Friday, August 30, 2013

Travel Sketching Kits

Unless you're a seasoned painter planning to do some serious plein air painting, chances are you want a travel sketch kit that doesn't weigh too much. Fortunately assembling a travel kit is easy and doesn't necessarily cost much. That is, unless you go for things like artist quality markers and paints. In this post I'll share some compact sketch kit options that you might find useful.

Pens, Pencils and the Usual

I won't go into pens and pencils much here, except to say that there are some things you might want to look out for. I did a post on pencils not too long ago (and, of course, erasers). You can check them out in the tools section, together with posts on some other tools. One thing that you need to remember is that if you intend to use wet media such as watercolour over your linework, make sure your ink is waterproof. Don't go ruining perfectly good artwork just because you don't know your tools.

Everybody has a favourite pen or pencil and the choices are endless. Go try some out and choose what works for you. If you are using pencils, consider getting some fixative to fix your work and prevent them from rubbing out on the opposite pages, or by itchy fingers of your friends' admiring hands. I hear hairspray works too, but I haven't tried it yet.


Watercolours are great for outdoor sketching. They dry fast, can be re-wet, and are easy to clean off your brushes and palette/box. They also come in cake form (pans, half-pans) so you don't have to bring out a whole bunch of tubes. You can even assemble your own set from tubes squeezed into palettes or pans and letting them dry over a couple of days. If you like, you can even let some tube paint dry on a sheet of paper or card and take those around, but don't expect to finish an A3 painting with those. You probably will run out of paint pretty quickly.

For beginners, a small set of student quality colours can easily be bought at an affordable price. Daler-Rowney and Winsor & Newton both have small sets for their Aquafine and Cotman ranges respectively. Twelve colours are more than sufficient, but you can squeeze more paints in to your set if you wish, like what I did for mine. The Aquafine box cost just over $20 SGD and comes with a basic brush.

Aquafine 12 half-pan set on the right, modified pill box on the left with squeezed tube paints.

For the more experienced, purchasing an artist's set or assembling your own is another option. For my travel set below, I bought an empty box and removed the housing inside so I could fit in more pans. Some of the pans were squeezed from tubes and dried out over several days. Others were from a variety of brands.

My new watercolour box. Fits into the palm.

Remove the housing and it takes my whole 24 Winsor Newton half-pan set + 1

Self- assembled travel set.
Squeezed paints from ShinHan and Holbein with Winsor Newton half-pans.

 And of course when you use watercolours, you need water - and a container for it. There are countless choices, but for those who don't want to be carrying a bottle or cup-sized water pot around, more compact options are available:

Mini water containers

Or if those are too small, there are always collapsible or telescopic water pots that can hold more liquid:

Faber Castell collapsible water pot. One of many varieties available in the market.
Travel brushes

Travel brushes usually refer to those whose handles can be detached and used to cover the brush as a cap. Like this one:

Again, many varieties exist. I own a couple of Da Vinci Maestro kolinsky sable ones and this Ashley red sable. The cap/handle protects the brush tip from damage. This Ashley costs just over $20+ SGD here.

Further reviews of travel brushes can be viewed at my friend's blog: There are many brands and varieties, but be warned: They tend to be for the serious painter, so a lot of them don't come cheap.

You may also want to consider waterbrushes. They're good for some things like quick and dirty sketches, but not good for other things like laying large areas of even wash. They come in different sizes and tip shapes (round or flat, but mostly round).

Waterbrushes. Brand comparison of the same size. Notice the differences in the tips.

Colour pencils

Artist colour pencils are usually full-length and carrying a set around can be cumbersome. Some artists will cut them into half, and - if the pencils get too short - use a pencil holder. I don't like cutting my pencils. If you're not fussy, I've found some school-grade colour pencils that come in half-size and little cute boxes:

Both Staedtler and Faber-Castell produce artist-quality materials, but these 2 sets of normal and watercolour pencils are compact and cheap. Quite sufficient for the casual sketcher. At $2+ SGD, they're a steal.

My secondary school art teacher's husband, also a fine artist, only needs 3 or 4 colour pencils to do amazing works of art. I tried it once with just 3: blue, red and yellow when I was in Fraser's Hill several years back. I drew a bird (silver-eared mesia) copied from a photo:

Copyright © Favian Ee  Dec 2007


Markers aren't cheap. Copics normally retail for $5+ SGD. Other options like ShinHan, Marvy, etc. may be cheaper or around the same price range. Faber Castell also produces a range of markers called Pitt pens. The latter are not alcohol-based and won't bleed through paper, and their ink is archival. They come in nifty packs of 6 like the one below (there are larger sets and can be bought individually as well):

Pitt pens aren't that cheap either. Each pen costs $4+ SGD, even when bought in a set. If you're just starting off, I think a good investment would be a set of greys (3 warm, 3 cool greys) and a black. Then you wouldn't end up like me getting a whole range of colours and paying loads for them.

Pitt pens are pretty compact, though there are other brands that are also quite good and compact as well. There are lots to choose from, so go explore. I own Copics, ShinHans and Faber Castell Pitts. One thing to note, especially when buying Pitt pens: Check the pens and test them out before buying. One of mine that came as a gift was dry, and several I've tested in stores seem to have some whitish thing on their tips (fungus?).


If you're using fountain pens, you need ink. Carrying a glass bottle of ink can be very heavy, if not impractical. Worse if you want to carry more than one colour of ink.

Consider getting sushi sauce bottles from the dollar store. I got some from Daiso (12 small bottles for $2 SGD, or 9 larger ones for the same price). Then I filled them with Calli ink and my own mixes, and put them in a jujubes box. Like so:

Of course you will need a pipette to draw the ink out and fill your pen(s).

Pencil Case

Naturally you will need something to put your tools in. One of the cases I've found really useful is the Accurasee SketchCaddie. It can hold quite a lot of stuff surprisingly, and it slips nicely over your A5 sketchbook cover.

All these fit into the zippered pocket easily with some space to spare

The elastic band at the back slips over your A5 sketchbook's cover

Here is a review of the SketchCaddie by Parka.

My Travel Kit

This is my day kit for my upcoming trip. Not the complete one, considering how much I tend to pack, but this set will fit nicely into a waist pouch with room to spare. Some other stuff I can leave in the room. The phone is there for scale, but if you want to sketch on it like this artist friend of mine, do it! Then maybe you can pack even lighter.

Don't forget your sketchbook, or whatever kit will be quite useless!

No comments:

Post a Comment