Minnesota State Fair Prep—Part 4: “Travel” Essentials for Sketchers

August 15, 2009



Above: This photo from a talk I gave about sketching at the Minnesota State Fair, shows MORE stuff than what you’ll actually need. Read below for the break down.

This is part four of the Minnesota State Fair Prep Series, started August 12, 2009.

What you carry with you when you go to the Minnesota State Fair can either help or hinder your fun. The goal is to travel as light as possible. Since I go primarily to sketch animals I have sketching tools and paper to deal with (more on these items in a minute). But there are other essentials that will ensure you have a good trip to the Fair.

The above photo contains two fanny packs. If you are going to sketch and carry sketching materials you’ll need some sort of pack. I find it helpful to have the weight of those materials hang off my waist, rather than pull on my shoulders (even with padded straps). I find I can work much longer when I use a fanny pack.

The blue pack has a thick, padded, lumbar support waist band that actually cinches to fit your form when you have it on. Made by MountainSmith, the “Tour” is also great because it has two water bottle pockets (one on each side). The multiple compartments allow you to segregate stuff so that you aren’t always sifting through all your belongings in search of one item. I use this pack when I am working with an actual bound journal, or on larger card sizes.

The smaller red fanny pack is by Bagalini. It has a less comfortable and more problematic (difficult to adjust and slips out) attachment strap, but that’s partly because it is a convertible pack, made to be worn as a shoulder bag or a fanny pack. And you can actually attach it to your belt, if you wear one, so that’s a good attribute. Like the blue pack this one has multiple pockets, just perfect for separating items for easy access. This is actually my favorite light pack as I can put my digital camera in one interior pocket where it won’t get scratched up. My sketching implements go in another pocket, and there is an outside pocket for my cell phone, and yet another pocket for my money and related items.

The downside to the red fanny pack is there is no water bottle holder, but a water bottle holder (pictured in the back right of the photo) can be purchased at any camping goods store and attached to one of the many D-rings or fabric loops on this bag. Problem solved!

Packs depend on personal preference. I recommend that you load up your pack with all the items you think you’ll need, BEFORE your outing. Take it on a two-hour sketch test drive to the Zoo, or Mall. Then edit out non-essentials, or start looking for a more comfortable pack. Keep in mind that shoulder bags can slip off your shoulder and disrupt your sketching. Wear the stap over one shoulder, across your body, and let the bag hang opposite the strap shoulder. If you can’t sketch this way comfortably, consider an alternate bag.

Other Essential Items 

1. Cell phone

2. Driver’s license and credit card (for large purchases).

3. Cash

4. Sunglasses (and regular glasses if you wear them). You might want to have those glass holders that attach to the frame and let the glasses hang at your neck if you’ll be going in and out of buildings a lot. In crowded areas you want to minimize the number of times you open your bag and fish around in it. You’re less focused on your surroundings when this happens, are a target, and it’s just plain easier to lose stuff if someone bumps you.

5. A small case for all your pens, brushes, etc. The brown leather pouch in the photo holds these items if I use the blue bag. In the small red bag all these items fit in a pocket, eliminating the weight of the case.

6. A watch (I like to note times on my journal entries), useful for meeting up with people—though some friends simply use their cell phone clocks.

7. Sunscreen (that silver tube in the photo).

8. A hat. I use a large-billed cap (fishing cap) for mixed use—in and out of barns. It keeps the sun out of my eyes and barn light glare is minimized. If I am sketching primarily outside I have a white hat with a complete (360 degrees) and wide brim which protects my neck from long sun exposures.

9. Your journal (or journal cards) of course.

10. A nutritious or sensible snack: raisins and dried, unsalted almonds are a good choice.

11. A couple of clips like climbing carabiners that you can use to attach things to your fanny pack. You might purchase something in a plastic bag and then you can simply hook it onto your pack to keep your hands free.

12. A plastic bag or reuseable grocery type bag that you can put large purchases in and clip to your fanny pack, to keep your hands free (not every vendor at the Fair gives out bags).

13. Optional: small portable umbrella.

Sketching Essentials
If you are going out to sketch you’ll need to take your journal with you. For a special event like the State Fair you might want a journal dedicated only to the event. This would allow you to select a smaller size of journal than you might typically use sitting at home at your desk, in the studio, or even about town when you are walking less and weight isn’t an issue.

JournalsCards4321 Left: Some small journals and journal cards. Sizes vary. The smaller book is approximately 3.75 x 4.5. The cards range from 2 x 3 to 5 x 7 inches. Click on the image to view and enlargement.

When considering what journal, or journal cards you are going to work on think about what media you want to work in, what space constraints you’ll have (i.e., are you going to be standing in confined and crowded spaces), and your own natural preferences for working large, small, pen, watercolor, whatever.

I find journal cards of 300 lb. watercolor paper, prepainted and precut before the event, in a size that is easy to hold, allow me to work most efficiently. I take 3 cards out at a time, minimizing time between sketches. I also write notes on the backs of cards if I have long conversations with someone. And if I end up “running out of cards” at the end of a day I can always work on the backs of cards.

To avoid running out of cards, if you don’t know how many cards your normal pace will require, I suggest taking twice as many cards as you think you’ll need. You could of course end up only using half as many cards as you think you might, but it’s better to have enough cards. Over time you’ll get a feeling for how many cards you use in a given situation.

Note: A word about working on journal cards—someone always comments that she would throw away her bad cards if she worked on journal cards (as if the binding of a book helped keep her “honest”). Well, where’s the fun in that? For me, every card that gets worked on gets included in the final stack which I create portfolios for. I don’t even begin to understand the impulse to throw out cards. If you’ve got that impulse you had best stick with bound journals that will curb that impulse.

Once you have selected the paper your working on you can select the medium, or vice versa. See the photo at the right for my tools.

PensBrushes4345 Right: I always carry a Niji Waterbrush round, a Niji Waterbrush flat, a paper towel, my two small palettes (more on these later), and from left, the following pens: a Pentel Pocket Brush Pen (with a spare cartridge), Nexus Pen (black, Payne’s Gray, or Graphite Gray), Staedtler Pigment Liners (in a variety of sizes, typically 1, 3, 7), and a Faber Castel Pitt Artists Brush Pen.

If I am going to work with watercolor or gouache I carry my small compact palettes which contain the colors I most like to use. For more information on my palettes see my blog post on my travel palettes.

MyTravelPalettes4339 Left: My watercolor and gouache mini-travel palettes that are always with me, open to show I get 13 paints in each 8-welled palette, by using the central channel.

With all your selections the only right choice is the item that is going to help you have a better Fair trip (or any sketch out adventure). As with most things the best results are derived through practice. Make a selection, road test it for a two hour sketch out as mentioned above, then edit, repeat, edit or add back, repeat. You still have time to do this before the fair!

On Limiting Your Art Supplies
A word of caution about making media choices for working at the Fair (or sketching out in general). Don’t take every tool you own. Or every medium you work in. Don’t think that you’ll sketch in colored pencil in the a.m. and then do fabulous watercolors in the afternoon, and finish off with Rembrandt-esque dip pen sketches in the evening. It’s great to have goals and dream big, but I can tell you, even Rembrandt, or Gerome, or Sargent, would have trouble doing that. (OK, well Sargent wouldn’t, but you get the general idea.)

You will have the best results when sketching out if you stick with one medium, pen for instance, or pen with watercolor wash, or simply pencil, or colored pencil, or pencil with watercolor wash.

Focus has the following benefit: LESS TO CARRY.

After 3 hours standing in a hot barn, believe me you’ll be glad you left the set of 92 pencils at home because all you have room to maneuver with is a pen and a quick wash of color.

Another reason it is important to focus on one medium is that sketching out in public, even when people leave you alone, is tiring. It requires more focus than sketching in your studio, at your desk, whatever. You have to filter out more noise, stay alert to more possibilities (pick pockets, loose animals at the Fair), and deal with more physical requirements (standing for long periods, or sitting on non-chair items that are not comfortable for long periods!).

If you stick to one medium during your trip you will actually see how you progressed over the course of the day—when you peaked, when your attention drifted, when you got hungry, when you were tired, when you got your second wind. You’ll see this all without the fog of multiple media. And this information will be useful in helping you plan your next sketching adventure. It will help you pack smarter. It will tell you where your concentration limits are. It will help you plan successful outings in the future to build your skills.

Also, with one media, you won’t have to change gears in your brain to work with the new media. Changing gears will become more difficult as you tire.

And most important, working with one media you will look at your subject and WORK, right away, jump right in and do it, without all the lost time deciding what implement to pull from your bag. Hesitate, and well, that charming goat has moved on to the judging ring!

Now go pack!

  1. Reply

    Loved this post – I have a thing for art supplies :).

    • elizabeth
    • August 16, 2009


    I agree with Sandi. I really like posts which list supplies. I am new in the Art World and am so happy to have stumbled onto your blog. I was wondering the purpose for the pre-painted journal cards/pages? Was it to challenge you with regard to creativity? Or just for asthetic purposes?

    Could you please help me find those cute little children’s mini-palettes? I looked on the Wet Paint website and could not find them. Thanks and I look forward to seeing your work from the fair.

    • Roz
    • August 16, 2009

    Elizabeth, I have always pre-painted at least some pages in every journal that I have. (Sometimes I even prepaint ALL THE PAPER BEFORE I BIND a journal.)

    I just like to do this because it gets a layer on the paper and I love layers in my work. Also I like having a bit of a challenge because I might not like what is on the page when I turn to it, but I’m going to have to deal with it and sketch what is at hand on that page. And then there is the serendipity of it. Sometimes when I turn the page it is perfect, the prepainted page, that I find, for whatever I am about to draw.

    If you go to this journal selection on my website

    you will see an entire journal of before and after pages. It’s just part of the play aspect for me.

    On journal cards I like to do it because I typically use journal cards in situations where I don’t have much time to do layers, e.g., travel journals—friends won’t wait; State Fair—animals won’t wait. I like the way things look. It just simply appeals to me. (So that would be the aesthetic purpose.)

    As for those little palettes, I can’t tell you where to find them on the Wet Paint Website because the search engine there doesn’t like me. I’ve told the folks at the store and they are aware of this from other folks too, so it will get better and better. In the meantime, I passed your email along to Tim at Wet Paint, who handles the website and knows what palette I’m using and I know he will contact you with information on cost etc. should you want to buy one from them.

    Thanks for visiting my blog!

    • a.a. shock
    • August 19, 2009

    Roz — Seems like everyone’s hitting you up for info as a result of this post — here’s one more!

    You mention using a Niji waterbrush flat. I remember I was thrilled when I found out they made them, but there’s an annoying problem when I use mine. Pigment gets sucked up into the reservoir from the charged bristles after I squeeze to release water, even if I clean the brush before squeezing: it never gets so clean, especially with staining colors like phthalos, that some color doesn’t contaminate the water up in the barrel, which means emptying, rinsing, refilling. I’ve almost stopped using it for field sketching, and I miss it for washes. Aargh!

    Do you ever have this problem?


    • Roz
    • August 19, 2009

    A.A. nope, I’ve never had the problem you describe. I do have some problems with the Niji Flat—the cap tends to come off in my case and in general doesn’t like to stay on. And the other problem I have is that the collar that holds the bristles in the flat orientation tends to break before the brush not very used.

    I put up with both these issues because it’s a fun brush to use.

    My bristles are always stained, no matter if it is a round or a flat, but by squeezing out a little water and wiping on a towel I can get it clean enough (though stained) to pick up new colors and keep going.

    But I’ve never had color go up into the barrel. Sorry I can’t help you with that as I don’t have any experience with that phenomenon and don’t know what’s causing it for you and not me.

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