View Full Version : (Alla Prima) Pochade vs. Heilman (vs. French Easel?)

learning to paint
04-19-2015, 01:08 AM
My 15-year old French easel is entering its final era. Iíve done a bunch of research. Please provide any input you can:

1. Iíve heard and read a fair number of concerns about the now-made-in-China Jullian easels. I have enjoyed the half box, but it does tend to crack, requires some TLCóand thatís the apparently superior made-in-France version. Perhaps the MABEF (opinions), but Iím guessing this is not the way I will go. Letís call that my $250 option.

2. I love the design of the Alla Prima Pochade 10x12, and it doesnít seem too expensive (about $125 more than the Jullian, but when I amortize that over five or ten yearsÖ) But Iíve never used a pochade on an easel before. Whatís it like, and how does it feel in comparison with the sketch box? Letís call this my $350 option (plus tripod, which I may have on hand).

3. Everyone seems to use a Heilman, but Iím not wild about the scrawny-looking easel post popping out of the sketch box. I feel as though I want something more substantial, and perhaps not directly above the whole pastel collection (yes, I see the dust collector). If you have this box, howís it working for you? This seems to be a $300 option. Plus tripod (which I may have on hand).

I looked at Soltek, but I donít love the design and Iím concerned that they havenít updated their website in something like five years. I donít love the Anderson workmanship. Iím not a fan of Guerrilla Painter, not for my main setup. Otherwise, Iím not seeing a lot of good options, so Iím thinking itís going to be either Alla Prima Bitteroot (10x12) or Heilman (medium, or backpack).

Please share your experiences, opinions, etc.

I should probably mention that I love doing plein air work, that I usually work either 9x12 or 10x16, and that get out about 5-10 times each year. Iím not a pro, but I take it seriously, and I really enjoy being dusty.


04-19-2015, 03:56 PM
From your description it sounds like the middle budget option would work best. Or the Soltek, which is like my Andersen but metal and maybe lighter and sturdier. I had a second hand Andersen that I loved, it seemed sturdy enough for me and did have a rocks bag. What I liked best was not having to reach over the sketchbox but have it turned to the side while painting. I have no trouble setting up the Andersen and I used it indoors for months, which is very heavy use for something intended to be packed up for trips and then taken down and put away.

I did like the Soltek but that and the Heilman were more money than I had to spend. The quite inexpensive option might be the Dakota tripod easel with arms and large Traveller with its ten sections that lays open on it, but that does mean reaching over the pastels to paint.

I haven't heard any complaints about the Heilman skinny easel attachment from folks with Heilmans. But if you don't want to reach across the pastels, the Soltek would be what to go with. Or the pochade I suppose. I love the idea of pochades and am very tempted to get one someday because it'd be great to have something that compact with a light weight tripod.

I have to sit while painting and have short arms so that had a lot to do with my choices, a small pochade I might just keep in my lap. I've got a rollator that makes a good seat and a featherlight field easel that I can put a drawing board on, so that's another option for you - sketch board and relatively inexpensive lightweight easel and a small pochade that would sit on its own support separate from the easel. For me that's in my lap as I sit, which is why a small pochade would be a good idea.

04-19-2015, 04:57 PM
One thing you might want to consider is how you use your plein air set up or may want to use it. Are you going to be traveling by air? Going to locations far from your car? How many pastels do you need (want?) to carry with you?

Mabef: I have a 15 year old Mabef and it has held up very well with minimal maintenance. The new ones are still made of beechwood and in Italy so I assume their quality is still good. Mabef has them on their website for $188 including shipping. You already know the advantages and disadvantages of a french easel. I'm tired of lugging all that weight around especially because I use my French easel with a Heilman backpacker box. This is not a lightweight set up. And if I take it to class it takes up a LOT of room. So I've just changed my set up to:

Hellman box with Heilman easel: The backpacker box holds a large number of pastels and as I'm sure you've read is very well made. I recently bought the Heilman easel to add to my box. I was hesitant because I read conflicting reviews here at wet canvas on its stability. But I finally decided to take the plunge and bought the medium sized easel. And it was crazy loose when it arrived. But after a few emails with John Heilman I learned I could just pull the legs apart a bit more and presto! no more jiggling. I've been using this on a table and it works great. A piece of aluminum foil along the bottom edge of the easel keeps the dust out of my pastels. I like that I can use it sitting down at at table or standing up when placed on a tripod.

For taking it outside I bought the easel attachment that allows you to put your tripod's quick release plate onto the easel. so instead of putting my Heilman box on the tripod I'll put the easel on the tripod. And then use an Easel butler to hold the box beneath the easel. This keeps the heavy weight of the box off the tripod head. The weather is just breaking here so I haven't used it yet. But I like that I now have a set up that easily fits in a medium sized backpack and that I can carry easily and can easily travel with. It also only takes about 2 minutes to be completely set up.

Alla prima: I have a smaller (8 x 10) Alla Prima box I use for oil painting. Wonderful box. Beautifully made and again set up is a minute or two and easy to carry. I haven't used it for pastels. I know he made a specially designed one for someone on wet canvas for pastels but I don't think he continued to make them. In this case I would consider how many pastels you want to carry and if they'll fit easily into the box. I could easily place a small box of pastels on top of my Alla prima and use it for pastels but I'd probably want more for other than quick sketches. But again I have the smaller box.

All of your alternatives are good ones but the question is which one is right for you taking into account the relative cost of each and how you want to use it?

Good Luck!

learning to paint
04-19-2015, 08:59 PM
Hey, thanks for the detailed input.

I went out today with my ailing half box (2 c-clamps, 1 pressure clamp, 1 wedge, but it worked fine). Of all things, I found someone else doing some art work (never happens where I go), and she was using an Alla Prima box (never saw one in person). I also did my best to observe my own working habits.

Alla Prima: She had the Yellowstone, and it was a lot smaller than I thought it would be. She had removed the drawers because the whole box was too heavy. The back part (which holds the canvas) was surprisingly wobbly. When she used soft brush strokes, it didnít move much. But when she applied any pressure at all, it moved backwards. She told me that this has been true since the box was new, and that she now mindlessly holds the back panel with one hand while painting with the other. Since pastels probably involve more, and more consistent pressure than a brush, I am a little concerned. Still, the box is very pretty, very nicely fitted, wonderful in its craftsmanship. But it resembled a pochade more than a sketch box (perhaps without the drawers)ósomehow, I thought it was less of a pochade, more of a fuller sketch box with a larger upright area of painting. Her 11x14 seemed kinda small, and Iím thinking about one thatís 12x10. She was also carrying the wet canvas in a separate holder because the wet canvas chamber was not as firm or tight as she wished. I wonder whether her box requires some TLC from Alla Prima, or whether this is normal wear-and-tear.

Sketch Box easel: So here I am, schlepping a small camping table, a backpack filled with two boxes of half pastels and supplies, and a half box easel. Iím managing, walking from the parking lot to a site. Not bad, at least for short distances. I set up, and notice that tend to place one of the larger boxes on the back of the easel drawer area, away from the dust and away from the drawing. The other pastels go on a table, or sometimes, on an Easel Butler. Most of the time I work with full arm extended and bent a bit, so I could work across a foot or so of pastels in front of me. But then, I notice that I do go in close. When I am drawing or painting details, I get close, maybe a few inches from the ground surface. When I found myself doing that, I thought, hey, maybe I ought to be thinking more seriously about another sketch box.

I suspect I am ruling out Heilman because itís another reach-across solution, and because I am really happy with my full cardboard boxes (from the stores, reinforced sometimes because they have lasted for years). I also love my L.L. Bean backpack for carrying stuff because (1) I can carry it on my back, and (2) my particular backpack weighs very, very little.

So maybe I am zeroing in on a replacement sketch box easel, with four basic designs:
- Half box (great weight, maybe a bit less stability?) OR full box (heavy, for me)
- Jullian Original (15 years service from one easel is good) OR MABEF (maybe Jullian made in China is not the Jullian that provided the service)

Thoughts, ideas?

04-19-2015, 09:41 PM
The alla prima is definitely a pochade box. Mine is really small. I haven't had any of the difficulties your companion has experienced with mine.

If your concerns are about "reaching across" the Heilman are that it's a long reach, I have much less of a reach to the Heilman easel than I did on my French easel. I like that part a lot better. Here's a picture of someone using the easel on a backpack size.


It's hard to decide exactly what will be the best solution for you. so many choices. I decided my priorities were to travel lighter , everything in just one bag, and have an easy peasy set up - so that drove my decisions. I'm even wondering if I could be happy with the sketchbook double Heilman!

04-20-2015, 11:41 AM
I finally bought a medium Heilman, after going through a French Mistress, using manufacturers' boxes, a Soltek, and a Roz Bag.

I have been using an American Tourister little rolling case for carrying all my supplies; the Heilman easel fits and sticks out the top, as does the photo easel for when I don't have a table handy. I use a bunji cord and strap the Heilman box to the handles. This rolls well and is pretty concise, although I am not trying to roll it over expansive places outdoors. I prefer sitting down, and have a tripod stool for that, which is easy to carry.

The Heilman filled is pretty heavy, but it is manageable. The Soltek is impossible when full; I even noticed the oil painters use it minimally to carry stuff. Reaching across the Soltek is a long distance.

The Heilman easel itself is awkward to me; I had inquired here about it, as I felt it would be awkward, others said it wasn't, but I do find it awkward. I suspect you will, too. It isn't too far to reach, but I find it hinders my use and easy pick up of the pastels beyond it. Still yet, the Heiman system is the best of all the options I have explored. And I prefer painting small and on my lap anyway.

Indoors, I tried using the Heilman Medium on my Mabef Field Tripod and found it too heavy for it, with too much weight on one side. Because the arms can't go but so far apart, you can't put the legs far apart for additional stability.

I cannot imagine a painting butler thing to handle a full Heilman Medium either, so I doubt I will go that route, unless I get a much smaller Heilman.

As it is, this box is my go to box, painting inside or out, and I don't have that many pastels (maybe some 1/3s) that I don't store in there.

Barbara WC
04-20-2015, 12:19 PM
I have tried various systems, wish I had a photo of my current system which works well, but alas, I don't...

I had tried a setup using a double sketchbox Heilman box, and LOVE the box, but the metal easel extension on a tripod... well, didnt' like that at all. The easel is well made, but it isn't very stable and it is akward to use. It also sits over the Heilman box and blocks about 1/4" of the sketchbox behind the easel...

Tried an MABF field easel with pastel box arm extention... hated that too...

What I ended up with that works very well for me: an easel from Jerry's Artarama: http://www.jerrysartarama.com/discount-art-supplies/easels/travel-and-outdoor-easels/feather-easels/feather-pro-art-and-photo-easel.htm

Fitted with an "Easel Butler". http://www.easelbutler.com/

I ended up purchasing the Small Dakota travel box for this setup, just because it is a bit narrower than the Heilman backpacker. And, I didn't need the drill holes in the Heilman for the easel extension, nor did I need the tripod fitted plate. However, the Heilman is a little better made than the Dakota box, but the Dakota traveller serves me well enough- the one feature it doesn't have, wish it did, was a hook and eye like on the Heilman to keep the box open so it doesn't accidently close. Maybe I"ll add one, now that I think about it. The little Heilman double sketchbox also fits well on the Easel Butler.

I attend weekly portrait/figure sessions, and this setup works well for me. Stable, easy to setup, but best of all, lightweight. The easel weighs 3.5 pounds, the Easel Butler about the weight of a bananna, and my Dakota pastel box weighs about 6 lbs with pastels in it.

You can check the easel butler site, and there is a video of someone setting up the easel butler on the easel that I use. (I inquired about what easel it was, and that's how I found out about the easel). And yes, it is that easy to setup.... http://www.easelbutler.com/max-in-motion.html On the same page, Diane Ponting shows how to attach a Roz Box onto the same easel and the Easel butler.

I was afraid this system wouldn't be as sturdy as say a wood Julian easel, but I have been very happy with it. I am setup before people with Julian easels can setup around me... The easel has some cheap plastic parts, and could be improved, but the price is great (I may buy a second one to have on hand). Not that it's going to fall apart anytime soon, but sometimes I'm a little hard on equipment...

I'll try to get a photo of my setup tomorrow at portrait session. I don't usually take photos there because we aren't allowed to photograph the model, but perhaps I'll be able to take one before the model arrives...

04-20-2015, 12:41 PM
I use the Heilman mounted on a tripod with the easel attachment. Most people Iíve seen in various workshops are using the same setup. Or, are using the Heilman sitting on top of either a French easel or a Soltek. The backpack model is the most popular size for PA. Yes itís heavy and yes itís expensive. But it does a better job of storing\protecting your sticks than anything else Iíve run across.

04-21-2015, 02:00 PM
I just saw this article with pictures on some well know pastel artists and their plein air setups. Don't know it helps but it's fun to see what others use:


Looks like the June edition of Pastel Journal has a complete article on the subject.

05-10-2015, 10:57 AM
Nobody has mentioned that you don't have to reach across an easel butler - you can mount it on the side. I have the Featherlight Pro easel, the butler on my right side, and a small clamp on tray table available from photography sites on which I place a small box holding the pastels I'm using on the front left. Sometimes I don't even put the butler on, just choose my sticks and place them on the clamp on tray, leaving the big box on the ground. That keeps me committed to my palette :lol: Easy peasy. Love the Featherlight - carry handle, 3.5 lbs, 16 inches. & I got it on sale for $39.99!

05-11-2015, 01:09 AM
That sounds very cool, do yo have a link to the clamp on tray table? I never saw anything like that but I have a lightweight easel like that and it would rock to use it when I'm outside. Where to hold the pastels is tricky.

05-11-2015, 09:07 AM
I don't, Robert, but I found in on Amazon when I was looking for alternatives to the easel butler. Probably any good photo gear site like B&H or Beach has it too. I also bought the larger Guerrilla Painter mast to hold larger boards - it screws into the ball on the Featherlight, which also functions like a tripod - but I found it to be too wiggly to suit me.

05-11-2015, 12:33 PM
I have 2 Alla Prima boxes- the Yellowstone 11x14 and the Belly River 6x8, with the extensions for both. The back of my Yellowstone is not wobbly at all, but the box is heavy, that is true. My Yellowstone has held up very well over the years and I have no complaints. The extension holds panels to size 14x18. Ben does make a Yellowstone light without the drawers.

I cannot say enough good things about these boxes, everything about them is fantastic.

05-11-2015, 01:09 PM
Actually clicked the link and got a good look at the Easel Butler. That might work with the tripod lightweight easel I have. It's elegant and pretty simple, I'd just need to be sure to have a pastel box wide enough for both like the Girault box or Ludwigs box or something. Or a piece of foam board to set smaller boxes on.

05-13-2015, 04:01 AM
You might want to check out K.I.S.S. Innovations website of the same name. They have a set of 2 wooden arms that attach to the 1/2 box on a French easel. They have some specialized clamps that hold quite well. I use 2 sets with a 1/2 box French easel and they hold my lg. Dakota box quite well. Reaching over the box is really not an issue for me. I find it much less distracting that turning to a table then back to the painting dozens of times! I also use some bunji cords as an extra protection, to keep the box from sliding off the box.So far, so good!

Michele Nemier
09-07-2016, 09:43 PM
I am looking for some ideas how to retrofit a MAYBEF half French easel for use with soft pastels. I took the liner out and need to find a way to organize pastels in the easel box and keep them from moving around or breaking. I saved all my old pastel boxes with the foam inserts, but can't seem to find ones that actually fits into the easel, except for MT Vision 25 count boxes which I can fit two but stacked. I really don't want to buy a pastel Pochade box or a separate carry pastel box. I would like to use the drawer as my palette, and also hold some odds and ends. Any ideas where to find pastel inserts for a half French, or a DIY project for making my own setup? I'm using mostly Rembrandt pastels, a few Mt vision and some other brands in quarter sticks and half sticks to get a fairly painterly palette with 4 to 5 values of each color. Unfortunately the folding painting palette needs to be in place to keep the drawer closed or I need to find an alternative that is pastel friendly without stowing much while sketching.I need to fly with this in the near future. I would like the easel to be all in one and simple, safe for my pastels, and without much added equipment. Any ideas? I like my backpack easel for other painting mediums, but it's not the best for carrying pastels. There use to be interchangeable boxes for the half French, but I haven't seen them in a long time. Anybody out there use a half French set up for pastels? I would love some feedback. Thanks

09-11-2016, 04:31 PM
Has anybody tried this set-up? (mini tripod) It looks pretty good.


Granny - can't find the website you're talking about. I get either a medical equipment co in Oregon or else weird pictures of Gene Simmons....

09-12-2016, 03:18 PM
I have both the Heilman sketchbox and backpacker and I like them both. I have the large and the small easel attachment.

I also have the Dakota set up with the mini field easel with both the small and large Dakota boxes. I like it, but can never seem to fold the easel up small again. It is a bit more to get it set up, but it is sturdy and i have used it many times for plein air work. I find I prefer to use a piece of foamboard to attach my panels too so that I have access to the entire panel while painting. I do wish it had a hook like the Heilman does so that it would be a bit more stable and I wouldn't have to worry about it collapsing closed while I work.

I now have my Dakota mini field easel set up in my studio as an extra work easel and I am very pleased with it.

Either solution is not a big reach to your working surface, and I am quite small at 5feet with short arms and i have never had a problem