I recently took my first vacation / plane trip since pre-pandemic, visiting Halifax, Nova Scotia and the surrounding area in late October, at the tail end of peak foliage. This was also one of the first times I’ve watercolored as a travel activity, beyond a few outdoor sketches in my local Massachusetts and nearby Maine!
Impressions of Travel Sketching
What’s Great About Travel Sketching
My overall impressions were extremely positive!
It’s a Mindful Way to Engage with a Beautiful Landscape
Sketching was a great way to really be in a landscape and observe it deeply. I often struggle to feel like I’m enjoying a vacation enough, particularly when I’m overwhelmed by the natural beauty of a landscape: how to soak it in enough? Watercolor is a great way because it takes longer and forces you to pay more attention even than photography. It took me about 15 minutes to do a quick painting, which was about the same amount of time my partner wanted to sit in contemplation of the landscape.
You Don’t Need to Do a Full Painting
If I didn’t feel like actually doing a painting, I still got a lot of the same benefit out of doing simple swatches to try to match the colors of the landscape. It’s a thoughtful exercise in observation and a lovely tactile way to experience color that’s a bit less intense.
You Don’t Need To Actually Be at the Beautiful Landscape
I also used watercolor as a fun pastime when I wasn’t in a beautiful landscape. It was a great way to unwind in the room in the evening, or even to pass time while waiting for the plane to board! I could sketch through-the-window views or interiors, use my phone to pull up reference photos (including photos I’d taken on location earlier), or even doodle from pure imagination. It’s just such a versatile pastime.
Lots of Practice Working Quickly
Painting real-time sunrises, sunsets, and even the road going by the car window, I got lots of experience working quickly and not getting too in my head.
You Don’t Need Much Equipment
Compared to many other forms of painting and art, I found watercolor quite easy to do satisfactorily on the road with minimal equipment. (Below, I’ll describe my travel kit!)
I didn’t find I needed a desk or easel; I was even able to paint while standing up in the middle of the beach with nothing else around, holding my sketchbook and palette in my hands. (That’s how I did the Rainbow Haven beach painting above!) But it was even easier when I had a big rock to lean on.
What’s Not So Great
You Don’t Get Much Equipment
Without my normal range of paints, paper, brushes, etc., I was limited to what I’d brought with me. I’m happy with what I brought (see “Equipment” below), but I did miss some of the conveniences of home, including being able to use larger paper, better brushes, a wider selection of paints, and other nice-to-haves like masking tape and ceramic mixing palettes.
The major equipment decision for on-the-go is whether to use a water brush or bring standard brushes and have to deal with water cups. I chose a water brush because I wanted to be able to do super-fast sketches without setting out a lot of equipment, balancing cups, or having the potential to spill, and I’m satisfied with that decision, but I did find that my water brushes took some getting used to and never gave as good results as standard brushes.
It’s Best Not to Be Results-Oriented
I don’t think most of my sketches are Great Art, and generally I’m not as satisfied with them as finished pieces as I am with some of my more slowly-worked and layered home “studio” pieces. It’s not realistic to expect that your quick on-the-go sketchbook pages will be a faithful recording of the places you visited that will eliminate the need for a camera. But it’s still a record of an experience that you had, made more special for the fact that you did it in person, and it helped you to ground yourself in the place – that’s worth it even if the painting itself doesn’t come out looking like much.
I took along my Pocket Art Toolkit, which was perfect because it fit neatly in my fanny pack. My entire paint setup could be grabbed and packed with one hand, and it was lighter and easier to take with me than a camera!
Art Toolkit Mods
Here’s what’s in my Art Toolkit:
- I used the 3.5×5.5 Moleskine Watercolor Album sketchbook, Pental medium water brush, and water brush refilling syringe that came with the toolkit. Actually, I ran out of pages in the sketchbook, but conveniently I was able to get a replacement at Deserres Halifax.
- I replaced the Pocket Palette with a larger Folio Palette, which fits easily into the opposite side as my sketchbook. See “Palette” below for my color choices.
- I tucked in a reusable brush cleaning cloth (from HerArtsAndCrafts on Etsy), which I used the hell out of. It’s crucial to have some kind of wipe for your brush, especially if you don’t have water cups.
- I replaced the Sharpie Pen that comes with the kit with a Micron pen. Initially, I packed a 08 size Micron, which is my favorite to use at home, but I found that the line weight felt too large for the tiny sketchbook, and I replaced it with a 01 size Micron that I bought at Duly Noted Stationery in downtown Halifax. This was a much more comfortable size for working small.
And that’s it; that’s all Iended up needing for the way that I liked to work! This minimalist setup allowed me to quickly draw and paint small sketches in person, even in situations where I had no desk or surface and had to simply paint standing up with all my stuff in my hands.
The only things I would potentially add are:
- A spray bottle would be nice to reactivate my paints. Art Toolkit does sell a mini misting bottle, which I should find room to add now that I’ve removed some other stuff!
- Some sort of wearable brush cleaning cloth would be helpful, since I did find it a bit unwieldy to have my cloth handy while also juggling my sketchbook and palette. I now understand why some people use cut-up socks around their wrists or other wearable solutions for the cleaning cloth.
Here’s some stuff I didn’t bring or didn’t use:
- I did not bring the binder clips or ruler that come with the Art Toolkit, because I found I don’t use them.
- In addition to my Folio Palette, I did actually bring the Pocket Palette that came with the Toolkit, but I replaced all the slots with mixing pans. This was a fun idea, but I never actually used my “mixing palette” because it was easier to use (and continually wipe clean) the mixing space on the inside cover of my Folio Palette than it was to have yet another thing open. I could have skipped this.
- I brought a medium-weight brush pen, but I didn’t end up using it, preferring to use my 01 Micron for basic line sketching and my paints for everything else. I think if I’d had a thinner brush pen I might have used it, but again it was a matter of being the wrong size for my paper.
- I did not include a pencil (or any of its supporting stuff, e.g. eraser and lead) and drew straight with pen! This was a chancy space-saving measure that goes along well with my “fuck it” style of art, where I enjoy it more if I remove the possibility of fixing mistakes and just go with whatever first comes out of my pen onto the page.
I wasn’t sure what colors I was going to want, so I packed a versatile palette of 17 colors, essentially my Summer 2022 Main Palette with a few substitutions.
Most Valuable Colors
- Winsor Yellow/Winsor Lemon: I used these fairly indiscriminately in practice, so they’re not both necessary, but it’s key to have some sort of bold yellow for fall foliage, particularly for leaves that turn bright yellow like ash, locust, cottonwood, mulberry, and birch. The nearly neon pop of yellow foliage against gray skies called out for a very bold color.
- Monte Amiata Natural Sienna: Crucial mixer. Base for natural-looking greens, sand, and many types of stone; also used for the darker tones in yellow leaves, and in dilute for pale yellow skies.
- Transparent Red Oxide: Crucial mixer. The basis for all my landscape browns and grays (with Indanthrone Blue). It’s especially awesome in a seaside environment because it’s the color of rust and oxidized rocks. Also an important component, with Deep Scarlet, in my Bay of Fundy mud color.
- Quinacridone Coral: I thought this was a “bonus color” but I found it surprisingly useful! My preferred mixer for the wildly bold oranges in fall foliage. Also great in sunrise/sunset skies.
- Deep Scarlet: Multiply useful; crucial for muting blues, excellent for deep warm red fall foliage, and also helpful to add warm red tones to clay-colored mud and reddish rocks.
- Indanthrone Blue: A crucial structural color for me, this is the level-setter for my darks and the mixer (with TRO) for my browns and grays. Also great for shadows and the dark parts of the sea, and the dark mixer for my pine green colors (with MANS and/or Phthalo Green).
- Quinacridone Magenta: Not used frequently, but absolutely perfect for one specific sunrise where it was the perfect purple-pink color for streaks in the sky.
- Cobalt Blue: My go-to blue sky color.
- Prussian Blue: Another lovely dark/muted blue with green tones that I often forgot about but was always satisfied with when I used it. Versatile for seas and skies and mixes lovely dark greens.
Not Really Used
- Nickel Azo Yellow: Not really the one I turned to as much as the basic yellows.
- Red Rose Deep: I usually use this more, but it’s not very autumnal.
- Ultramarine Blue: A nice-to-have for more purpley toned blues, though it was also possible to purple up my Cobalt Blue.
- Cerulean Blue Genuine: Didn’t like it for skies as much as Cobalt Blue.
I did use these colors a lot, but sort of wished I didn’t.
- Transparent Pyrrol Orange: The obvious choice for orange fall foliage, but I liked the pop oranges I mixed with Quin Coral (or the muted oranges I mixed with Deep Scarlet) better.
- Phthalo Blue (Green Shade): The obvious choice for blue tones, but I typically preferred the less greeny and/or more muted tones of my other blues for skies and seas. Makes a nice muted sea color when mixed with a lot of Deep Scarlet, but it’s tough to get the balance right, and I found it difficult to mix up a good color without making a mess.
- Phthalo Green (Blue Shade): Conflicted feelings. I found it too tempting to mix up foliage greens with Phthalo Green as a starter and they would come out way too bright (especially for evergreens). If I hadn’t had Phthalo Green on me, I think I would have relied more on Prussian Blue and wound up with greens that I preferred. On the other hand, I really liked the green tones in the sea that I was able to get by dropping in a bit of Phthalo Green under the waves, and I don’t think any other color would do it as well! So while I would keep this on any sea palette, I would like to make a mental note to avoid it for foliage except where extremely bold green.
Colors I Wished I Had
The only color I didn’t bring, where I had a moment of “If Only I Had That Color!”, was Cobalt Turquoise (PG50), which would have bee the perfect color for the background of the Acadia Theater sign in Wolfville, NS. However, I made do with diluted Phthalo Blue/Phthalo Green!
I love it when artists post their actual kit and results of their “what worked and what didn’t work” experiments. I found it so unapproachable to start working outdoors because I didn’t know what you need and what you don’t (on TV you see people using easels and stuff!) But it turns out that a minimal kit is totally do-able. I expect you will find different things crucial and optional than I do, but if you’re trying to decide what you need to put together to work outside, I hope that my experience is helpful to you!