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A Guide To Pochade Boxes And Plein Air Easels: 12 Pitfalls To Watch Out For Before Buying 1

A Guide To Pochade Boxes And Plein Air Easels: 12 Pitfalls To Watch Out For Before Buying

Why I wrote this guide?

I wrote this guide to help my students who were considering buying a pochade box or a plein air easel. Pochade boxes and plein air easels are quite expensive, particularly when you add up all the accessories you need. Over the years I have probably bought about 20 easels most of which I don’t use now and that are just taking up space in my studio.

So I wrote this guide to help you ask the right questions, and avoid making the same mistakes I did. Hopefully my advice on buying pochade boxes will save you a lot of money!

I wrote the comparison charts on a pochade box and easel that would support at least a 11×14 size panel and palette. Where the manufacturer did not provide this size, I used the nearest size.

What are your choices for pochade boxes or painting easels?

If you want to paint outside, or ‘plein air’, you need the maximum usability but with the minimum weight. Today there are a lot of choices for plein air painters, so choosing the right equipment is very difficult. It is only after you have been using your equipment for several months that you start to discover the problems. In my quest for the ‘perfect’ system over the course of twenty years of plein air painting, I have bought about 20 different easel systems. And spent several thousands of dollars in the process. Most of these easels and pochade boxes are now taking up space on the shelves in my studio. So this is what I have learnt……

There are now many different types of pochade boxes to choose from, as well as plein air easels. In this article I list all known choices. However if you are considering buying a pochade box, there are alternative systems for plein air painting that might well be better for you. I have included all of these pochade box alternative systems in this guide.

There are seven different broad categories of plein air equipment in terms of easels and pochades. Here are your choices.

Tripod-mounted systems

These systems rely on a camera tripod to support your painting and palette.

Pochade Boxes

Open Box M Pochade Box
Open M Pochade Box
new wave art u. go plein air pochade box
new wave art u. go plein air pochade box

Palette Boxes and Panel Supports

Palette Boxes and Panel Supports are systems with a separate box for your palette that rests on two tripod legs , and an arm for holding your painting that attaches to the tripod with a camera screw.

A Guide To Pochade Boxes And Plein Air Easels: 12 Pitfalls To Watch Out For Before Buying 2
Daytripper Plein Air Easel

Box-type plein air easels with integrated legs

These systems have three or four legs that fold out from under a box.

Compact French Easels

Compact French Easels are smaller versions of the traditional French Easel.

half-french easel
Half-French easel

Russian Easels

Russian Easels – a lighter style of easel compared with a French Easel. These used to be distributed in the US, but are no longer sold. You can sometimes buy them second-hand.


Yarka russian easel
Yarka Russian Easel

Aluminium Box Plein Air Easels

Aluminium Box Easels are similar to the French Easel concept but lighter, since they are made from modern materials rather than wood.

Soltek Easel
Soltek Easel

Tripod plein air easels

These systems use a regular wooden tripod for supporting both the palette and the painting.

Gloucester Easels

Gloucester Easels are a tripod easel systems modeled on a traditional early 20th New England design built in wood.

Take It Easel
The TakeIt Easel

Aluminum Easels

Aluminum Easels are easels designed for painting (and sometimes drawing) made of aluminium. Some have separate attachments for hooking on a palette.

Bristol Aluminium Sketching Easel
Bristol Aluminium Sketching Easel

7 key questions to ask when choosing a pochade box

The factors

There are eight factors you need to consider when choosing a pochade box or easel system.

  1. Your height (short/tall): To be able to draw accurately, you need to have your canvas or painting panel at about eye level. If it is too low you will have problems with your drawing. This is particularly critical if you are painting any subject in which perspective is important. Some easel systems will not work for tall people because the maximum height to which you can raise the panel is too low. I ran into this problem with a few systems I bought.
  2. Your Strength: (strong/weak) If you are strong and used to carrying weights, then you can trade off a little weight for other features. In the table at the bottom of this article I have estimated the weight of all the components you need to make each a fully working system. That includes any additional palettes, tripods, or essential trays.
  3. Palette size (large/small): If you want to become truly expert in mixing beautiful color harmonies, a large palette is essential. You will feel very constrained if the palette is too small. If the palette has side trays that is awkward to use. A major metric for evaluating a pochade box is the ratio of weight to paint mixing area.
  4. Arm comfort (high/low): With some (if not all) pochade boxes you need to have the palette quite high, almost as high as your painting panel. If you paint standing up (which is the recommended way of painting plein air if you are able), this can make your arm quite tired after a while. Or you end up putting your painting below eye height which I do not recommend because it causes drawing problems. Other systems allow for a long distance between the palette and your canvas of painting panel. This allows for a more natural painting position in which your arm is lower.
  5. Canvas size (large/small): Some people like to paint very large outdoors. If this is the case you need to choose an easel system that will accommodate large canvases.
  6. Robustness (robust/breakable): The strength of an easel system relates to both price and weight. The lighter the system, the more likely it is to break. The better made easels and pochade boxes are sometimes more expensive. If you are traveling to remote places you need to consider what happens if your system breaks? Can you fix the box using simple and widely available materials?
  7. Wind (fair weather/foul weather): When you are painting in a location with a very strong wind, if you have not chosen wisely, you won’t be able to paint and could lose a great painting opportunity. Some of these systems have a center of gravity to one side and can easily blow over.

What you don’t need

There are two features that vendors promote that in fact are not important, and should be ignored:

Storage area for paint tubes

Some pochades and box easel systems have a place to store your paints and brushes.

Recommendation:
Put your paint tubes, palette knives, and brushes in a cloth bag, or brush bag. A cloth bag will adjust to any size and is extremely lightweight.

These storage areas all add weight to your plein air system and are not as flexible or as light as a cloth bag.

Three problems

  1. The extra wood needed adds weight to the system.
  2. They often will not fit all the the paint tubes you need.
  3. Your brushes may be too long for the box.

Storage area for your panels

Many pochades and box easel systems also have a place to store your panels.

Recommendation: There are much better and more flexible alternative systems for carrying wet panels. (see wet panel carriers in the Materials & Equipment books on the Online Campus)

A Guide To Pochade Boxes And Plein Air Easels: 12 Pitfalls To Watch Out For Before Buying 5

Five problems

  1. They usually only accommodate one or two panel sizes at the most. This reduces your flexibility for the panel size you can paint.
  2. They sometimes only take 1/8″ panels, and many home made panels are thicker than this.
  3. The gaps between the slots may be too narrow. This is a problem if you paint with thick impasto paint.
  4. Thin slots can be also be a problem on panels that have warped, or on loose linen that buckles in the heat: the paint surfaces will touch each other and your painting will be ruined.
  5. There are much lighter systems for carrying wet panels (see my books on Materials and Equipment)

Pochade watch outs

There are a few design problems with some pochade boxes you need to look out for:

Gap between palette and lid

What is the gap between the palette and the lid? If you have thick piles of paint, will it get squashed between the palette and the lid?

Tip: If you are looking for a lightweight system my advice is do not carry paint tubes with you. Squeeze out lots of oil paint onto your palette. Put out enough paint for a whole day’s painting and only carry a tube of white with you. This cuts down on a lot of weight.

A Guide To Pochade Boxes And Plein Air Easels: 12 Pitfalls To Watch Out For Before Buying 6
palette box systems solve this problem by dividing the lip thickness between the palette and the lid. This lets you store much more paint
A Guide To Pochade Boxes And Plein Air Easels: 12 Pitfalls To Watch Out For Before Buying 7
large or medium piles of paint will not fit between the lid and palette
pochade box depth
generous depth of lid holds plenty of paint, but lid interferes with palette access a little

Tip: If you still have paint left over at the end of the day, you can protect your paint from drying using one of the systems I describe in Materials & Equipment unit 8 eBook.

Bar obstructing palette

Is there a bar in front of the palette? A wide bar at the front of the palette gets in your way when mixing paint on the palette.

Tip: Look for a low lip.

A Guide To Pochade Boxes And Plein Air Easels: 12 Pitfalls To Watch Out For Before Buying 8
high lip at the front gets in the way of you accessing the palette
A Guide To Pochade Boxes And Plein Air Easels: 12 Pitfalls To Watch Out For Before Buying 7
narrow lip does not get in the way of your palette

Panel support obstructing view of painting

Does the panel holder obstruct the painting? On small paintings in particular, having the panel obstructed can be very annoying. Not only do some panel holders physically obstruct the painting surface, but they can throw shadows on it too.

Tip: some systems have screws for small panels, plus bars to hold larger or thicker paintings.

The panel holder on the right (Daytripper plein air easel) has a very nice system that does not obstruct the painting surface at all. The Open Box M also has a system that is also very unobtrusive.

A Guide To Pochade Boxes And Plein Air Easels: 12 Pitfalls To Watch Out For Before Buying 10
Panel support obstructs edges of painting and throws shadow on it
A Guide To Pochade Boxes And Plein Air Easels: 12 Pitfalls To Watch Out For Before Buying 11
panel support system leaves painting area unobstructed

Making the decision

Here is a table to help you make a decision, together with information on which pochade boxes and plein air easel I am currently using:

Decision table for choosing a pochade box or plein air easel

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Palette area to system weight efficiency

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Weight comparison table for pochade boxes & plein air easels

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