fold.

Easel Frames
Floor-standing easels come in two styles: the tripod (also called an A-frame or lyre) or the H-frame.  The main portion of an H-frame easel has two vertical posts and a horizontal crossbar support that resembles the letter H.

For folding and portability, tripod easels are generally the most mobile.  Also, if you don't have dedicated studio space, an easel that folds up for storage when not in use is the best choice. Professional artists who work in studios often prefer a taboret, which is a floor-standing easel mounted on top of a cabinet with doors and drawers that hold their paints, brushes, rags and other supplies.

Construction
Easels can be made of various woods (the most commonly used is beechwood), aluminum or steel.  Your personal taste and practical concerns will dictate which material is right for you.  Steel is heavier than aluminum and the weight of a wooden easel depends on the type of wood used.

If you don't think you'll need to move the easel very often, or if you paint on larger, heavier canvases, you might look at an easel made of a very durable hardwood or steel. Aluminum and wood are the best choices for an easel that will follow you to scenic panoramas, but your creativity will be limited to the canvas sizes that these easels can support.

Aluminum tripod easels are the simplest to set up and adjust. These easels have telescoping legs that are locked in place with pressure rings or levers for unlimited freedom in setting height and tilt. Because they're lightweight, these easels may feel less stable than wood easels while you're working.

Look for wood easels with sliding legs held in place by pressure screws for the simplest setup on uneven surfaces. If you paint outdoors, look for an adjustable canvas holder that grips both the top and the bottom of the canvas to reduce the chance that sudden gusts of wind will send your canvas sailing.

Make sure you choose an easel that's designed for work and not display. Display easels are made of lighter wood or thinner aluminum tubes, and they are less stable and less durable than real working easels.

Matching Easels to Media
Most easels give you a range of degrees for canvas positioning. Make sure that the easel you buy can be placed in the position that is best for the type of paint you like to use.

The medium with which you most often paint will also factor into choosing an easel. If you work exclusively with watercolors, choose an easel that can be positioned at an angle so that paints won't run or drip. Conversely, if you paint with oils, you need your canvas to be near-upright or upright to prevent dust from collecting in the paint as it dries. If you work in acrylics, choose whichever easel angle is most comfortable for you-acrylics are thick enough and dry fast enough that position isn't a factor.

Easel Prices
At any price point, look for an easel that allows the canvas height to be adjusted up and down so you can reach all the parts of a canvas with ease. Consider how this adjustment works as some easels use cranks that can get in the way while you're painting. Other easels require you to remove your canvas before adjusting the bottom canvas support, which is not a problem in studios but may be less than ideal outdoors.

Easels range in price from about $50 for basic, beginner models to more than $1,000 for handcrafted, rare hardwoods.  Match your budget to your skill level and spend or invest accordingly: a novice or casual painter does not need to spend a lot of money to have a sturdy and pleasant easel, while a professional artist may consider investing in a top-of-the-line custom piece a necessity.

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