Monday Morning Art School: what’s the perfect travel watercolor kit?

Bunker Hill overlook, watercolor on Yupo, approx. 24X36, $3985 framed includes shipping and handling in continental US.

It’s possible that I have too many travel watercolor kits. They include two Winsor & Newton field boxes (cute and cuter) as well as a beautiful antique box that was a gift from my friend Toby. The trouble with prefabricated kits is that they have unnecessary pigments and usually leave out the good stuff. Nobody needs convenience mixes like Sap Green or Payne’s Grey—having them on your palette just results in duller colors.

My watercolor kits for the schooner workshop are a little more complex–more paints and a water pan that doesn’t slide.

That’s why I make a custom one for students of my watercolor workshop aboard the schooner American Eagle. Of course I have one of those boxes, too.

Then there’s my kit for bigger watercolor paintings, which is what I recommend to my plein air students. I have used this 18-well palette successfully for field paintings of up to 36” wide, although I do have to clean it off frequently. Again, it holds more paint than is strictly necessary, since nobody needs 18 different pigments. What’s most useful is a bigger mixing well, and sometimes a disposable plate is just the answer.

My trimmed down box for this trip. Primary colors and white gouache just to use up the space.

Choosing the right travel watercolor kit is always a complicated dance between what is optimal and what I can pack or carry.

I’m hiking in Yorkshire this week, after which I will go up to Scotland. For painting, I’ve limited myself to what I can carry in what the British call a bumbag (because ‘fanny pack’ would be an obscenity over here). I wanted a kit for myself and for my pal Martha, who’s hiking with me.

I started with an Altoids box, because where I live it’s cheaper to buy Altoids than an empty tin. I stuck down four half pans with double-sided tape. Why four, when limited palette in watercolor only needs three paints? I didn’t want to leave a gap next to my mixing well.

I used three primary colors made by QoR. I’m a big fan of these paints, which are made by Golden Artist Colors in upstate New York. They’re bright, clear, and reasonably priced, and they’re tuned to the American palette. To get the broadest range of color, I used:

I filled the last pot with white gouache just for fun.

QoR makes nice field kits, including this one, which has the virtue of not including extraneous pigments. But in addition to wanting to carry as little as possible, I want Martha to have as little choice as possible. Too much choice can drive a new painter nuts.

Since the Strathmore Visual Journal is not negotiable, it determines the size of the final kit.

There are some lovely folding brushes out there, including this nifty travel kit. That was a bit pricey for a gift, so I got each of us a set of Pentel water brushes. I added a Strathmore multimedia visual journal and a bound Strathmore watercolor pad, two mechanical pencils, a pill bottle (for water) and a small flannel rag. Now we each have a kit we can carry and use as the spirit moves us.

Have you ever made a travel watercolor kit for backpacking? If so, how did you do it?

I’m in Britain on another lovely, long, blister-inducing hike. I’ve turned my phone off and while I’m gone, Laura will be running the office. Just email me as usual if you have questions or problems registering for a class or workshop. (Who am I kidding? She fixes all that stuff anyway.)

My 2024 workshops:

4 Replies to “Monday Morning Art School: what’s the perfect travel watercolor kit?”

  1. Thank you. I love your fb page. Gives me courage, knowledge, and something about art I can trust for information.

  2. I have really dived into (heh) WC as I think you know… my smallest kit is a pencil/sharpener, ink pen, micro palette, which holds 26 teeny tiny pans (I’m confused anyway so might as well live a little), water brush (and I always carry water in AZ), and a really little bound book substrate, about 3.5×5″. It all fits in my smallest purse, and resulting sketches fit in a 3×5″ photo frame. I have several kits now and adjust according to time/space/travel plans.

  3. Hi Carol,
    I always enjoy seeing what other artists use and learning from them. I have several take along set ups of various sizes. My go to sets include pre-done Lukas watercolor 12 full pan palette or 1/2 pan palette (very compact). A Strathmore journal like the one you use or a small Arches block or a larger (9×7) Strathmore journal. The size of my paper depends on how much I want to carry. I have a collapsible water container and 3 brushes actually fit in my 12 full pan palette (A small and larger round and a half inch flat.

    I can take the 12 full pan palette with brushes and the fold up water container along with some folded paper towels or rags in a large pencil case meant to hook into a binder. In the front clear pocket I can store kneaded eraser, pencils, sharpener, cut up credit cards and bits of sponge, Magic Eraser and other things used for texture as well as a few sharpies (I like to do sharpie sketches and color them in). I then carry a water bottle to fill the container and whatever paper I choose for the day. This all fits in a small tote or sling pack.

    A smaller lighter version of this set up has the 12 1/2 pan palette and collapsible water container and bottle of water along with some paper towels or rags and a small watercolor block or book. These can fit in a small toilet kit or a sling pack. My brushes are stored in a long thin pencil case and my other supplies (erasers, cut credit card, sponges, sharpener) in an Altoid tin. I may try your solution of gluing only select colors in a tin.

    For a while I used a Vera Bradley Cosmetic case (that had brush slots) to store everything. It had a handle and all my supplies fit nicely. It was around 8 x 10 inches and maybe 3-4 inches deep with zips and pockets to store things.

    1. I use Renesans watercolors that I put into a tiny ceramic palette I got on Etsy and fits in an Altoids tin. I recently made my own journal with Fabriano paper. I use water brushes usually but recently acquired Yasutomo Fusion brushes that I love. I use a little plastic camping jar for water., mechanical pencils and a Pitt pen for outlining. I love the Renesans paints. They are rich and have great intensity. You can get them from a little creative me on Etsy. They are imported.

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