Portable studio tips for hiking and sketching with pastels

Spring is finally here, and that means sketching outdoors! Here are a few ideas for setting up a compact, sturdy kit for pastel sketching on your next hike.

Pastel Cases

An assortment of soft and hard pastels in plastic hobby boxes are prepared for travel sketching.

Hobby Lobby has a strange obsession with the color pink! The 2 binder pockets were the only ones I could find that were translucent colorless. Photo storage boxes are made of acid-free polypropylene. Use the foam liners your pastels came in to cushion them inside the hard cases.

Pastels are fragile sticks of powdered pigment. How do you protect them from getting crushed in your backpack? Before my February trip to the Grand Canyon, I went to Hobby Lobby and bought a clear-plastic school supplies box for ring binders and two polypropylene plastic 4″ x 6″ photo-storage boxes. I lined these with the foam rubber inserts used in the cardboard packaging the pastels came in. Further cushioning came from my chamois rub cloths. This set-up kept my pastels nestled securely while I hiked the trails.

Refillable sketchbook

I love making my own sketchbooks because you can customize the papers and size format to suit the type of sketching you’ll be doing as well as to fit snugly in your daypack. This sketchbook’s pages are 5″ x 10″, which is great for panorama landscapes, plus it fits perfectly in the Patagonia Atom mini-daypack that I’ve carried for about 10 years.

Handmade refillable sketchbook for sketching pastels in plein-air.

Store-bought sketchbooks are never quite right. Why not make your own refillable version in the exact size you want with the paper you prefer?

To make a refillable sketchbook like this, you need:

  • 2 pieces of chipboard, cut 1/4″ longer and 1/4″ wider than the size you want your pages to be.
  • Textured, archival cover stock
  • Decorative archival paper—scrapbooking sheets are a good weight and attractive. As long as the paper is heavy enough to withstand gluing, you can pick almost any type of paper. Japanese mulberry sheets are probably too thin.
  • Hole punch
  • Water-soluble PVA glue
  • 3 hinged key rings from the hardware store
  • Your preferred pastel paper, cut to your desired page size.
  • Glassine sheets or tracing vellum, cut to page size.

Assemble the covers and pages:

  • Cut the cover stock about 1″ wider and longer than the chipboard covers. Spread the glue evenly over the wrong side of the cover stock and place the chipboard onto the center of the glued surface. There should be about a 1/2″ of extra cover stock all the way around. Fold this excess over the edges of the chipboards, and miter-fold the corners. Place a board over these wet covers and weight them down so they’ll dry flat and even.
  • When they’re dry, cut the decorative paper about 1/4″ smaller than the chipboard. It should cover the raw edges of the folded over cover stock. Spread glue on the back side of the decorative paper and place on the side of the chipboard that still shows raw chipboard. Again, cover with a board and weights and allow to dry.
  • Punch 3 holes in the finished covers.
  • Cut your paper and tracing vellum to the desired page size. For this pastel sketchbook, I used ColourFix Suede texture pastel paper from the multi-color pack. Punch 3 holes in the papers to match the hole placement on the covers.
  • Make a stack of pages, alternating 1 pastel sheet with 1 tracing vellum sheet. The holes should match up.
  • Make a sandwich: 1 cover; stack of pastel paper/tracing vellum; 1 cover.
  • Thread 1 keyring through each set of holes.

Hope you find that some of these ideas work for you! Do you have any favorite tricks or gear when you hike and sketch with pastels? Please let me know in the comments. 🙂

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