I recently heard from a painter who would really like to work outside, but cannot currently afford the pricey easel systems sold in art supply stores. I think it is a shame that she feels hindered by her situation, so I wanted to share a few ideas I have for alternatives to expensive easels.
I am going to tell you about a couple of projects that are relatively easy to do and can work almost as well the French Easel, Open M Box, Easyl, Soltek Easel, etc., all of which cost up to many hundreds of dollars to purchase new.
I have made myself a small pochade out of an old cigar box I picked up at a local tobaccanist for free. All you have to do is ask nicely - they will cost you a few dollars at the most. I hammered in a nut that has teeth at the bottom of the box (some glue is not a bad idea as well to ensure it stays put) so I can attach it to my tripod. If you already have a tripod, this could be a really cheap way to go.
If not, tripods can usually be had for as little as $30. Take your tripod to the hardware store and tell them what you want to do - they will help you find what you need fast. You are then able to prop or clamp a small canvas or board in the box and either hold your palette, or do what I did and cut up an old paint stick to prop up a small board to serve as a palette in the box. I also glued in small pieces of wood (cut from a piece of wood that came with the cigar box) in the lid to hold the palette down when the box is shut, so you don't have to clean off the palette until you get home. The down side of this is that the palette is pretty teeny. It also takes quite awhile to work out where to position all the little pieces of wood and to cut them up in the correct sizes.
I also glued a piece of wood (which actually came with the cigar box for some reason) on the back of the lower box to keep the lid propped open. Depending on the depth of your box, you may even be able to fit some tubes of paint under the palette and a brush or two that has been sawed off. You may come up with a better solution - let me know if you do!
A second idea is to simply use a piece of 12" x 16" hardboard (to which I glued a 2 1/2" square of 3/8" board after drilling a hole in it) and then I glued in a nut that the tripod can screw into. I simply clamp my painting panel, which can be any size less than 12" x 16", with sturdy clamps and I can paint a variety of sizes. I am not even remotely handy, but I found these projects fun to figure out and easy to accomplish so I think even the worst handyman or woman can do it. And, of course, there are always friends with tools to ask for a favour - maybe you can do a painting for them in return!