My Pastel Plein Air Travel Kit [Lesson]

I love to pastel and I love to walk and I love to travel. This blog is about how to combine them all: walk to where you are inspired and paint with soft pastel. While there is heaps of information on the Internet about how to paint with pastels I have found very little on how to pack for plein air sessions where you walk a bit to get to the best places. The places I like.

When I go out to paint, I want a place that inspires me, that might be a bit off the beaten track. But it’s always a trade off – having all my tools with me versus ensuring my kit is light enough to get to where I want to paint without killing me.  This blog is to share a compact but completely dependable pastel kit I use that takes me wherever I want to go, even if it is a couple of kilometres away.

I am encompassing all I have gleaned through research and my own trial and error over the last twenty years and distill this down to the essentials. I wish I would have been able to read an article like this when I first started out. I would love to know how you find this and if you have tips or things to add please let me know below or contact me through my website. I truly am always trying to learn new ways to work with my pastels.

Firstly why pastels

There is a simple answer to this and that is that I love them. I have pursued all sorts of media at art school. My BFA I majored in painting and drawing and PhD is in film and digital media.  But for me there is absolutely nothing like the immediacy and vibrancy of pastels. It has a reputation of being sometimes sugar coated, somehow ‘tame’. But I use my pastels differently, boldly, gesturally. I love the versatility.  I can paint or draw. I love the feel of the pastel. The messiness. The tactility. The sensuality. The markmaking. The ability to rub out and start again, but never without a trace of what went on before. I love the immediacy, the vibrancy, but I also love the subtler shades that I can experiment with quickly, without having to think them up or mix them as with paint. I don’t mind that they are not as popular in Australia, it challenges me even more. (Tell me if you disagree!)

When I speak about pastels it is worth saying I am of course speaking of soft pastels, not oil pastels which are a completely different medium.

It was my mother, herself an artist, who first introduced me to pastels, even before I went to art school. She was a brilliant pastel artist, and had a flair and boldness that still inspires me long after she passed away . After a couple of years of working on my own, I had the good fortune to be tutored by the very influential and distinguished Maggie Price (sadly now also passed away) ; so influential was she that more than one set of pastels was named after her. She was a wonderful teacher and together these two women launched me into the wonderful world of pastel painting.

Downside

Soft pastels contain very little binder, and need protection, more than, say, an acrylic or oil painting (though they have their own challenges in the final steps). Unlike paintings, pastels need to be framed under glass or museum grade Perspex to protect them before hanging. However, if you use high quality sanded paper you do not need to fix your pastels before faming, thus retaining the vibrant quality of the marks and colours. And if you use them plein air, as I do, I will explain how to care for them on your way back to your home or studio or campsite so they are protected before you frame them.

How to frame pastels is an entirely new subject and there are excellent tutorials on Youtube for this. One I recommend is by Gail Sibley. Her website contains other very useful information on working in pastels.

Find a spot first

Before going into my kit I also want to set the scene –  where I choose to paint – because that will dictate what you take in your kit.

Protection from the weather.

If it is rainy of course you need cover. Rain will destroy your pastel painting. If it is windy you need to find a windbreak. If it cold you need to dress warmly. But shade is of number one importance. There is nothing worse than your last half hour, when everything is coming together in your painting, and the sun has moved so by that time you are so stunned by sunstroke you cannot continue. I still make this mistake, even though I know not to. All I can say is to do your best to avoid it. Take water. Take a hat. Take sunscreen. And most importantly, try to understand where the sun is moving over the next couple of hours, so you can position yourself in a place where you are still protected. I have sometimes taken up to 4-5 hours on a single work, but I can usually count on between 1 ½ – 3 hours, depending on how big or complicated it is. The sun can move a lot in that time, especially in the beginning or end of the day. If you have an umbrella or some other shade, even better.

Toilets.

Often overlooked until its too late. If you are drinking water, which you should be, and you are out for over two hours, chances are you will have to use either public toilets or go in the bush. If your work is spread out before you (like mine always is) hopefully you will have a friend to guard it from roving strangers while you duck somewhere or you trust your environment from rain, wind and children (who love to play with the colours – don’t let them of course – many pastels are toxic!). So make sure you think about this as your second consideration.

Inspiration.

Finally, for me the landscape has to be inspiring in some way. I know other artists who work the other way around; that is, they get inspired by the process of painting the landscape. I don’t work this way. I spend a lot of time finding my spot to paint and can go out for an entire day or two’s walking before I find where I want to be. During this time I am also consciously and subconsciously considering the composition, the lights and darks, the colour, the points of interest, the harmony and variation. But there always has to be something else – the way the light hits water, or bends around trees, or people doing something which conveys the essence of the place to me.

Everyone will have their own way of being inspired; and this will dictate where you want to be and therefore what kind of materials you pack.

Be prepared to chat.

I know that it can be challenging when someone breaks your concentration, especially if you are just about to solve a particularly challenging part of the work. It is also – at least for me – rather embarrassing when I am just starting out – or worse, in the muddy middle – when someone wants to see my work and chat. I used to allow people in grudgingly, but I have since learned to be more gracious. I have met with some of the most beautiful people and had the most hilarious chats with them, that it has been well worth the break in concentration for me.

And take critiques!

I must tell you a very funny story. In the scene above, I was sitting in front of the Queen Victoria Building in Sydney on one of the first fine days after our four months of lockdown. I was approached my many people during this four hour painting session, and the woman in red who was especially thrilled when she found I had put her and her disobedient child in the scene. However the most memorable engagement was with an older Chinese fellow who came up behind me, looked at the scene I was painted, made a few grunting noises, and then proceeded to show me, using sign language, where I needed to improve on my painting. I still laugh when I remember this interaction. Bless him. Truly. He took my work seriously.

Maybe this engagement is not for you, but I am just saying that if you go out, you will no doubt be interrupted, so why not embrace it. (But disagree – vehemently if you will – in comments below).

Without further ado, and with all this in mind, here is my essential travel kit, none of which is extraneous, and all of which make for a perfect outing.

My Essential Soft Pastel Travel Kit for Soft Pastels:

Backpack that carries it all

This backpack fits everything I need, and most importantly, it fits an art board that is large enough for a 12 x 18 inch piece of pastel paper. The art board fits neatly at the back, which then provides a backbone for the rest of the materials I carry. When it is packed it is still light enough to walk a couple of kilometres or more to find a great spot. I got this one at an army supply shop for $35. It’s a special size, extra wide, so make sure get the shop to find exactly what you need. To improve things further, I reckon I could also sew some padding onto the shoulder straps which would make it perfect.

Wooden pastel travel case

I looked for a long time for a case that was strong enough to protect my pastels, would offer enough space to bring all I wanted along, yet was light enough to carry. So I was delighted when I spied Maggie Price using this case for her work in a photograph of a plein air article she wrote. I have now used this for four years and am very satisfied with it.

I ordered this online from Dakota Pastels. It is not light. It is the heaviest part of what I carry, but completely worth it. It comes with covers that protect the sections above with foam. I can even vouch for the fact that the above pack withstood an eleven day jostling when our boat crossed four metre seas and 35 knot winds on route from Sydney to Fiji and not a single pastel was damaged in any way!

One that seems similar and is less expensive, is from Jacksons in the UK. However please note I have not tried this. (Let me know if you have in the comments below!)

Pastels

You can see that I use the three sections on one side of the case to carry a range of 40-50 soft pastels, one section each for dark, medium and light pastels in both cool and warm shades. On the other side I carry hard pastels, charcoal, and a collection of neutrals. I use a handful of different brands which through trial and error I have found to be most satisfying to work with.

I do not mind being covered with pastel dust at the end of the day, and my marks are very gestural, so I gravitate towards the softer, more vibrant, handmade pastels from the following manufacturers:

  • My favourite is Terry Ludwig, a handmade brand from the US, which come in a range of vibrant colours and muted tones. They are expensive but they will last, and the sharp or blunt edges allow me to get both a line as well as thick marks like a painter’s brush. I started with their Arid Landscape set which has worked for me for many years in the Mediterranean, tropics and Australian landscapes.To save costs, I broke each in half to share with my mother, and recently added the Warm Greens set as I was running out of their delicious greens, as well as the Best Loved Basics.  If you do order from the Terry Ludwig factory, then order early as they can take awhile to send. Alternatively, you can order from this online shop in Newcastle, softpastels.com.
  • You can see I have Sennelier pastels which are beautiful soft pastels and a little dearer, but worth it. Some of the Sennelier colours you just cannot find in other brands and I use these over and over again. Here is a beautiful starter kit from Sennelier from the same Newcastle shop, and another one just for landscape. (This is the pack I would buy if I were just starting out, with 1-2 lighter blues for sky.) Unison brand is also high quality and also hand made, but they do not have the sharp edges of Terry Ludwig and therefore don’t make a finer line easily. Here is a starter kit from Unison from Parker’s art supplies in Sydney and a more expensive but larger landscape kit from Unison.
  • Art Spectrum has specially designed Australian landscape colours, which can be bought at Parkers or ordered from this Newcastle shop. Here is a beautiful Arid Landscape Set from Parkers. I tend to find Art Spectrum pastels a little harder/denser and sometimes not as pure a pigment as the more expensive brands, but some of their colours are divine and very well suited to the colours in Australia’s landscape.
  • A collection of hard pastels for details (pencils or crayons) – often good for shadows (purply brown or blue grey), faces (tan/flesh colour), and signatures if you want to sign your work.
  • Charcoal for the initial sketch
  • Varying brushes to wash the underpainting with rubbing alcohol (see below).

Drawing Board, Tracing Paper, Mat Board and Bullclips

I do not use an easel anymore, although many years ago I used to. I would much rather be able to walk further than add the extra weight of an easel, which unless it is heavy (or has a weight) can always be tossed about by the wind. Instead, I use a drawing board, which I saw Gail Sibley use in this article and I have never looked back

The drawing board I have fashioned and used successfully for a couple of years now is a 51cm x 37 cm piece of 3mm Masonite onto which I have taped electrician’s tape to the edges so that the tape I use to tape down my pastel paper does not continue to rip up the board (which it tends to do over time).

When I am done painting, I place the sheet of acid free tracing paper over my work, cut exactly the same size as the board, on top of which I place an old piece of mat board. Any strong cardboard cut to size will do; for example, the back of an art pad would work very well. I then clip all four sheets (Masonite, taped painting, tracing paper and mat board) together with bull clips and can safely carry my work home in my backpack without damaging it in any way. After you have safely stored your pastel at home, the tracing paper can be wiped with a wet sponge to clean off the pastel dust. The paper will buckle a little when it dries but this does not make any difference to its performance and it can be used again and again.

Paper and tape

I paint right to the edges of my paper, which allows for more framing options; for example, floating the paper in a more contemporary box frame instead of the traditional frame with mat board around the edges which you would need if you covered all the edges with tape. Using blue painter’s tape, which does not adhere as strongly as normal masking tape, I first turn the paper over and tear a 3 cm piece off and stick diagonally to all corners. I then turn the paper over and tape across this tape to the board as you can see below.

I have already mentioned that I use blue painter’s tape to tape my paper to my board because it is pulls off very easily. However, do not leave it on for years, because then it can really stick and be hard to take off without damaging even the best of papers. Your pastels should then be wrapped in acid free paper and stored in a cool dry place until you frame them.

I use a high quality Sanded paper made by UArt and comes in a range of grades. I use anywhere from 400-800 grade. This paper allows for a wet underpainting and takes up to twelve layers of pastel. The background colour is a warm cream or a rich black and comes in a range of sizes. You can order them from this shop in Newcastle or from other sources in the US.

Rubbing alcohol, old brushes and urine sample bottle (yup!)

Many artists use rubbing alcohol for their underpainting but the challenge is how to bring this out painting and not have to carry the whole bottle. I have solved this problem using a urine sample bottle! Why? Because they don’t leak! They can be bought at most pharmacies and typically cost less than a dollar. I carry two in case one gets too muddy to continue to use. By standing the alcohol overnight to let the pastel dust settle, you can pour off the clear alcohol on top to reuse for your next painting. 🙂 I apply the rubbing alcohol with old brushes to create my underpainting.

Sketchbook

I often use a sketchbook to get my composition down and document any colours or aspects of the scene I am painting. Even if I never look at it again, the exercise of drawing the scene makes me pay attention to what attracts me. Often I see more about it as soon as I draw the scene. These take me one or two minutes, but they can be quite useful to ease into the day’s drawing.

Viewfinder and other tools

Other tools I pack are:

  • A  viewfinder – to assist with framing a composition, reading values and isolating colours
  • Dry rag, foam piping, and sponge– to blend pastels
  • Wet rag – dampen from your water bottle to wipe your fingers with as you paint
  • Roll of toilet paper – to clean each pastel before you put them away at the end of the day
  • A plastic box
  • An apron – to protect your clothes and self from pastel dust as you work
  • A soft hat – A sun hat that you don’t care about and that squishes –  originally I made the mistake of getting a nice big lovely straw Indonesian hat, but because it was so stiff, it banged into my knapsack everytime I moved and drove me crazy – so get something that’s flexible, and ties on, for the wind, and you can chuck in the wash to clean at the end of the day.
  • A water bottle. Do not leave without it. Use it to drink from, wash your hands with as you paint, and at the end of the day, wipe off any splotches, such as smears across your face, you will inevitably have.

I use the lid of the plastic box to hold the pastels I used for my work separate so I don’t have to keep looking for them.

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, this will keep my dry so I don’t get cold and then don’t stay out as long as I want to.

Oh, and this is something my husband bought me, which he found at a camping shop. It 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!

Putting it all together

So that’s it. That’s my kit. Everything fits snugly in this knapsack, and is easily carried. It is so dependable when I pack it full like this I get that excited feeling that I am going to have a good session.

In 2022 I spent six months sailing with my husband through Fiji and New Caledonia on our beautiful yacht Amaranth II and everywhere I stopped I worked, and all with this kit. I will be exhibiting my work later in 2023, so if you are in Sydney at this time, I would be delighted to have you come to the show. See my news for more details.

I hope this has helped all you pastel and walking lovers out there. I would of course also love to hear any great tips YOU have for your pastel painting, so if you have them PLEASE leave them below.

Happy walking, and happy pastelling!

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