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Friday, October 3, 2014

Caution: Artists at Work

Artists Sketching in the White Mountains, 1868, Winslow Homer
The easel comes within
an inch of the ceiling
Many years ago, one of my adult students told of a fellow student, advanced in years, who went into an art supply store and asked for a weasel. She told the clerk her instructor had suggested she get a weasel to improve her work. She had no idea what a weasel might be, she only knew she needed one. Of course, neither did the clerk. In further talking with the lady, he finally discerned that what she was in the market for was an easel, whereupon the ambitious young salesman showed her about five different kinds. He so overwhelmed poor lady she left the store without buying anything at all. My own first easel came as a Christmas present (1958), a wooden paintbox with brushes, oils, turpentine, etc. and a single nine by twelve-inch canvas board which fit neatly into slotted holding mechanism in the lid. To say the least, it was a highly unsatisfactory easel. I still utilize the paintbox to hold my seldom-used watercolors, but only once (and very briefly at that) did I ever try using the "easel." 
A paintbox with legs.

Today, I paint on a large, H-frame easel made of wood mounted on casters (small wheels). It was so tall (above, left) when I got it, I had to cut off the top so it wouldn't rub against the low ceiling of my basement studio. It's getting a little contrary in its old age, but then again, so am I. It's a far cry from its two predecessors, both aluminum tripods with telescoping legs. They inexpensively served their purpose at the time but I eventually came to hate both of them. In exploring the lives and studios of famous painters the past several years, I'm often amazed at the "contraptions" some of them have utilized in producing their work. Some seem downright ingenious, others weren't far removed from the so-called easel in my paint box lid. I wonder if their users didn't find them as impractical as I did. Some watercolorists seem to like them, but I would most charitably describe them as paintboxes with legs (right).
Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of a Wood, 1885, John Singer Sargent,
Kite flying anyone?
There's no record as to what the first easels looked like, though it's believed the ancient Egyptians had some such device. The Roman philosopher Pliney the Elder, writing in the first century A.D. made reference to a panel placed upon an easel. The word seems to be a derivation of the German schildersezel or "painter's donkey." I've had some that were as obstinate as a donkey. My guess is that early easels probably resembled my own present day version, though not as adjustable nor mobile. The best clue as to the nature of early easels can be seen in what came off those easels--self-portraits of the artists at work. Most fall into two basic types, already mentioned above, the H-frame and the tripod. Some appear to be a combination of the two. Once artist began painting a lot outdoors (above), they became more portable, more fragile, and no doubt more frustrating, given the fact that a canvas attached to a tripod easel is a cross between a house of cards and a kite (above, left).
A Studio in the Batignolles, 1870, Henri Fantin-Latour--Gustave Courbet at work.
Allegory of Painting, 1665, Jan Vermeer
From all indications, van Gogh used a tripod, even when painting inside. The Dutch painter, Jan Vermeer appears to prefer a combination of the tripod and the H-frame in his 1665 Allegory of Painting (left), while that famous amateur artist, Winston Churchill (below), preferred a proper British H-frame. Gustave Courbet's easel is so totally obscured by the massive size of his canvas in Henri Fantin-Latour's 1870 A Studio in the Batignolles (above) that it's hard to tell his preference, but any canvas that big would have had to be mounted on an H-frame. Courbet's friend, Gustav Callibotte in an 1880s self-portrait, seems to be painting at a less common I-frame easel, and one tilted toward him at that (perhaps to reduce glare). From the same era, Claude Monet, at least when painting outdoors (which was most of the time), used the tripod type. However, Winslow Homer, in his 1868 Artists Sketching in the White Mountains (top) suggests that one in three artists even out-of-doors, used a lightweight H-frame easel (perhaps less aerodynamic).
Sir Winston Churchill's easel seems to be a modified H-frame.
Interior with Easel, 1926,
Pablo Picasso
The Human Condition, 1933,
Rene Magritte.
Pablo Picasso no doubt had several easels, probably several different kinds of easels as well, but his 1926 Cubist Interior with Easel (above, right) shows a combination type. Rene Magritte, in his 1933 The Human-Condition (above, left), depicts a rather flimsy looking tripod, but then that may be a reference to the rather flimsy "condition" of life itself. In more recent times, Grandma Moses (below, left) appears to have preferred...well, her lap. And, while not known primarily as a painter, Jacqueline Kennedy (below, right) can be seen painting at a cheap, tripod, display easel while her daughter, in the background, daubs away at a much sturdier "table" type. And for the artist who has everything, I found several outlets featuring the ultimate painter's easel (bottom) made of plywood selling for around $1,000.

Grandma (Mary Robertson) Moses
--easel? What easel?
Jackie at her easel (around $15.00).
The painting, priceless.
The thousand dollar easel, an ideal gift for the artist who has everything.


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