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Plein air and travel sketching set up options

I have a couple of travel painting workshops coming up and have been updating my workshop materials lists so I thought I would do a blog to break down the different kits I have and the reasons I would choose one over the other. I have also put together some video on You Tube if you want to see the set ups closer up -

Plein air kit – I would use what I will refer to as my plein air kit when I am driving to my painting location and not walking more than say ½ hour from the car.

Usually in this scenario I would be standing at my easel (1), with my normal studio palette (2). I usually will paint on a loose sheet of Arches or Saunders rough watercolour paper backed by gatorboard, I don’t shy away from large paintings onsite and often paint full sheet (76x56cm).

Urban Sketching/ Travel Sketching

I have a lighter weight camera tripod which packs shorter in length and is more appropriate for traveling. It is not a specific brand but was quite cheap at a camera shop in Cambodia. Any lightweight camera tripod with work with a quick release plate attached to a piece of gator board or other form of backing. I have a piece of plastic that was part of a different easel set up that has a lip at the bottom and I put a whole in the middle and attached a quick release plate to it. The lip at the bottom holds my board or block in place.

Generally if I am travel sketching or urban sketching I tend to sit at my easel – and I have a Helinox (3) portable chair which I find super comfortable. I think I sit because I feel less conspicuous/obvious in the environment which is more likely streets in comparison to at home when I am generally near the beach or in the bush. It totally doesn’t worry me if people stop and chat or ask questions, so it’s not that I don’t want to be seen.

The photo below shows this set up. I have a couple of different travel palettes that I use and I can’t say I’ve found the perfect one size and weight wise but I always use a palette that I can add tube paint into. I never use pan watercolours because I can’t get the desired intensity of colour in my dark mixes.

What I look for in a travel/small palette is one that opens flat with several separated mixing spaces. I don’t like a palette with just one open mixing space in the lid. It is possible in this kind of palette to run some strips of hot glue or silicone to create multiple smaller mixing spaces.

When travelling I usually prefer to carry paper in the form of a block rather than loose paper and a board. 26x31 cm is a great size. Sometimes I take 31x41cm but it is a tricky size to find a backpack that is large enough because most are rounded tops.

I alternate between blocks and working in my sketchbook depending on the day and location.

My third version of my set up is compacted right down to fit into a satchel or handbag, and it is made up of a sketchbook, small palette – I have two version – one is an Altoid tin with 3D printed inserts from an Etsy maker and the other is a new palette that I just set up in a Sakura Koi plastic palette. I popped out the colour tray and added ½ pans of my favourite colours. This isn’t the most economical way to put together a palette, but I liked that it opens totally flat and the lit is divided into 5 spaces.

My other favourite compact kit item is the Haco-Biz pencil case (6) – In this case I have a collection of fountain pens, white gel pen, 2B &6B water soluble graphite pencils by Art Graf, pencil & kneadable eraser, tiny bottle with water, water brushes and a travel brush (lid becomes handle) (7) .

I made a fold out tray for working on my lap from a piece of corflute and I have inset some magnets that can help if you have a metal palette or water well.

Let’s talk fountain pens – I love the Twisbi brand of fountain pens, and also the Sailor Fude nib. DeAtramentis document ink is water resistance and I have several colours in this – Black, Orange, Urban Sienna. I also have a Noodler’s Ink in the colour Beaver which isn’t water resistant but I love the colour and the effect with a simple softening of the lines with a water brush and a touch of water or paint. (8) Of course you could also use a pigma or micron pen which saves the need to carry ink with you when travelling.

Sketchbooks – I have a few brands that I like for different reasons – some are great for watercolour and others not designed for that but I might like that they make me paint looser and embrace the blooms as the paint and water swims on the surface a little more if the paper is somewhat like a drawing paper.

Good for watercolour – Jasart, Windsor & Newton, some Moleskins, Stillman & Birn Beta, Handbook

Good for quick sketchy watercolours or pen and wash, rather than more detailed scenes – Muji (Note M) square white hard cover (9) , Stillman & Birn Epsilon (lovely for portraits).

Of course, you can also make a sketchbook with your favourite watercolour papers. There are many tutorials online.

Other essentials –

Brushes of course! paper towel or serviettes if on the go travelling.

Water for painting, water for drinking.

Small clips to hold the corners of your sketchbook pages open.

Water well – I’ve used a several of the collapsible variety and my current favourite is a silicone cup with a lid (4) and it fits into a foldback clip that is a cup holder

Ziplock bags are handy to carry when travelling in case your palette isn’t watertight when you close it quickly after painting. I don’t want to waste the paint mixes on the mixing space, so I close it up with the moist paint still in place. Some are sealed and don’t leak and some may seep some moisture.

Hat, sunscreen and insect repellent for some places.

If painting in a hot environment there is a great accessory called a Cool Towel which is handy to have in your pack. You add cool water to the container in the morning and give it a shake at intervals and it re-cools - I use it as a scarf around my neck to stay cool.

For my upcoming trip as much as I have loved my Helinox chair I was looking for something smaller and more compact once packed down, so I read blogs, googled and bought the low stool in the pic below. It is super lightweight - folds into a little back that would actually fit into your back pocket. But the difficulty is that I am tall, so my knees are in the air which doesn't work for sketching on your lap, and I could maybe sit on it for 20-30 mins at a push. Back to the recommendations and google I have purchased the Walkstool (11) (the 3 legged one below) in the 45cm height. It works perfectly for my height to have my equipment on my lap. Packed down it is smaller in diameter, but a little heavier than the Helinox. It will better suit my needs for an upcoming trip. This isn't a cheap stool and I saw a picture nearly the same in the camping section of Big W yesterday but couldn't find the stool to compare the quality.

A chair/stool isn't a necessity when travel sketching - in many places there are park benches, sandstone blocks, etc that are perfect to perch on, or even an outdoor cafe chair while you have an afternoon bevy and sketch. Close to home or on trips where I have my car, I also often set up in the back of my car. Yackandandah and Beechworth were perfect locations where the streets are wide and you angle park - I popped my easel up and sat in the boot.

I get lots of questions about materials and where to source them, so I am popping links below to some of the items that I have used and recommend.

4. Pop Up Cup - this one is from Jane Davenport, but I have recently started stocking these on my website for 1/2 the price - along with the foldback cup clip.

7. Escoda Reserva Series travel brush - #10 – I bought mine off Amazon but I couldn’t find a link that wasn’t a set of 3.

8. is my go to for fountain pens and inks, and advice about all things pen related. They sell lots of sketchbook brands

10. Cool Towel Amazon or some local chemists.

Some of these links are not necessarily recommended suppliers but just to show you the product I am talking about.I haven’t compared pricing, but just googled for some items which I want to share with you.

Don't forget to check out the YouTube video if you would like a closer look at any of the equipment set ups, or drop me an email if you have a question.

Happy painting,


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