I have always eyed Jospeh Zbukvic's easel with envy. I love how it opens up and allows him to use the drawer as a shelf to place his brushes and palette on it.
I have this old french easel which I don't like because it places the open drawer between me and the painting. For me to get close to the paper, I have to strain my back and lean over the drawer. Whether I sit or stand, that posture is hard on my back and does not allow me the freedom of motion or to be expressive with my brush strokes. Not a good idea.
The same is true for pochade boxes. The box opens with the paper far away from me and the tray right in the middle of things. Again not a good design for watercolors. Having the palette sit between me and the paper, and having the paper sit just about an inch from the colours just does not work for watercolors. Our brushes are short and we do like to touch the paper. Our paints get wet, and in close proximity to the paper accidents are bound to happen.
Pochade and French easels where designed for oil painters. When I paint in oil, I open my pochade at 160 degrees so that the paints are sitting on almost the same slant as my board or canvas. That allows me a closer approach to the painting surface, but with watercolours, I need to have my paints on a level.
So after studying Joseph's easel for a while, I finally figured out a way to fix my French easel. I removed the top completely leaving behind the legs, base and drawers. I then made a new top that opened sideways and allowed the drawer to be pulled to my right (I am right handed but you can switch that if you are left handed). I made the top flat with a thin shelf to hold my block, or board with taped paper and even built a hook for a water can and a place for my umbrella to sit in. I took it out for a test run last week and it works like a charm.
Here is my fix for the French Easel. I hope you enjoy it!