An easel is an upright support used for displaying and/or fixing something resting upon it, at an angle of about 20° to the vertical. In particular easels are traditionally used by painters to support a painting while they work on it, normally standing up, and are also sometimes used to display finished paintings. Artists' easels are still typically made of wood to functional designs that have changed little for centuries, if not millennia, though new materials and designs are now available.
Easel painting is a term in art history for the type of mid-size painting that would have been painted on an easel, as opposed to a fresco wall-painting or miniature that would have been created sitting at a desk, though perhaps also on an angled support. It does not refer to the method of display after creation; in fact most easel paintings are intended to be displayed framed and hanging on a wall.
The word is an old Germanic synonym for donkey (compare similar semantics). In various languages, its equivalent is the only word for both animal and apparatus, such as Esel in Afrikaans and earlier ezel in Dutch (the easel generally in full schildersezel, 'painter's donkey'), themselves cognates of the Latin Asinus (Ass).
Easels are known to have been in use since the time of the ancient Egyptians. In the 1st century, Pliny the Elder makes reference to a large panel placed upon an easel.
There are three common designs for easels:
- Tripod designs are based on three legs. Variations include crossbars to make the easel more stable and an independent mechanism to allow for the vertical adjustment of the working plane without sacrificing the stability of the three legs of the easel.
- H-Frame designs are based on right angles. All posts are generally parallel to each other with the base of the easel being rectangular. The main portion of the easel consists of two vertical posts with a horizontal crossbar support, thus giving the design the general shape of an "H." Variations include additions that allow the easel's angle with respect to the ground to be adjusted.*
- Multiple Purpose design incorporates improved tripod and H frame features with extra multiple adjustment capabilities that include finite rotational, horizontal and vertical adjustment of the working plane. Four extendible armatures securely lock a canvas or drawing board to the easel, thus allowing any part of a painting to be instantly repositioned at any height or angle whilst painting. This includes bringing the working area directly underneath the brush or pen hand. The front and all four sides of a canvas are untouched by the easel. The easel folds down instantly to a compact size. While painting, it can be moved without the canvas falling off. This ergonomic design removes the physical pain and discomforts experienced when using traditional A or H frame easels and with improved brush control. Consequently, an artist can work faster with no loss of quality and can experiment with different mediums and techniques while achieving noticeable improvement in their paintings. This easel design allows for it to be used in a studio, outdoors or for display.
- Artist easel – Typically are fully adjustable to accommodate for different angles. Most have built-in anti-skid plates on the feet to prevent sliding. They are collapsible and overall very slim in stature to fit in small spaces around the studio.
- Paint station – Meant as a more stationary console. These are usually equipped with various holsters, slots and supporting platforms to accommodate for buckets, brushes and canvas styles. Most of the components can be broken down for easy cleaning and storage.
- Children's easel – Intended to be more durable. Typically shorter than standard easels and usually come equipped with dry erase boards and/or chalkboards attached.
- Display easel – These are for display purposes and are meant to enhance the presentation of a painting.
- Facilitation easel – These are for capturing audience or participant input and are meant to involve the participants with the content.
- Darkroom easel - to keep the photographic paper in flat or upright (horizontal big size enlarging) position to the enlarger.
It is most often used to hold up a painter's canvas or large sketchbook while the artist is working or to hold a completed painting for exhibition. The simplest form of an artist's easel, a tripod, consists of three vertical posts joined at one end. A pivoting mechanism allows the centremost post to pivot away from the other two, forming a tripod. The two non-pivoting posts have a horizontal cross member on which the canvas is placed. A similar model is fit to hold a blackboard, projection surface, placard, et cetera. An easel can be full-height, designed for standing by itself on the floor. Shorter easels can also be designed for use on a table. Easels are typically made from wood, aluminum or steel.
There are three common usages for easels:
- Studio easels are meant for use in the artist's studio with limited need for the easel to be portable. Studio easels may be simple in design or very complex including winches, multiple masts and casters. The largest easels are studio easels with some being able to support weights of over 200 lb. and panels over 7 feet in height.
- Field easels are meant to be portable and for the creation of en plein air work. These easels are usually mid-sized or small, have telescopic or collapsible legs and are based on the tripod design. French box easels include a compartment in which to store art supplies conveniently along with a handle or straps so that the French box may be carried like a briefcase or a backpack.
- Display easels are meant for the display of finished works. These easels tend to be very simple in design with less concern for the stability needed by a working artist. Display easels can vary in size and sturdiness depending upon the weight and size of the object to be placed on them.
- Facilitation easels hold large pads of paper and include trays for holding markers of varying colors
- Mini easels are similar in design to display easels but scaled down to accommodate photos or flyers
- Darkroom easels to hold the photographic paper perfectly flat during exposure. Some easels are designed with adjustable overlapping flat steel "blades" to crop the image on the paper to the desired size while keeping an unexposed white border about the image.
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