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People always ask about the easel

August 18, 2013


UPDATE: The following post is now completely out of date. I’ll leave it up for posterity – and because I still like the setup described – BUT – I no longer carry the full size manfrotto tripod and accessory trays into the field. I’ve decided it’s simply too heavy to take on trips that involve walking to the location. I still use it extensively in the studio, so I can paint in different locations (in front of a model or still life, or near the computer if I’m looking a reference images). But for field work, I’ve gone down in size to a lightweight aluminum folding tripod that looks like THIS in use. Painting in progress are clipped to the tray like THIS with the palette similarly clipped on to the front like THIS. (That’s a bijiou box in the shot, but I also do it with a larger 12 well tin Holbein).

My main reason for going big in the first place was stability in the wind. My current theory is: “welp – some paintings gonna flip”. That’s the trade off for less weight in my bag.

So, back to my OLD OUT OF DATE info:


The easel can be a bigger star than the paintings sometimes.

Every time one of my Frankenstein painting rigs appear in a photo, I get questions about it. Which is natural.  Everyone loves gadgets, if they’re going to make for better paintings.

I’ve tried a variety of gear aimed at artists – the best of which (IMO) is the Eric Michaels En Plein Air Traveler. Basically not an easel at all – but rather a set of trays that attach to a light-weight camera tripod. This is the most practical off-the-shelf solution I’ve seen, but it has one drawback. It’s build to be light, portable, and easy to set up. Which is great. (I used one for a years). But it means it’s *too* light for any kind of serious wind.

(EDIT: I’ve recently been told that E.Michaels and co. charge exorbitant shipping to Canada – almost doubling the price of the item – possibly Europeans might be in the same boat. So  perhaps people might be even more interested in my kit-bashed solution).

There have been many windy outings where I had to keep one hand on the tabletop at all times to stop it lifting off. On a few occasions, walking away at the wrong time resulted in a wind gust flipping the whole thing on it’s head. Once you push the situation up to 16×20″ panels you’ve essentially made a land-surfer.

So, that’s where higher quality camera gear comes in. Full size tripods have the weight to counterbalance big paintings, yet still fold up smaller than purpose built artists gear. (I’m talking to you Jullian Easel). Personally, I’d much rather carry a tripod over my shoulder and the paints/ect in a backpack, than try to haul around one of those wooden boxes.


The best tripod I’ve found so far is the cleverly named Manfrotto 055XPR08. To which I attach my old E.M.Plein Air Pro tray using a bare bones tripod head.

It has the key feature of converting the camera head to a horizontal position. Perfect for my needs – panel on one side, and the remainder of the T-Bar to clamp on whatever else I want. Usually just a small accessory tray for my palette. I have a battery driven LED light panel for night painting, and eventually I’m planning to add in a Shade Buddy umbrella. I could even clamp on a Go-Pro or similar mini-camera and capture progress photos of the art, or record the scene in around me.

You could make your own tabletop out of wood or plastic by attaching the standard camera threading that’s on the base of every DSLR. I haven’t needed to researched where to get this tiny piece of hardware yet, but any camera store could order it. (EDIT: I’ve been told the threaded bit of hardware is called a Tee Nut or T-Nut, and is available in hardware stores, or online). You could also use a ‘shoe’ type quick release attachment which can be purchased from tripod manufacturers as a replacement part.  You’d just have to mount it to the back of your tray.

There are also many types of laptop tray on the market these days, aimed at digital photographers who want to shoot with a computer next to the camera. They are however, often quite expensive. I bought one, but it’s cast metal and too heavy to haul around all day. Another thing for the box of expensive easel hardware I don’t use anymore. There are some nice aircraft aluminum models out there – so maybe someday :)

The painting itself, brushes and folding palette are clipped on with bulldog clips. (see up top). I bring a variety of sizes if clip to hold all the various brushes. (Brushes go handle down into the wire ‘arms’ of the clip, not under the clampy part).


This all might seem like a bit of the overkill – but I will say: try painting on your lap, when you have to juggle palette, brushes, water etc etc – and you’ll discover immediately that having all your tools to hand – without fumbling for things – is actually a basic requirement for making a good painting. You can’t work a bead of water if you have to dig around in your bag for brushes while it’s dripping down the page.

If you try out something similar, or know of some better accessories, send me some of your photos from the field. Maybe we can get Manfrotto to make purpose-built art gear. They can put them out in pretty colors instead of photographer black. (Not that you’d catch me with a magenta tripod :)


8 Comments leave one →
  1. linda denis permalink
    August 18, 2013 4:21 PM

    The Eric Michael advance series package was 154.95$ plus shipping by FedEx 144.47 total 299.42 , did not find out if shipping included custom duties.
    This package is an artist’s tool kit in a bag, ready to go.
    If you look on Canadian sites for Manfrotto 055xpro8 tripod, Vistek (Ontario) shipping, taxes 260.90$ or Simons (Quebec) shipping taxes 265.59$
    It is a close horse race except if someone knows a cheaper Canadian price.

  2. Reiko Michisaki permalink
    August 18, 2013 8:15 PM

    You need to attach a low weight to your tripod. I used to do this when I used my camera and tripod outdoors. I see from the photo it appears you have a backpack that you stash under your tripod. Try hanging the backpack from the center pole of your tripod, a bungee might help here too.


    • August 19, 2013 12:06 AM

      Very good advice! Also keeps your water etc. close at hand. And your camera in a safe place, should you be carting one of those.

  3. Jim Jensen permalink
    August 19, 2013 12:17 AM

    I was gonna suggest the same thing…
    have used a similar with a “spike in the ground and bungy cord

    • August 19, 2013 12:29 AM

      A spike would definitely do it for landscape painting – but for urban work half the time I’m on the sidewalk or in a parking lot :) good tip tho thx.

  4. August 19, 2013 5:58 PM

    Marc: The standard camera threading you speak of is a 1/4-20 size (US anyway, think it would be the same world wide). 1/4 inch post, 20 threads per inch. All camera tripods have a screw post that threads into a 1/4-20 threaded hole. These are on the bottom of every camera and are used on all the camera tripod stuff out there.

    A nifty little item called a T-nut can create such a 1/4-20 threaded hole for any DIY paper or sketchbook holder. These are available at about any hardware store or home improvement store. Basically, the T-nut has the internal threads but also has a flange that can be pressed into say, a piece of plywood, after you drill the required size hole for the T-nut. You need enough depth in your plywood to give you a flat plane for the T-nut to tripod interface but usually a small block of wood can be glued to the bottom of your plywood paper holder. So a nice light 1/4 inch piece of plywood, with a 3/4 inch block, with the hole made in it to receive the T-nut works great. T-nuts are very inexpensive so you could make one for quarter sheets for plein air work, another, larger one for studio work.

    I put a T-nut into the bottom of a cigar box and have adapted the lid of the cigar box to hold small Arches blocks and Moleskines. Another T nutted panel holds my Holbein WC palette, similar to your setup, on a Manfrotto tripod with the pivoting center shaft.

    The huge, online hardware source, McMaster Carr has a nice graphic of the T-nut. And, they are sold in metric sizes too!

    • August 19, 2013 6:46 PM

      That’s perfect supplementary info :) I was planning to make a small pochade box soon – that T-Nut is exactly what I need. Thanks!

  5. August 19, 2013 6:12 PM

    Marc, pictures are worth….

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