How to Choose an Easel
by Kari Anderson
An artist comes to your store looking for an easel – one of the most basic tools he’ll ever buy. It seems like this will be a simple task until he finds out how many easels there are to choose from: studio, portable, tabletop, wall-mounted, cabinet, sketchbox, wooden, metal, adjustable…not to mention the possible features specific to each one. This simple task just got overwhelming.
That’s where you come in. Your job is to help your customers whittle down the choices until they’ve found the easel that will suit them best. By finding out how the artist intends to use his easel along with discovering any other special needs or requirements he may have, you can limit the field of choices dramatically. Here are some questions that will help you dig out that information.
What medium will you be using?
The medium used will determine what angle the easel needs to be able to adjust to. Oil painting is done on an upright surface so an artist can see if the oil is slipping. Watercolorists prefer a flat surface for washes. Pastel artists require an easel that will tilt forward so dust won’t trickle down onto their work. Some easels can adjust to all of these positions, but most can’t. Students, who are more likely to be working in a variety of media, need easels with more versatility.
How mobile do you need the easel to be?
Huge studio easels can weigh upwards of 300 pounds and are behemoths to move unless they’re on wheels. That may not be a big deal to someone who plans on keeping her easel in one spot, but for the artist who wants to take her easel outdoors or just put it away when she’s through, it’s important to have something that can be easily set up and taken down.
Easels designed for the outdoors should be rugged and portable. An artist may want one small enough to fit in a travel bag or one that folds into a box with straps or a handle. Some plein air easels have spikes that will help the legs dig into the ground – a handy feature on a windy day.
How large is the surface you’ll be working on?
An easel that’s going to hold a canvas that is 10 feet high has to be sturdy enough to stand up to the task. If the customer plans on using all sizes of canvas, the tray will have to be adjustable.
On the other end of the spectrum are artists who mainly work on small surfaces. If the canvas or paper is only 8 by 10 inches, a tabletop easel may be preferable to a floor-standing model.
Do you need user-friendly features?
Adjusting a tray with a large canvas on it takes some strength, so an artist may want an easel with a crank to easily raise and lower the tray.
Someone who has difficulty grasping (either because of arthritis or a disability) will want larger knobs that are more easily manipulated by weak hands.
What other conveniences are important to you?
These days you can get easels that come with drawers, doors, shelves, palettes, cups, lights, wheels, umbrellas and even vacuums. There are options that your customer probably isn’t even aware of, so clue him in. How he intends to use his easel will likely determine what conveniences are important to him.
Do you prefer metal or wood?
This is mainly a question of personal preference, but you can still give your customer some guidelines. For example, any wood will crack if it’s not oiled, and beech tends to crack more than oak. Metal easels are lightweight, won’t warp, and can be easily cleaned.
What kind of warranty do you want?
If your customer wants to be able to get a replacement part in the future, or send their easel in to be repaired without having to wait months for it to return, then this should be taken into consideration before the purchase is made. Some manufacturers guarantee replacement parts for five years, ten years or a lifetime, depending on the warranty.
Do you want to assemble it yourself?
Some vendors offer a choice between assembled easels or knocked-down versions. Your customer can save money by skipping the factory assembly and having the pieces shipped in a smaller container. However, the burden of assembly then falls on his shoulders, and if that’s not done well, it’s not a smart savings.
Not every customer who comes to you for an easel will use it to create art. Some are more interested in the presentation function an easel can perform. For easels that cross into this category, the uses are limitless. “Display easels are used at corporate meetings, restaurants, galleries, in homes and anywhere else you can think of,” says Greg Glebe, president of Xylem Design. “You could even use it at Billy’s graduation party to present his finished thesis.”
Because the function of a display easel is different, so are the features that are important. For example, a decorative easel that is used to display art in a home should complement the architecture and furnishings. For a gallery, the look of the easel should appeal to the clientele who shops there. The size and weight of whatever is placed on an easel are also important factors to consider, as the easel should be sturdy enough to hold whatever is placed on it and tall enough to show above the artwork (otherwise it will look like a picture with legs). If the customer plans to change what’s on the easel, then an adjustable shelf is a must.
Trends to watch
Shawn Richeson, vice president of Jack Richeson & Co., says he’s seen a change in the usability of easels in the last five years. “People want more multipurpose easels,” he says. “It used to be that artists would stick to one medium, be it oil, watercolor or pastel. Now I think more artists are crossing over in an attempt to please their customers. Multipurpose easels help them do that. They’re also more budget-friendly for people who can’t afford to buy several easels.”
“We’re selling more portable easels for plein air painting,” says Beverly Aiello, national sales manager for Testrite Instrument Co. “We’re also seeing a renewed interest in the longevity of easels, as artists search for products that will last for decades.”
Accessories are getting hotter, too. “No matter how big or sophisticated an easel is, it can’t do the whole job by itself,” says Brad Kasten, founder of Artisan Wood Designs. “An easel needs help to hold paint, brushes, canvas, paper, and all the other tools that are required for painting. Taborets and painting tables are popular tools that can be used alongside an easel.”
Some say that the biggest trend is no trends. “Easels have been around for thousands of years, so there’s little change in them,” says Roger Scheuer, national sales manager for Studio R.T.A. “The challenge for manufacturers is to come up with new looks and new features to get people interested.”
Crank up your sales
The manufacturers we spoke with offered some practical ideas for how to boost retail sales of easels.
Give your customers a choice. “Having a variety of price points makes customers feel like they have choices,” says Shawn Richeson. “Many retailers will just carry a French easel and a couple of classic studio easels because these are their meat and potatoes, but there are so many others to choose from! Customers have no idea how many options are out there.”
Spread easels around your store. “They don’t have to be in one spot like an easel graveyard,” points out Brad Kasten. “If you can, put a couple in the front, a few in the middle and some in the back of your store.”
Use easels to hold new products. “Easels can help show off your new brushes, paints or canvases,” continues Brad. “You’ll be promoting several products in one sleek setup.”
Show off any special features. “Set up each easel how it would look in a studio, and integrate other products in a way that will make it clear what the features are,” adds Brad.
Keep some display easels in stock. “Sure, you can have customers order from a catalog and just do drop-ship orders, but that reduces impulse buying and means your sales people have to work harder to sell the products,” notes Greg Glebe.
Put display easels in your framing department. “Decorative easels are about presentation, so they fit better with frames. An innovative selection (from wrought iron to rustic, log easels) will attract interest,” adds Greg.
Helping customers choose the right easel for their needs is a considerable task and requires extra time and effort on the part of your sales staff. “Hundreds, even thousands of hours will be spent in front of this easel,” comments Brad Kasten. “The better they work, the more an artist can focus on creating art instead of tinkering with her equipment. But if she has a beautiful as well as functional easel that actually inspires her to paint, then all the better.”