When painting with acrylic and especially oils it’s very common to use an easel. It’s better for your posture and helps you with a bit larger paintings, as you don’t have to lean over the entire painting when adding details. Does this apply to watercolor as well?
80% of the time, you shouldn’t use a french easel when painting with watercolor, as the water will run down the paper especially when using larger amounts. It can be helpful for adding details at the end though. You can use a tabletop easel at a 20° angle in the rest of the painting process to support your posture.
Here’s the reason a french easel will frustrate you
For clarification purposes, a french easel is the classic, standing easel that you’ve got in your head when thinking of an easel.
As you know, it’s very common to use larger amounts of water when painting with watercolor.
Often you even find yourself putting little puddles of water on the painting to help you paint a gradient.
You can easily do that when painting on a flat surface like a table, as that water won’t move unless you make it and just dry up leaving the color pigments behind.
When using a french easel, the water and those little puddles will just run down the paper and ruin your entire painting.
Especially in the beginning stages of a painting, when you get those first colors and shadows set, you would have a lot of struggles with an easel.
When is the right time to use an easel?
As I said in the first paragraph, there is a time and place for a french easel. Just not in the beginning where you apply large amounts of paint and water on your painting.
It is quite helpful when adding details and painting small areas though. Once you get to the point of the painting where you can use a tiny brush and small amounts of water, an easel will be of great help.
It makes sure that you’re either sitting or standing upright and helps you with reaching those tiny areas that you have to pay extra attention to.
As you won’t be using large amounts of water, you probably shouldn’t have a problem with it running down either.
An easel can also be very helpful when painting large scale paintings. You won’t have to bend over your paper like you have to when painting on a desk.
Still, I would only recommend you to use a french easel when working on small areas and details, for the reason listed above.
What kind of easel should you use?
I’d recommend a table top easel or just a table with an adjustable board on top, like an architect would have.
It’s an in-between solution between a flat desk and a french easel.
You get a slight angle which makes sure your neck doesn’t hurt after multiple hours of painting every day.
I would suggest using a 10-20° angle for such an easel/desk.
That would make sure to help your neck and prevent water running down the paper. But I would still recommend using a flat surface for when you use very large amounts of water to get a gradient right, as even a 10° angle could be enough to ruin your work.
How to make sure your painting stays on the easel
It’s very important to make sure your painting is safe while standing/hanging/laying on the easel, as it could ruin your painting if it fell down mid-process.
To make sure your painting is secure you could for one use masking tape and tape down the edges. That’s something I would generally recommend even if you’re just painting on a desk.
Another possibility would be clamps to clamp your painting to the easel. You have to be careful with that though.
You should definitely put another small piece of paper between the paper you paint on and the clamp in order to protect your painting from the clamp.
I personally prefer clamps as they are safer than masking tape which can lose its stickiness over time.
If you want to be 100% sure to keep your painting protected, just use both!
Essential tips on using an easel
After you’re finished painting I would definitely recommend putting the painting down. As mentioned before, you’d would run the risk of your watercolor running down the painting while drying.
Also I would recommend a little table next to the easel to place your paints, brushes and water on. Otherwise you’d have to place it on the floor and you’d have to bend down all the time, so just invest a few bucks into a camping table that you can easily store.
A big advantage of an easel would be the fact that you can just step back a bit every now and then to take a look from a distance.
This helps immensely when trying to get proportions right, as you might get lost in your artwork over time.
Most of the time you’ll be far less frustrated when just using a flat surface, like your desk to paint, as you won’t have a problem with water running down the paper. In specific cases like painting details and smaller areas it can be helpful though. A tabletop easel at a 10-20° angle can be a great compromise as it provides a bit of an angle but makes sure the water mostly stays in place. Use either masking tape or a clamp to secure your painting on the easel.