Skteching Stools and other Paraphernalia

by Vanessa Whinney

Any artist who paints outside will be familiar with the challenges. First there is the weather which can be friend or foe. The more dramatic the better, as some of our most iconic artists have demonstrated – Turner and Van Gogh to mention but two. But rain, wind and cold are decidedly not conducive to the more modest sketcher.

Less familiar are the vagaries of the sketching stool. I have accumulated quite a few over the years, some of which have let me down spectacularly. A perfectly normal picnic chair suddenly collapsed completely flat with me inside, equipment scattering, creating an amusing spectacle to my peers. It turns out it was faulty, but try convincing the others my bulk had not had some influence. On the last day of a French painting holiday my stalwart stool decided to give up the ghost, catapulting me off into the dust of Provence, again a hilarious sight to those close by. I invested in two low stools made of canvas, but the stitching was suspect and both eventually expired at inconvenient times, letting me down far from gently. I now keep a spare in the boot in case...

My artist father always sat in a very low deck chair, which meant all his equipment was to hand on a rug beside him, including of course his trusty thermos. I decided I would try this, and indeed it works well, one’s bent knees providing a useful easel. The trouble is, after sitting there a while, getting up is decidedly difficult, and you are required to do porpoise rolls and undignified crab walks to attain normal height.

A place to put your paintbox, brushes etc is an issue even when sitting comfortably. The ground is great, but only if you can reach it. Whether sitting or standing, one requires a platform or table. Only too soon, you get to the stage where you’re carrying more than you can cope with. Some of my more practical (mostly male) artist friends have modified their easels with Heath Robinson-like attachments which are most impressive. One veteran even has his umbrella fixed at just the right angle to shade him from the sun.

Easels set a whole different series of traps. In our local life group at 10A, barely a week passes in which someone’s easel collapses dramatically, scattering charcoal and chalk. The portable ones have retractable legs, and unless you screw these very tight (difficult with arthritic fingers) the legs will retract themselves, at first unnoticed, but suddenly your entire work slides into the arms of your neighbour with a cacophonous clatter which startles the dozing model.

Outdoors, the view can sometime demand a precarious position during which your easel’s legs may decide to sink sideways into oozing mud. That happened to me beside the river Thames once, when not just the easel but the stool also sank.