En plein air is the French saying meaning ‘open in full air’ and has become a well-known phrase for the act of painting outdoors.
Painting outside is one of the most enjoyable ways to get creative, no matter how skilled you are as an artist. This all sounds lovely, but the truth is you’ll need a quality easel if you’re going to be standing or sitting outdoors for long periods.
Unfortunately, there is a surplus of equipment that is too heavy to carry around or very pricey. To help you out, we’ve found some of the most durable, affordable, and portable easels out there.
Of course, there are a few things you should consider before buying any design.
Here I will explain the different types of easels, which ones suit different painting styles, various prices to suit all budget needs, and my overall pick for the best.
At a Glance – Our Choice of the Best Plein Air Easels On the Market
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- Buyer’s Guide – Key Considerations
- Best Plein Air Easels – Product Round-up & Reviews
- So, Which Should I Buy?
Buyer’s Guide – Key Considerations
There are three main types of plein air easel:
- Tripod-mounted – Use a separate, metal camera tripod to hold the canvas panel and the paint palette
- Box type with integrated legs – Have extendable legs that fold out from the underside of a box that you can store materials inside
- Built-in tripod-mounted – Use a wooden tripod system to support the palette and canvas
Plein air easels vary in sizes, which in turn affects the size of canvas they can support. For this reason, it’s good to consider the maximum length and width of the canvas a particular plein air easel can hold, so you get what you require for your paintings.
The last thing we want to carry while walking our chosen creative space is bulky, heavy equipment. For this reason, you should consider the easel’s weight, size, and portability. A lot of modern designs have built-in legs and compartments that can fold down into a smaller carry size, whereas others require a separate tripod stand which has its own setup instructions.
If you want your plein air easel to withstand the outdoors, you’ll need something that can take a fair amount of knocks and weathering. This can be harder to figure out than you think, as a lot of lighter woods, like birch are great for transporting but are easily damaged. Overall, it’s best to handle your easel with care and choose a tough, lightweight material, such as aluminum.
A lot of plein air easels come with a built-in palette to place your paints in. The most robust types are made from glass and are also the easiest to clean. That said, you can get good quality plastic palettes too. These are often less expensive and lighter weight than glass. The downside is that synthetic varieties are a little harder to clean than glass palettes.
Plein air easels can be made from a variety of materials. Birchwood is lightweight but won’t be durable enough to withstand heavy use or being knocked around. Oak, on the other hand, is more robust, but more weighty and expensive. There’s also the option of plastic, which is usually affordable, but prone to cracking around joints. Tripod stands are often made from metal, which is robust and sturdy but can add a fair amount of extra weight to your carry load.
Best Plein Air Easels – Product Round-up & Reviews
Sienna Plein Air CT-PB-0910
The Plein Air CT-PB’s best aspect has to be its versatility. Here, Sienna have included smart canvas holders, which can support both panel canvases and stretched canvases. You can also adjust the height of the holders and the lid angle arm using the two, durable, easy-grip star knobs. This allows you to lay the lid down entirely if you want to create watercolor paintings. Just remember, the maximum height of canvas you can use here is 15”.
The Plein Air CT-PB can fold up into a smaller unit and is crafted from a mixture of poplar, birch, and maple, which makes it relatively lightweight, yet tough enough to be used outside. Sienna have also used an eye-catching cherry stain lacquer on the wood to enhance and protect its natural grain. The only issue here is the wood isn’t as durable as metal or plastic easels. That said, the Plein Air CT-PB does have a tripod mounting plate, but you’ll have to buy a tough, metal tripod separately.
Overall, we’d recommend the Plein Air CT-PB for beginner artists thanks to it’s simple folding and adjustment mechanism. Just remember, it may not withstand horrible weather or being knocked around, due to being partly crafted from birch. So you’ll need to be careful while you transport it.
- Portable – Easy to fold away and lightweight
- Adjustable – The lid angle and canvas holders can be adjusted to meet your needs
- Comes with an easy-clean, glass palette and brush storage area
- Doesn’t come with a tripod mount, so you’ll need to buy one separately
- Birchwood construction can be less durable than other materials
- Canvas support holders can obstruct some of your painting area
En Plein Air Pro Professional Series
This next design is a little pricey, but you certainly get some high-quality features for your money. The Plein Air Pro’s best aspect has to be its portability, weighing in at 3lbs. This is mostly thanks to the use of sturdy, lightweight aluminum making up the frame and the ABS palette and shelving construction.
For your dollar, the manufacturers have also included a sturdy tripod stand that can achieve a wide stance for total stability while you paint. One important thing to be aware of, however, is that the Plein Air Pro is designed to work best with 16”x 12” canvases, although it can support smaller 6”x 8” varieties.
Included in the package is an abrasion-resistant palette, along with two storage shelves and a thick, weatherproof PVC cover to protect your easel. The palette itself is effortless to clean and has a built-in value scale to help with color mixing. As well as this, the entire mechanism is spacious yet easy to fold away and adjustable to meet your artistic needs.
Overall, we’d recommend the Plein Air Pro to any artists that want plenty of space on their palette to work with and versatility. It’ll also suit anyone who loves to take their easel on an adventure! The sturdy, lightweight design and the protective case will keep your equipment safe wherever you go.
- Durable – The use of aluminum and ABS material makes the Plein Air Pro tough enough to withstand weathering and knocks
- Quality palette – The palette features a value scale and is easy to wipe clean after use
- Portable – The construction is easy to fold away and lightweight, making it easy to carry around
- Price – You have to pay a little extra for this high-end equipment
- Large workspace – This isn’t an issue, but some artists like their space a little more compact
- Slide-out shelving is a little thin and wobbly
Guerrilla Painter Pochade Box
Next up is the Pochade box by Guerrilla Painter. The best feature here has to be the storage space. Here you get three large compartments underneath the palette, which helps to organize your brushes and paints. The palette itself provides plenty of room to experiment with mixing colors, but you get the option of purchasing palette extensions, too, for even more workspace.
Just be aware that the lid can hold canvases or watercolor blocks that are a maximum of 9”x 12” in size. So is best suited to artists that paint on a smaller scale or in studios with limited space. That said, the Guerrilla Painter easel can support canvases up to 20” by using the tie-down strap to hold the material against the lid. This can, however, throw the balance off a little and make painting a little unstable.
The lid itself can be adjusted up to 180 degrees to lie flat, which is excellent news for watercolor enthusiasts. Any finished paintings can also be stored inside the lid, which is protected from the other contents during transport. The downside is that the basswood laminate construction is not very protective or durable. So this easel will not stand up to knocks, bangs, or weathering and is best used at home.
- Plenty of storage space – There are three compartments underneath the palette to store your materials
- Adjustable – The lid can flip down 180 degrees if you want to paint using watercolors
- Small – Can easily fit into small home studios and can collapse down
- Basswood laminate construction is weak and damaged easily
- Doesn’t include a tripod, so you’ll have to purchase one separately
- Only provides adequate support to canvases up to 12”x 9” in size
Creative Mark Cezanne Half Box
Cezanne Half Box by Creative Mark mimics the famous Mabef French Easel on a smaller scale. The best aspect here has to be the overall aesthetic. The manufacturers have oil stained the natural Elm and Beechwood easel and storage containers, as well as including brass plated hardware and linen shoulder straps, for a truly rustic look.
The Cezanne Half Box is different from the other plein air easels we’ve mentioned so far, in that it has built-in legs, rather than a removable tripod stand. This means the whole item weighs 10lbs, which is a little more than most. But, that said, it can support canvases that are up to 32” in height and will collapse down to fit a carry case that measures 20” by 6.75” when you need to transport it.
In terms of storage, the easel features a self-contained, box draw, with dividers to help organize your art supplies. The only downside we’ve found is that the wooden legs occasionally slip on uneven surfaces, and the wingnuts tend to become loose over time. But that’s nothing you can’t tighten up with the right tools!
Overall, we’d recommend this to anyone wanting an authentic-looking, French-style plein air easel. The stained wood and quality brass plates are beautiful. That said, you’ll need to protect this design from cold or wet weather conditions that could warp the wood over time.
- Looks great – The oil-stained Elm and Beechwood look beautiful
- Can support larger canvases up to 32” in height
- Plenty of storage for your art materials
- Built-in legs occasionally slip on uneven surfaces
- Wingnuts become loose after a few uses
- Heavy – The Cezanne Half Box is heavier than most plein air easels we’ve mentioned
US Art Supply Coronado French Style Easel
When anyone thinks of painting on an easel, the French style is the shape a lot of people would imagine. It’s an extremely popular choice and for good reason; this particular frame is made of hand-sanded beechwood, which makes it capable of supporting a canvas up to 34” and is quite sturdy.
The Coronado easel has a drawer and shoulder strap making it ideal for anyone wanting to paint outdoors. It also folds up to a nice size with a handle and weighs approximately 15 pounds; the Coronado easel is perfect even for beginners.
- Strong and sturdy wood
- Extends for taller painters
- Folded dimensions perfect for portability
- Maybe a bit more money than a beginner would pay
- Wood can dry out quicker (you can use linseed oil to help this)
- Weight is a little heavier than others out there
Let’s take a look at this product…
Tri-C Aluminium Field Easel
This lightweight easel is a great portable tool for any painter wishing for plein air. It is extraordinarily light and easy to fold up (it comes with a carry case), meaning anyone can grab and go. For those on a tight budget wishing for low priced, portable easels, this is your new best friend.
- Can hold canvases up to 32” inches
- Adjustable tripod legs for uneven terrain
- Doesn’t have the traditional painting aesthetic
- No storage drawers
- Hard to clamp on taller canvases
Let’s take a look at this product…
Martin Jullian Classic-Style Wooden French Sketch Box
This is another French-style easel with a little more oomph than the Coronado, but you do pay almost twice extra. The wood is made with elmwood, with brass and brass plated hardware, meaning you will get a quality built easel which can stand the test of wind and temperamental weather.
There is an exclusive Jullian locking system on the metal drawers, adding extra safety and durability. The synthetic leather strap, handle and carry case all give this easel the extra special care you would want in a quality easel.
- Classic French style is always a winner
- Durable wood and excellent finish
- Carry case, handle, light easel is good for portability
- More expensive than the Coronado French style
- Slightly heavier at 13.8 pounds
- Minor final assembly (this isn’t much of a downside though really!)
So, Which Should I Buy?
When it comes to choosing the best plein air easel, there’s no right or wrong choice. It simply depends on your artistic needs.
For example, if you plan on traveling a lot, across all sorts of terrain, you’d benefit from using the Plein Air Pro Professional. This is the most durable of all the designs we’ve reviewed and offers plenty of workspace, but the bad side is that it’s also the most pricey.
On the other hand, if you’re shopping on a budget or are a beginner, then go for either the Guerilla Painter or the Sienna Plein Air CT-PB-0910. Both are easy to use and affordable. Just remember, neither include a tripod stand, so you’ll still need to purchase one separately.
Perhaps you’re looking for an easel with a little style? If so, then the Cezanne Half Box will not disappoint. The designers here have tried hard to replicate the original Mabef French easel and included some classy, oil-stained Elm and Beechwood.