For centuries artists have been working on an easel. But why is that? And should you be working on an easel too?
The short answer is: yes, you should! 🙂 It really is important to work on an easel and in my online art classes I always recommend to use an easel. But why is that? Let me give you three reasons why you should work on an easel.
Easels have been used by artists for centuries. It is believed that easels were already used by the ancient Egyptians, and in the 1st century Roman scholar Pliny the Elder mentioned a “large panel” that was placed upon an easel.
Easels come in various types, and in a future blogpost I’ll discuss the differences between them. But what they all have in common, is that they are a structure onto which you can place your canvas or paper.
Now, when you first start working on an easel, it may feel a bit strange. From a young age we’ve learned to draw or paint with our paper flat on a table, so it takes a bit of time and practice to get used to working with your paper upright. It may be awkward in the beginning. You may feel a bit insecure and experience a lack of support for your hand, because you don’t rest it upon a table. But it is worth the effort. Why? Let me give you three reasons.
1. To see your work at the right viewing angle
Most artworks are meant to be viewed in an upright position, hanging on a wall. That’s why it’s important to create our art with the paper or canvas in an upright position as well, so that the viewing angle isn’t distorted.
If we work with our paper flat on a table, the viewing angle changes. This also changes the perspective. We all know that things which are further away, look smaller than things that are close by. This principle also applies to our paper when it’s lying flat on a table. The objects that we draw at the top part of the paper – which is further away from us – will look just slightly smaller than the objects that we draw at the bottom part of the paper. Unconsciously we will compensate this by drawing the objects at the top of the paper just a bit bigger.
As long as we are drawing and keeping the paper flat, it may look perfectly fine. But when we’re finished and we hold the paper in an upright position, the drawing may seem wonky and top-heavy.
When we draw with our paper upright on an easel, our viewing angle is less distorted because we can see most of the artwork just looking straight ahead. This makes it a lot easier to keep the proportions and measurements right.
Now, this distortion effect is subtle and also depends on the size of your paper. The bigger the paper, the bigger the difference in perspective, and therefore the more likely that your measurements will be off. But the principle always applies.
I remember really well when I discovered this for myself in practice. I had just started out drawing portraits, and I was working with my paper flat on the table. I never thought of using an easel – I kind of felt that easels were for ‘real artists’, not when you are just drawing for fun. So I had been working on my portrait for some time, and I was really happy with how it was going. And then when it was ready, I held my paper upright to take a look at the final portrait… And it looked totally wonky. The top part of the head looked strange, too big, while the lower part of the head seemed to be too small. I hadn’t noticed that at all when my paper was flat on the table. But then I realized my viewing angle had been distorted. So that was the last time I have been making portraits with my paper flat on the table. After that I’ve always been working on an easel.
This is especially important for artworks where measurements and proportions come into play, like portraits. When we want to draw and paint faces, it’s key to have the measurements and proportions right. Otherwise the face will look wonky or unbalanced. That’s why in my in-depth portrait class Drawing in the Soul we spend a lot of time working on the proportions for various face directions (front face, profile face, and three-quarter face). And therefore, when creating portraits, it’s really better to work on an easel. So that you have your work in the right viewing angle and see it in the right perspective.
Now, there are situations in which you can’t work with your paper in an upright position. For example when you’re working with very fluid mediums, like watercolor paint. In those cases you’ll just have to put your paper in an angle as straight as possible, maybe even just slightly upright. Every now and then you can stand up and look at your work from the top down, or hold your paper upright, to check the proportions. But if possible, I really recommend that you work on an easel.
2. To have more freedom of movement
Another reason why it is so important to work on an easel, is that it gives you more freedom of movement. When you draw with your paper flat, you rest your hand or wrist onto the table. That way your movements are more restricted than when you work at an easel, where you can move your whole hand and even your arm to make your marks and strokes. And that is especially important if you want to draw in an expressive or loose style.
When you work standing at an easel, it’s also easier to move around and to take a step back every now and then. It’s good to view your work from a further distance, because it helps to get a good overview and to see your work with ‘fresh eyes’.
Now, if you’re not able to stand for long times on your feet, you can also sit down in front of your easel. Make sure that your easel can be lowered, so that you have your work at the right hight in front of you and you don’t have to tilt your head.
Another option is to use a table easel. A table easel is an easel that you can place on your table and it will hold your paper upright just like a regular easel. Even though you don’t have the advantage of being able to move around, you still have your paper at the right viewing angle and you can move your hand and arm better than when you have your paper flat on the table. Table easels are also usually not very expensive, so if a big easel is too much for your budget then you can also choose to work with a table easel.
3. To keep a good posture
Lastly it’s good to work on an easel because it gives you a better posture. If you work with your paper flat on a table, chances are that you are leaning over your drawing. After a while that posture can cause a lot of tension in your neck and shoulder muscles, which in turn can lead to headaches and pain the neck, shoulders and even your back. It’s much better to stand upright at an easel, so you can keep your head and neck straight up while you’re working.
So these are 3 reasons why it’s important to work on an easel. And how about you? Do you work on an easel? Why, or why not? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Let me know in a comment below!