Packing for a Trip or Class

October 20, 2018
Brush pen and ink wash on chip board. This was my day-two sketch for #InkTober2018. What does it have to do with packing for travel? Be sure to take your favorite tools so that you can create the way you want to create!

Recently a blog reader who is going to SketchKon (see the note later in this post) wrote to me and asked for tips on packing for such a trip. She wanted to know which supplies to bring and what the perfect pack for carrying supplies might be.

Very simply keep the following in mind:

• If you are going to a class, take the supplies the instructor has asked you to bring. Don’t try to substitute to save money. That’s a false economy. If the instructor has a supply list of essential supplies take those supplies. She has put that list together because she knows they will work with the techniques covered in class. You are wasting your time (and the money you spent on tuition and travel) trying to “get by.” Take the supplies specified and do your best to absorb the information the instructor provides so that when you return home you can continue to practice successfully.

• Let go of the idea that there is a perfect pack for all your supplies. The time to think about a pack for carrying your sketching kit is well in advance of any major trip. Get a pack that seems to have the criteria you need. (Only you know what those criteria are—for instance I can’t stand to have things hang on my neck when I am out sketching, but I have friends who would never put anything around their waist! You have to know your own preferences. You find those preferences by going out into the field/town, to test!) Once you have a pack to test, fill it with supplies and go out and test it for a two-hour sketch out of your own devising. See what works and what doesn’t work. Realize that it may take testing of several packs and several outings before you find a pack that really works efficiently for you. But make sure you’re selecting a pack because of how you work or want to work!


It’s almost time for SketchKon—Don’t miss out. You can still register for this November 2 through November 4, 2018 event. Read about it at the link. 

My pre-convention workshop is filled, but I’ll be giving two presentations: Keeping Your Sketchbook Fresh and Strategies for Sketching Live Animals. I’ll also be on a panel discussing working in your sketchbook with themes.

There are so many other presenters who are covering a range of fabulous topics that I can only encourage you to go to the website link and read about them all. It will be three fun days all about sketching. And when it all wraps up about 40 of us are set to go to the L.A. Zoo for a sketch out! And you’re invited to that as well. (Watch my instagram for details because meeting places will be devised on the spot. Approximate time will be 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., with a wrap up meeting to follow.)

• If you’re looking for fanny packs like mine, please know that the Mountain Smith pack shown in this linked post is no longer made in the same way. I have not seen the new version in person. But I do have other Mountain Smith packs of different sizes bought more recently. They are still a quality product and if Mountain Smith has a size that will work for you (and your criteria!), it’s something you should test, but don’t expect to get the same results or longevity that I have from this pack. (I’ve had it for over 20 years of hard use. The more recently made packs are showing wear after a few years of light use.) Bottom line you’ll have to look at other brands as well. If you find one with lumbar adjustments be sure to let me know!

• Looking for a good way to carry your paints? You can see my travel palettes here. Also since that post was published I’ve added the Whiskey Painters Palette.

• If you need to fit more paint pans in your palette look at this post about adapting an existing box.

• Need to know which brand of paint and which pigments to take? See the first item on the list if you’re going to a class—bring what the instructor suggested. (I use a bunch of different paints for different reasons and approaches. I use Schmincke Pan Watercolors if I want factory made pans, and if I make my own pans I use Daniel Smith Tube colors.) If you’re traveling to travel and sketch on your own I recommend that you take your favorite colors that you know how to combine for great results. And think about adding a few extra colors depending on what your major subject matter will be. For instance if you’re traveling to a warm destination, especially near the ocean, make sure you have some bright accent paints, a couple extra blue pigments perhaps, to capture what you’ll see. If you’re going to Italy to paint the ruins and buildings, think about which stones were used to build those structures and take pigments that can help you capture those surfaces. If your trip takes you into the North Woods make sure you are comfortable with the range of green mixes you can create, or the warm colors you can mix for fall foliage. A standard split primary palette with a warm and cool variant of each primary, and the addition of a few special destination colors should be all you need when you travel.

• If you’re traveling somewhere cold think about these additional items.

• Shoes, shoes, shoes, and boots. These should be purchased way in advance and broken in with a lot of walking trips near home. Select shoes that you would be comfortable standing in all day long as well as walking. (Even when you manage to break in your footwear always travel with 2nd Skin.)

As for the type of clothing you need to pack, and how to keep it wrinkle-free—well the first is going to depend on where you are going, and the second is something I’ve never worked out, despite how many YouTube videos on packing suitcases I’ve watched.

There are two things that you need to consider when selecting clothing—can you work in the clothing you are bringing? That means can you get paint on it an be OK with that, but also can you move in the clothing the way you need to move in order to work? And can you work in that clothing with your other painting gear on? Sometimes a sweater or collar can get in the way when you put your other gear on as well. This needs to all be tested before your trip in real two hour long or longer work sessions.

And have you brought the layers of clothing that you need for your location? Even if you are going to a cold location it’s important to have layers so you can take off clothing as you heat up. I used to track with the dogs in -10 degree Fahrenheit temperatures with only a light shirt, a down vest, and a hat as an upper body layer. If I’d been standing still that would have been unthinkable. But if there is only a light wind, and the sun is out, blazing off the snow, well, then in Minnesota it can be quite toasty outside if you’re dressed for it. (I spent a lot of time outside in the cold because the girls couldn’t wait to get out!)

Some Final Thoughts

Paper and Journals

I haven’t written anything about which type of paper or book you need to take. That’s also personal and media driven. But I encourage you to do another form of testing before your trip. When you go out for the next five sketching sessions that are over 2 hours long note down how many page spreads you fill up in your book. Then find an average for the 2 hour time and from there the average for one hour of sketching.

Now think about your trip—are you alone or with people who understand you’ll be sketching every moment you can? Or will you be traveling with non-sketching people and only able to sketch for a set 2 hours in the afternoon, or one hour in the morning and one in the afternoon, etc.? Add up the number of hours you anticipate sketching and multiply it by your hourly page spread rate to get an estimate of how many page spreads you need in the book you take. (This will tell you whether or not you need more than one book.)

Look, I tend to work in page spreads so that’s why I encourage you to count spreads. If you work page to page then work out your hourly rate for pages and multiply that.

For instance, when I travel with friends who know I sketch, or travel with other sketchers, or travel by myself, I find that I need 13 to 15 spreads per day of travel. I multiply that by the days I’m traveling and I have the number of spreads I need for my trip.

If I am injured or am going to be with non-sketchers and spend lot of time in non-sketching situations I know to lower my expectations. I work out from that how many page spreads I will need.

Sometimes when I travel I keep a loose sheet journal—either on loose sheets or on journal cards. I did this for a three day trip to Madison, Wisconsin in 2000 with three new travel companions and one regular sketching friend.

I made pre-cut and prepainted journal cards of 300 lb. hot press watercolor paper. It was sized to fit easily in my Mountain Smith fanny pack with all the supplies I needed (water brush, paints, that sort of thing).

But because I was also interested in collecting texture rubbings at the time, and also interested in collage, I also carried additional items like a rubbing crayon, rubbing paper, and a small drawing paper pad that I sometimes sketched on. I wrote notes about activities and times, on the drawings or on the drawing pad. These were torn apart and collaged on the appropriate cards when I collaged elements each night in the hotel room.

Even then I found that I ended up using every card I took including the extra cards I’d brought. This is because I was used to estimating my output already from traveling and sketching with people who are non-sketchers, knew that where we would go would give me ample “down” time to stand some where and sketch (such as when others were looking at antiques), and also because when I travel I simply get into a rhythm and fill what I’ve brought. I think there is something to the notion that if you set a goal by setting a page count, something in your habit kicks in and you fill it. I can’t explain it. I just have experienced it too many times.

The few times this hasn’t happened, I’ve been in teaching situations where my time is pretty much all about teaching. Now I know to plan for that situation too. (Don’t burden yourself with unrealistic expectations about how you’ll be able to use your time.)

Limiting Your Media

One year I traveled with a friend and we rented a cabin for a week and traveled about a large area during the days, returning to that cabin. Because we were driving to our destination and were going to have a base of operations we both felt we could take a lot of supplies. (We didn’t have to check baggage!) My friend planned to do some of her art in the evening. I planned to collage. I only paint on site. But taking extra supplies gave me choice options each day when we left.

Unless you are doing something like the above—going to one location and staying for a long time—please, please limit the supplies you take.

I’ve traveled with people who have so many supplies they totally freeze up and don’t know which to take for the day’s sketching. They exhaust themselves carrying supplies they never get out of the pack. They lose all focus.

Decide before you go, which media you want to work in. Make it something portable and easily packed. Then take out your sketch kit weeks in advance, several times, for 2 to 3 hours at a time, to test it. Test another paper with the same kit to be sure. Then a week or two before your trip, check the kit, restock the paints if necessary, and pack it. 

Stop thinking about what you could have brought. That’s living in the past. 

When you travel, look out at what’s in front of you and enjoy it. Use what you have with you to capture it on the page. By all means note that if you travel this way again at this time of year a toned paper might be a nice idea, or dip pen would actually have been workable, etc., but then let go of those thoughts and get down to the business of observation!

Have a great trip.

Remember to send me a postcard!

    • scone
    • October 23, 2018

    I’ve been using the Whiskey Painters palette for international travel, because I can fit all my wet art supplies and personal stuff like moisturizer in the one quart plastic bag TSA requires. Every last little thing that could possibly be construed as wet or gel has to go in that bag or in the garbage, down to the smallest lip balm or ink cartridge. (I can’t buy personal items at my destination because allergies.)

    Even so, the last time I came through Boston Logan, I was pulled out of the line and had to open the palette for inspection. And the inspector commented she should have recognized it, since she used to sell art supplies!

    1. Reply

      Sounds like a great plan. I’m glad you didn’t have to give it up!

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