Traveling With Watercolor
One of the great pleasures of traveling is documenting the things we encounter. Not only do we accumulate a collection of paintings and sketches that become lasting memories of where we have been and what we have seen, but we also tend to observe much more by stopping and painting.
I’m a big fan of keeping things simple and traveling light. Remember, it’s not the equipment you cart around that determines the quality of what you produce, it’s what you do with that equipment.
Over the years I have pared down my traveling kit to just a few things, and by trial and error, learned some tips and shortcuts along the way.
1. Simplify and Reduce.
Don't bring anything you are not sure you will use. If in doubt, leave it at home.
I usually travel with two painting kits - one in my booked luggage and a tiny portable kit in my carry on bag.
In my booked luggage I pack all my necessary equipment into a shoulder bag which goes into my suitcase. This bag holds everything I need.
• Spare tubes of paint
• Water pot with ink, small spray bottle and gesso inside
• Hand towels and masking tape
• Box of pencils and brushes
• Small aluminium palette
• 1/4 sheets of paper between 2 corflute backing boards
• Waterproof jacket, cap and sunscreen in the lower zip pocket
• I only take this kit when I am demonstrating so a light weight folding easel and core flute table attachment also fit in the bag.
When I am not demonstrating I take a much smaller kit
• A water brush (Handle fills with water, released by squeezing)
• A few small, cut down brushes
• A tiny palette
• An A5 sketch pad
Everything except the sketch pad fits into a small leather pencil case and this kit travels in my carry on.
2. End to End Brushes
To stop your brushes being damaged in transit tape them together like this to protect the bristles.
Should the bristles become bent, holding them over the steam from a boiling kettle will bring them back to life.
I tape my two riggers together and my 1/8 and 1/4 inch flats together. Not only does it protect them, it also makes it harder to accidentally leave brushes behind.
3. Work Small
I work with a different mindset when painting on location. My intention is not to produce masterpieces, but to capture quick, spontaneous responses to what I see. For me, 1/4 sheet (around 14”x11”) is an ideal size.
If I have a lot of walking to do or I am carrying camera gear, I will take my small kit and work on an A5 pad.
4. Ink bottles
Traveling with ink can be disastrous if you are not careful. The change in flight pressure can make a real mess if the container is not tightly sealed. I screw the cap on firmly then tape it tightly before placing the ink in a zip lock bag. This then travels in my empty water pot. Ink bottles with eye droppers in the lid are best left at home or replaced with a bottle that seals properly.
5. Double end pencils
In my small kit for carry on baggage, I always sharpen both ends of my charcoal pencils, as sharpening them in flight is not possible. Paper tube covers protect the second end.
6. Leave your easel at home
Watercolor works better horizontally - pigment sinks and settles into the texture of the paper producing richer colors and stronger darks. Easels are cumbersome and only really necessary if you need other people to see what you are doing. The only time I use an easel is when I am demonstrating. When not demonstrating, I can usually find a seat , wall or rock to sit on and paint with my paper flat on my lap. If you must travel with an easel make sure it is as light and compact as possible.
7. Corflute backing boards.
Corflute is the light weight, twin walled plastic used to make real estate signs. It is available from big hardware stores or sign writers. It is ideal for a backing board for watercolor - light weight, neutral pH, rigid and indestructible. I carry my pre cut sheets of watercolor paper clamped between two sheets of corflute slightly larger than the paper. This protects the paper and provides two backing boards.
The ideal painting location is somewhere in the shade with an out of the way seat and table, close to coffee and in front of a great subject. This rarely happens so what can we dispense with? I guess the coffee can wait, the seat and table are not really necessary, shade is more comfortable, but as long as your painting is not copping full sun, can be done away with. That leaves the subject - you can sometimes squeeze a successful painting from a mediocre subject, but I’d much prefer to suffer all the other inconveniences for the sake of a good subject. If possible keep your painting out of full sun. It makes it difficult to view and causes everything to dry too quickly. Sometimes just swivelling your position will put your painting in shade. Remember, whatever location you choose before you leave look around for dropped pencils or brushes, and make sure there are no tissues, masking tape or other rubbish left behind.
9. Plastic bag
Rolled up in a corner of my painting bag, I carry one of those big shopping center plastic bags. It’s handy to sit on, spread things out on or slip over a damp painting at the first sign of rain.
10. Sitting without a stool.
Crouching down to paint can become uncomfortable after a while. A handy trick, if you don't have a stool or seat to sit on, is to put something under your heels to elevate them a couple of inches. A rock, stick, block of wood or water bottle - anything that lifts your heels higher than your toes. You can sit comfortably like this for quiet a while.
I love traveling and exploring new locations. Painting along the way is a lot of fun. You get to meet people, see things in more detail and, at the end of the day, sit down with a beer and enjoy the handful of accumulated sketches and paintings. What could be better? Keeping equipment light, portable and to a minimum only adds to the pleasure.
Author: John Lovett