Tuesday, March 25, 2008

In praise of my sketching chairs

Me (in 1992) sat on
my first Phillips Folding Chair,
sketching the temples
Lake Bratan,
in the 
Bedugul area 
of north central Bali
This post is for anybody who is warming to the idea of sketching plein air this summer - or who'd like to be a bit more comfortable when they do so.

I've no idea why it has taken me well over two years to get round to writing a post in praise of my wonderful sketching chairs! ;)

Phillips De Luxe Folding Chair
I highly recommend my Phillips Folding Chair. It has a lightweight tubular aluminium frame and a very strong green Cordura canvas seat and back. It comes in two heights which means that I can sit comfortably despite the fact I'm very tall. I find the canvas back makes a huge difference to my overall comfort. The folding mechanism is also very easy to work once you've got used to the hinge which you can see at the back of the chair.

My second Phillips Chair at Walden Pond, Massachusetts (September 2006)

It has a killer combination of being both lightweight (3.3lbs) and very robust. In my experience, travelling around the world sketching and painting using two Phillips Chairs in the last 20 years or so, they 'travel' really well - albeit with some caveats (see notes below). I should explain that I only had to get the second as the first went AWOL after it was left behind on a luggage trolley by mistake at the end of a 26 hour flight! I immediately went straight out to buy another....which at the time was somewhat easier than it is now.

This chair may be totally brilliant, but experience suggests that anybody interested in getting hold of one also needs to know the following!
  • A Phillips De Luxe Folding Chair is not cheap but as with anything which is good quality it will last for years and years and is probably extremely economical in the long run. It's also very difficult to get hold of one. The only places that I know of that now list them are Green and Stone in Chelsea and Heaton Cooper. (The latter is currently listing them as not in stock as their supplier is having difficulty getting hold of them). You can get two seat heights 40.5 cm and 46cm but they tend to be similarly priced. Price depends on where you source it from - it's listed at £56.35 at Green and Stones - but do bear in mind that the material used is the same as that in top of the range endurance luggage.
  • This chair (and any chair for that matter) always has to go in the hold of the aircraft (which makes it an item of luggage). It also very often has to go to a separate desk to be checked in at airports. It's therefore advisable to allow a little extra time for drop-off and pick-up (or a lot of extra time at busy times of the year).
  • I've found that a very strong bungee cord is absolutely essential to hold it together while travelling. You need to make it completely taut. Check that the ends can go hook round the tubular aluminium structure.
  • It's also essential to label the chair very clearly with its own luggage label and destination address when travelling. My latest chair has now done many more miles than I have. I've never had any problems in Asia and Australasia - but in the USA I've found it tends to take a diversion to other destinations and only arrives at my intended destination about 24 hours after I do. I think the tubular metal frame (which is extremely robust) is what causes the problem and raises suspicions amongst airport security staff. It went AWOL on 3 out of 4 flights to and from the USA in 2006!!! However it was always delivered the next day to an address of my choosing.
Blacks compact camping chair

I have one other sketching chair which I picked up in Blacks. It's actually a compact folding camping chair (link removed as out of date). It has a strong steel frame and a polyester 'aerated' fabric seat and back and it is amazingly comfortable, especially for those of us who are finding slim hips a dim and distant memory. It even has a neat socket for drinks - which would work well for those using watercolours. However when wrapped in its carry bag, it's much heavier (3 kg / 6.6lb) and double the weight of my Phillips chair which completely rules it out for overseas trips. The carry bag is also not the easiest thing to sling over your shoulder while carrying the rest of the plein air gear. This is the one to take out in the car for trips in the UK. One big bonus is cheap at £14.99.

Lots of people have sketching stools - however I'm very tall and tend to find the vast majority of these to be way too low. I find them to be uncomfortable to use while sitting on them and they also render me completely unable to move after 'squatting' for too long. Personally I find discomfort of that sort really gets in the way of a good sketch or plein air pastel painting.

If you're travelling by car and not having to carry a seat too far then pretty much any folding chair will do - although I can vouch for the fact some are a LOT more comfortable than others! I do envy people who can stand painting for long periods but since my defective feet limit standing still to very short periods this really isn't an option for me.

When travelling in a town I opt for finding somewhere I can sit down - which partly accounts for lots of sketches of interiors of cafes which also offer that well known bonus of 'facilities'.

On my Art Equipment - Resources for Artists site, I've listed:
  • other folding chairs and stools for plein air work
  • bags, backpacks, totes and trollies
If you're thinking of doing more plein air work this summer or maybe even going on a painting trip or holiday you might want to take a peek.

If you've got a favourite sketching stool or chair why not leave a comment and tell us what it is and why you like it.


  1. Hi Katherine, I think I remember that your chair made it to North Carolina in 2006, didn't it? I use a Walkstool portable stool:

    It fits into the side pocket of my backpack/portable studio, folding up like a fold-up umbrella. It's very lightweight, easy to unfold and then pack away when you're through. The rubber caps on the legs can come off, though I'm sure there's something one could do to prevent that. I notice, from reading the info on the link above, that it comes in three sizes. I don't know what size I bought, but I am tall, too, so next time I'll pay more attention to size options.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I've never used a portable stool to take sketching with me. I tend to perch on whatever is available - often the ground - and yes, it gets harder to get up from there each year for some reason...

    Perhaps I'll need to look into investing in a little stool to take with me on my juants.

    By the way Katherine. I love that photo of you sketching in Bali. It has an almost 1930's feel to it, just beautiful. It would make THE most perfect drawing/painting. Hint hint...

  4. I'm like Jeanette that I often find something to perch on - otherwise I sit on the toolbox that holds my paints etc - it's a B&Q workmans toolbox

    well there are actually 2 of them - the biggest one has wheels at one end and a handle to pull it with. The other is a bit smaller and has legs. They are quite comfortable even though they have no back.

  5. I just love tales of the travels of our equipment. :) They get more adventure than we do I think! (and if there's something treated with more suspicion than a tubular chair I can assure you it's a telescope)

  6. I have one of those low level chairs they have on the continent (French beaches are full of them - I bought mine in the French supermarket 'Super U') but they are now starting to become available in the UK. They are very similar to the flat folding metal action type seen everywhere in the UK, but with short rather than long legs.
    The disadvantage is it is a little difficult to get down to and up from, but the advantages I have found are a low level view, being able to stick my legs out in front which is quite comfortable, it not being too far down when you inevitably drop things and having the ground to spread out your materials (and rest any water pot - or coffee cup! - you might use).
    (Katherine - please delete this next bit if the link is not helpful)
    There is a picture here just for illustration purposes - some versions have more support in the back. NB: this site or particular item is not a recommend!


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