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:

Let’s talk limited palette

Sunset sail, 14X18, oil on linen, $1594 framed includes shipping and handling in the continental US.

Last week I mailed a small sample of paints to a student in South Carolina. She was frustrated with her paints and I was equally frustrated watching her try and fail to hit color notes. What I sent her was a simple, primary-color limited palette: QoR brand Ultramarine Blue, Nickel Azo Yellow, and Quinacridone Magenta. This is what she did with them:

A color chart done with just three pigments: ultramarine blue, nickel-azo yellow, and quinacridone magenta.

There are disadvantages to limited palette-for example D. couldn’t hit a brilliant green because the red tones in her blue and yellow partially cancel out green. (I’ve explained that in greater depth here.) But the range she did hit is amazing.

Quality, please

You’re far better off with a high-pigment-load, professional-quality limited palette than a dozen badly-chosen paints. Yes, I know the lure of the bargain bin at the art store, but those pigments are in there because they’re unnecessary or, worse, useless.

Sometimes you’ll read rapturous nonsense about pigments. For example, cobalt violet is sometimes described as “deep, richly glowing, and unmatchable by mixing.” I like the color but not enough to bypass my desire to avoid metal pigments wherever possible. Cobalt violet has a lovely weightiness in oils, but it’s hardly unmatchable. In fact, D. did it in the second column from the right, with just magenta and blue.

Clary Hill Blueberry Barrens, watercolor on Yupo, ~24X36, $3985 framed includes shipping and handling in continental US.

Tastes differ

I like my paint to be able to hit intensely saturated colors, because you can always kill chroma, but you can never intensify it. A more traditional palette, like my Winsor & Newton field kit, never seems brilliant enough. It has convenience mixes like Sap Green and Payne’s Grey, along with umbers and alizarin crimson. Those colors cannot compete with knockout 20th century pigments. When I weigh the convenience of sliding a palette in my pocket vs. having the colors I want, I invariably come down on the side of more color.

Autumn Farm, Evening Blues, oil on canvasboard, $1449 framed includes shipping and handling in continental US.

I’ve observed that the more experienced I get, the less stuff I buy. I know what I need, and I’m not tempted to deviate. Having said that, I recently updated my supply lists to replace Prussian blue with phthalo blue. Their color profiles are very similar, but phthalo is just a little clearer than Prussian. The downside is that phthalo is a more heavily-staining pigment. But after dithering for years, I’ve finally decided that clarity outweighs staining. Of course, both are excellent pigments, and can easily substitute for each other (except in acrylic, where Prussian blue is not available).

I make my supply lists for watercolors, oils, pastels, acrylic and gouache freely available to my readers (although this is copyrighted material; you don’t have permission to appropriate them and pass them off as your own). These are paired primary palettes with limited earths added, just because they’re cheap and useful. I have an entire cabinet of samples, gifts and bad purchases myself; I never touch any of them. These pigments are sufficient.

My 2024 workshops:

It’s time for our 30-watercolors-in 45-days challenge

Mike Prairie’s dog biscuits.

February 21 to April 6, 2024

I like painting-a-day challenges in theory, but in practice I can never finish them. Missed days nag and carp at me. Painting-a-day challenges always end up making art seem like a chore. That’s something art should never be.

Several years ago, my student and friend Becky Bense and I dreamed up a challenge that would motivate us without creating an added layer of guilt.  Neither of us have time for the Strada challenge, which requires a new painting or drawing every day for a month. That’s not to knock the painting-a-day discipline; those who finish it in the spirit in which it was intended will reap great benefits in brushwork and composition. However, it’s not always doable.

Kisses for Wayne T, by Jennifer Johnson.

Think of this as the hippie/boho version of a painting-a-day challenge. A big part of the idea was to discourage perseverating. That can be the death of watercolors, which benefit from quickness and a light hand. Instead, we’re encouraging speed: three studies of a few minutes each, in pencil, monochrome and then color. It’s a value-driven exercise that should leave room for spontaneity.

People are very creative in their interpretation of the challenge. Robin Miller once ended up writing a graphic novel. She’s since retired, but it’s hard to see how she can top that.

Tulips by Kimberly Krejsa.

The process is super-simple

We do small watercolor paintings in three steps:

  • A sketch;
  • A monochrome (grisaille);
  • A finished painting.

You can then post your finished work in this Facebook group. (This is a very supportive group, and I also monitor it closely.)

Sandy Sibley painted the contents of her purse.

The first rule is, there are no rules

  • It doesn’t matter what medium you choose; we chose watercolor because it’s fast.
  • If you take more than half an hour on any of these, you’re overthinking it; 15 minutes is better.
  • It doesn’t matter how ‘good’ the results are; the process is the important part.
  • It doesn’t matter how many you finish; I haven’t yet managed thirty watercolors in 45 days.
  • There are no winners; painting is its own reward.
Judi Beauford’s pages are as beautifully-designed as her paintings.

Why three steps?

It’s a sneaky way of teaching a principle-that drawing and value are the basis for fast, confident brushwork. But you don’t need to think too hard about learning; the process is its own teacher. And, no, you don’t have to be my student to play. Heck, you don’t even need to be an experienced painter to play. This is a good, fast way to dip your toe into painting.

If you’ve never painted before, you can start with a simple watercolor kit and a pencil. However, if you think you’d like to pursue painting, I put together the following short list of items that won’t be a waste of money:

Robin Miller’s Mrs. Quince, who collects things.

This is kind of a semiannual thing

Although I try to do this twice a year, the dates are as fluid as anything else in this game. (A hat tip to Karen Ames, who reminded me on Monday.) Our dates this time are February 21 to April 6. Of course, I’m always the behindest of artists at my own party, so I’ll be posting what I can finish, when I get it done… and you can too.

If you only finish three paintings in 45 days (which is sometimes where I end up), that’s okay. You’re three ahead of where you would have been if you didn’t do any. If you flex the dates, that’s okay too.

My 2024 workshops:

Monday Morning Art School: neat lines in watercolor

Sampler on Arches natural cold-pressed paper: a straight-edge was used for the straight lines, and the curves were drawn freehand. An ultramarine blue wash was laid over the mask, and a glaze of cadmium yellow was added after the mask was removed. Where it is still pink, the masking fluid is still in place. (All photos courtesy Michael Prairie.)

I have an aversion to frisket, or masking fluid, for watercolor. I’m unable to apply it elegantly. It wrecks brushes, leaves lumpy marks, and in general always seems like more trouble than it’s worth. Instead, I wet my paper carefully around the items to block out and then apply the paint using capillary action to direct it. That has its problems as well, so when Michael Prairie shared this method of applying frisket using an old-fashioned ruling pen, I was gobsmacked. (Mike’s an engineer, so it’s no surprise that he found a solution to this technical problem.) Without further ado, I’ll let Mike explain it:

Masking fluid mixed with a dab of quinacridone magenta

I had my father’s old ruling pen (he was a machinist and did some mechanical drawings). It was beat up a bit, so I tuned it up. Here are a couple useful links that I found, one of which really helped me tune the tip:

 How to use a ruling pen

 Steel ruling pens 

I can tint the fluid with a bit of watercolor pigment, and it hasn’t stained the paper. Some fluid is available in blue, but this lets you use different colors if you want.

The ruling pen works well with the watercolor paint itself. It is a great way to paint long lines of uniform thickness.

Ruling pen dipped in masking fluid, and the outside of the tines wiped dry.

Dipping the tip in thick masking fluid and wiping the excess off outside of the channel works well, but with thinner watercolor paint it tends to wick out of the channel. For that, I found I can load the pen with a loaded watercolor brush by scraping it across the edge higher in the channel. I also got an eye dropper to load the pen, and that works well.

For using a straightedge to draw lines, the edge should be lifted above the paper so the fluid or paint does not wick under the edge. Some straightedges are designed with a notch (or a rabbet in woodworking parlance) for “inking,” but a couple layers of masking tape set back from the edge will do the trick.

Ruling pen filled with juicy ultramarine blue with an eyedropper (to keep the outside of the pen dry).

The ruling pen can be used freehand as well. With the tips tuned so they are sharp and parallel, the line will follow the direction of the two edges on the tip. If the pen is held without rotating the handle, the line will be straight, but if the handle is rotated while drawing, it can be steered to make smooth curves.

Some people use nibs (from fountain pens). I haven’t tried that, except for a crude nib I made with a plastic drinking straw. It worked okay for scrubby applications of masking fluid.

I ruined an old paintbrush by not dipping it in Dawn dishwashing soap first-and I don’t know what the soap will do to the paint if residue is left behind.

I also tried some silicone brushes and found that they were good for dropping small semi-controlled blobs of masking fluid and moving it around into desired shapes, but they don’t come close to what I can do with a ruling pen for straight lines.

Sampler on Strathmore Bristol smooth sketchbook paper, i.e., hot-pressed.

You can get a ruling pen at Dick Blick, or a cheaper one at Amazon, but not all drafting tools are created equal. I didn’t want a cheap knock off, so I went to ebay where I found a used Staedtler Mars one for eleven bucks including the shipping. That means I will find my old one shortly, right?

My 2024 workshops:

Monday Morning Art School: activate your paints

Clary Hill Blueberry Barrens, watercolor full sheet, $3985 framed includes shipping in continental US.

I give new students a protocol sheet. On one side it lists the steps for a good oil painting, on the other side, the steps for a good watercolor. (Acrylic painters can follow the oil painters’ lead.) Then I tell them they no longer need me, and laugh.

Last year, I realized that there was a step missing on the watercolor side, a step that seemed so basic that I had failed to include it. It was to wet the paints on the palette before starting painting. I expected that everyone knew that. Silly me, because it’s critical for clean, bright color.

The deck of the schooner American Eagle, from which I teach watercolor twice a year. 8X5.5 sketch.

Watercolor can be purchased in pans or tubes. If the latter (which I far prefer), it’s generally squeezed into a palette and allowed to dry. (There are a few painters out there who squeeze out new watercolors every time they work; that’s an expensive and unnecessary practice.) In either case, the paint needs to be activated. That means wetting it down to approximate its consistency out of the tube.

The easiest way to do this is with a small spray bottle; you can also use a syringe or drop (clean) water from a brush. It should be done 10-15 minutes before you start painting, and might need to be redone as you work, depending on environmental conditions.

Before activating your paints, make sure they’re clean. Any color that’s migrated into another pan is best removed when the underlying color is dry. You can do this very easily with a damp brush. And if you didn’t clean your mixing wells earlier, this is a good time to do it.

Penobscot Bay sunset, from the deck of the same schooner. 8X5.5 sketch.

How wet should your paints be? Wetter than you might imagine. You need to lay a solid film of water over the top of the paints and let it soak down into the pigments. That takes more than a few seconds. If you go several days between painting sessions, expect it to take at least fifteen minutes.

Most of my watercolors are dashed off between oil paintings, but they still need activated paint. 8X5.5 sketch.

The proof is in the pudding

My old pal, watercolorist Stu Chait paints deep, intense hues in his abstract paintings. He gets them by working with suspensions of paint in little square cups. Bruce McMillan, master of clean color, paints on a big butcher’s tray with paint cups around the center.

The best way to achieve a prissy, old-lady look in watercolor is to start with dry paints. Even a wet brush can’t pick up enough pigment to give saturated color. To compensate, the artist starts to glaze colors, over and over. Eventually he has something so delicate, so refined, so dull, that it looks like it was done by a minor British noble’s maiden aunt.

Watercolor is shockingly durable. I have a palette given to me by a retired artist. It contains the paints she used back in art school in the 1970s. They awaken with a sheer misting of water. This is one reason for the perpetual love affair of painters with watercolors-they’re patient. You can slip them in a backpack and ignore them for months between uses.

Rocks along the Pecos River. How I miss teaching in New Mexico!

One more thing

There are a few slots open in my critique class, starting tonight.

My 2024 workshops:

A game-changer for watercolor?

It's a danger when you come to visit; I probably will make you work.

It’s a danger when you come to visit; I probably will make you work.

Watercolor painters have several options for transferring their sketch to paper. They can hope they get it right without guidelines at all. That has never worked for me; I’m far too impulsive.

Or, they can sketch in light pencil lines. Pencil can be very charming under watercolor, but make the marks too dark or numerous, and they’re jarring. Excess erasing will damage the surface of the paper. As soon as you’ve painted over pencil marks, they’re fixed in place forever.

Underdrawing done with Pilot FriXion pen.

Another solution is to paint in guidelines with a very dilute solution of Neutral Tint and a tiny brush. This is a technique I learned from the late painter James Asher, and it works very well with his meticulous, carefully-realized style of painting. I’ve found it works better in controlled studio work than in loose plein air work, however.

My daughter Mary recently bought herself a Cricut machine and in the process of fiddling with it, learned about the Pilot FriXion pen. It comes in .7mm or .5mm and a variety of colors, and it erases with the heat given off by friction. For a watercolor artist, this has tremendous potential, if it means we can erase drawing lines using a hair dryer.

Diane’s watercolor before erasing the line drawing.

As I live in the deep woods, I was able to buy only a .7mm point; it was fine for my test, but I’d probably buy the finer point if given a choice. According to the package, the usable temperature range is 14-140° F.

My student Diane Fulkerson is visiting, so I asked her to test it for me. (I’m telling you the specific materials she used so that you, too, can do your own scientific tests). I gave her a sheet of Strathmore 400 watercolor paper. Starting with a quick drawing of a pitcher, a pear and a towel, she limned in the colors with QoR paints.

At this point the painting looked like a basic pen-and-wash exercise, and therein lies the danger of forgetting that these marks will completely disappear. When we hit it with the hairdryer, the marks really did vanish, leaving some lack of definition. “After the lines disappeared, I was left with just basic shapes,” said Diane. She then went back in and added shadows and a few details.

Diane’s watercolor looks a little barren without the pencil lines. Nothing a bit of painting won’t fix.

Will the lines reappear over time? I can’t say, but as an experiment, we tossed it in the freezer (around 0° F) for about two hours to see if the lines reappeared; they did, ever so slightly. Don’t store your finished artwork in your unheated north-woods cabin over winter and you should probably be okay.

After she erased the lines, she added more marks.

I bought a few more and I’m taking them and my hair dryer to Acadia to see how my Sea & Sky workshop students like working with them. If you try this, let me know what materials you used and how it worked.

“I thought it was cool,” said Diane, and I can’t disagree with her.