Only the most essential art materials for a long trip
I am about embark on a six month’s trip sailing through the remote islands of Fiji and need to figure out what art materials to take with me on our boat. I’ve been in my studio almost every day for over a year, and the idea of not being able to get whatever I need at a moment’s notice is making me PANIC! I want to do one artwork every day so my task was to determine what are the absolutely essential art supplies that will last me through the six months, but are portable, compact, versatile, and light.
“A range of colours and drawing materials in different materials, some soft, some hard, some waxy, some permanent, some smudgy, some opaque some transparent, some large, some delicate, some wet some dry…. “
Since this was such a challenging task, I set out to practice. I have spent three months trialling and refining this pack, so what I cover here are items that have produced artwork for me that is infinitely versatile and deeply satisfying, creating many different effects and combinations, styles and ways of capturing the beauty around me. A boat has to carry only the most important items, so most importantly, I am taking only the essential, but the essential that is portable, compact and light.
In the end I was so happy with my kit, I felt it valuable to share with my art class and they loved it so much, I realised this was useful to others. If someone had given me this knowledge before I set out, I would have saved a lot of time. This blog is to save you time, to pass on what I have learned, to ‘share the love! And please feel free to share this with anyone you know who has a love of nature, journeying and drawing.
Before I dive in, I need to say I live in Australia, so many of the things I mention I have found in Sydney. I have put links to online sites where I can, and most equivalents or substitutes can be found in most countries.
What backpack carries everything I need for plein air
The first thing I did was to find a backpack that fits everything I need, but most importantly, it fits an art board that is large enough for a 12 x 18 inch piece of paper. I do a lot of plein air pastel work (See my next blog for more detail on what I pack in my plein air pastel kit) so I can easily fit this sized paper onto this board. It fits neatly in this pack and also provides a backbone for the rest of the materials in the pack. I got this at an army supply shop for $35. It’s a special size, so make sure get the shop to find exactly what you need. It fits everything I need, and it’s light enough to walk a couple of kilometres or more to find a great spot.
What art materials do I take and why?
Below is a list of materials that I have experimented which bring me the most variety in effects and mark making, provide the greatest number of options to draw, paint and sketch, and keeps me interested over a sustained period
- Oil Pastels and Coloured Wax Crayons
- Water based inks and ink dispensers
- Watercolours and Gouache
- Palettes, pans and watertight palette
- Paint brushes and paint brush holder
- Drawing Materials Kit
- Alphabet stamp
- Sun hat, Cool Cabana and Water
- Ground Sheet and inflatable seat
Oil Pastels and Coloured Wax Crayons
Two materials I never thought I would use again after art school are oil pastels and wax crayons. I know many serious artists love them already, but until now I never understood their real value. I have discovered they are a wonderful way of making really thick creamy marks – you can layer them up, or dig into them with a pencil, or scratch into them with a palette knife. But the most exciting thing is when you use a water based medium on top of the pastel marks. The oil pastel repels the water based medium so you can get some fantastic and surprising effects.
And a similar effect can be had with these coloured pencils. If you use some of the lighter colours on light paper, you don’t really know what you are drawing until you run some water-based ink or water colour over the top and get this lovely resistant effect. So you can draw branches or squiggly things with a light cream pencil, like a blind contour drawing, and wash over in a stormy grey watercolour, for example, and get some lovely effects of branches against a stormy sky.
Water based inks and ink dispensers
I’ve been using a water-based ink made by Robert Oster that I have found at Dymocks, George Street Sydney, which is handmade in Australia and comes in a myriad of colours. (If you go to the Dymocks shop you can drool over all the colours they have behind the counter.) Being water based means they don’t dry hard like an acrylic. Using these Fineline bottles filled with water-based inks, you can drip a line along a concertina sketchbook, let it dry, and then reactivate it later with a brush full of water.
These containers are water tight and make a fine line, so you can draw as you would an ink pen, then later wash into them with a brush. If you use acrylic inks, the needle stops them from clogging. They are water tight but you have to screw the top on tight!
Watercolours and Gouache
You don’t really need to bring gouache if you have watercolours, as you can just mix white gouache with watercolours to get the opacity of gouache, but since I have tubes of gouache, I take them, and I love them. Watercolours I carry are tubes of QOR, which are high pigment and come in small tubes. I also use Daniel Smith watercolour sticks – also very high quality and come in to-die-for colours (such as Moonglow), but not cheap. But because you can buy a stick, chop off what you need, and share the cost and other half with a friend, they are more cost effective than you think.
I also use a highly pigmented stackable watercolour set that is found in many craft supply as well as art supply shops. They are intense colours, almost like an ink, are loads of fun, and very practical. They are called Koh I Noor and are made in the Czeck Republic. You can get sets of 12, 24, and 48.
They are so practical that Jo Bertini says she has been walking along with a herd of camels, a Koh I Noor watercolour stack on her arm, and painted while she walked! (Great podcast with her on Talking with Painters).
Palettes, pans and watertight mixing palette
When I chop watercolour sticks into small chunks I place them in water colour pansand stick them with Blue Tak into a practical plastic box I bought at Muji. When I pack them up after using them, I put a piece of bubble wrap on top before closing the lid to keep the colours from mixing with each other.
After much research for a palette that I could travel with, I found this palette online on Amazon. It’s been one of the best things I bought. It’s watertight, it has a white mixing palette in the middle, which pulls out so you have twice as much mixing area. You can see colour you are mixing clearly, and it doesn’t stain. And there is a lot of real estate for all your colours.
It’s got a rubber seal around the edge, so this means you can squeeze all your gouaches and watercolours around the edge, mix your colours in the middle, but seal it up when you are finished. If you use tubes, the colours will stay creamy, but it doesn’t matter if they don’t. If they dry out, you can just reactivate them as you would any hard watercolour.
It also means if I have mixed some lovely muddy colours, I can let it dry a little bit in the sun, close it up, and reactivate the colour later. To be extra sure that I don’t dribble colour everywhere I do put it in a zip plastic bag like this.
Paint brushes and paint brush holder
The brushes I take are my favourite brushes. There is something about going out with your favourite brushes that is important. Most of the brushes I take are made for watercolour or gouache, soft sable or imitation sable. If I use water-based media I never have to worry if a little bit is left in, I just wash it out again with water when I next use it. I take at least one hog bristle brush so if I ever want to use PVA and collage I can, but I make sure to wash it very thoroughly before putting it away.
To protect them, I found this lovely brush kit for about six dollars at Parker’s, which holds all the brushes I want to take, and protects the ends from being misshapen. You can also make your own and I’ve seen some really lovely handmade ones.
Drawing Materials Kit
Along with these sets of colours I have a kit full of drawing materials:
Glue stick, eraser and penknife – I never go without glue so I can just stick things together. A pen knife is really handy to cut erasers and if you are erasing back into things.Palette knife to scratch into oil pastels.
Pencil and Wolff’s Carbon – I love Wolff’s carbon. There’s something lovely about it because works like charcoal, but when you activate it with water it works like ink. It’s a deep black. I bring pencil, charcoal and white highlighter.
Bamboo ink pens – you can buy at most art shops and they are not expensive.
Watercolour brushes – you can find these at most stationary or art shops. You unscrew them and fill them up with water, and have instant watercolour brush. when you then take the lid off and squeeze it, water comes out the end, and Voila! you can activate your watercolours.
You can also put ink in them, bearing in mind if you do use acrylic ink, it will harden the tip if you’re not careful. I’ve ruined a few of these that way, so I’ve bought a black pen ink from Dymock’s that is water soluble.
Posca Pens- These are acrylic paint pens and the only way I use acrylic paint when I am travelling light. I have a selection of colours which I have tried to reduce, but in the end I brought all of them, because they are a lot of fun and I always think I am going to need that colour. The colours I use the most are a beige, white, light yellow, and icy blue for highlights. Apple Green, blues, greys, purple, brown, red, orange.
Alphabet stamps are heaps of fun to document dates, add variety, signpost drawings. I have fallen in love with this very tiny alphabet stamp, which I found on Etsy. There are many different sizes to chose from, so search around.
I found a good sketchbook that works for me at Parkers, which is heavy weight, archival, spiral bound, and in between sizes A4 and A5, which works perfectly for me. They seem to be just the right size – and because they lay flat, you can work well on them. If you cut the page between the spiral, you can insert and take out pages as you wish.
However, with a traditional sketchbook, if you use wet media, you have to wait for it to dry to close them up or move on to another page. That’s why I have fallen in love with the concertina. I make my own and this is the subject of my next Blog (see here). The advantage of a concertina is that if you are fast worker like me, you can work across it, you can let one area dry and move across to another. I am a landscape painter, so concertinas have a natural horizon as well.
Sun hat, Cool Cabana and water
A Sun hat is very important, especially if you want to stay out for hours and don’t want sun stroke. But don’t make the mistake I did of getting a big straw Indonesian hat, because it banged into my knapsack. Get a hat that is flexible and squishes at the back – and get something that ties on, for the wind, that you don’t care about getting something on it, so you can just chuck it in the wash afterwards.
When I go out for hours, sometimes I will take an umbrella, and this year I am trying out a Cool Cabana, which is all the rage in Australia. There is always a lot of wind and sun near the coasts where we sail, and I like to stay out for hours if I’m doing a worked-up pastel. And I always bring an apron if I care about what I’m wearing or just to feel I can wipe my hands on it, a full water bottle, and container with rag.
Ground Sheet and inflatable seat
One of the most important things I have found is a ground sheet, but instead of a heavy plastic one, I got a paint drop cloth from Bunnings. I keep this on the top of my pack so I can pull it out first, and then put everything else on top of that. If the sand is wet, or there is dew on the grass, I can get really cold and I don’t stay out as long as I want to, so I like to keep myself dry with a drop cloth.
Oh, and this is something my husband bought me which he found at a camping shop which is fabulous. It’s a semi self-inflating seat for sitting on when the ground is hard or cold. I blow it up and put it on the ground sheet. Perfect!
So that’s it. That’s my kit. I’m really excited about my trip. I am committing to doing one kind of artwork a day, whether I’m seasick or not, to keep myself accountable. I think it will be a wonderful way of documenting my trip. If you would like to make sure you hear about the trip and any exhibition I have please sign up to my newsletter.
I really hope this has helped you when you’re packing art materials for an extended trip, doing plein air, or even on a short journey.
I would of course also LOVE to hear any great tips you have for your plein air drawing or packing in the comments below. The more we share the more we learn from each other, so much gratitude in advance.