Groovy Links of the Month: Ideas for field sketching kits

A pencil and a sketchbook are the bare minimum supplies for a travelling artist!

Truly, this is all you need to enjoy sketching nature outdoors!

This year, for some reason, I have felt compelled to switch up my ordinary travel sketching kit. In February, I took pastels to the Grand Canyon. In August, I took a variety of materials to the Grand Canyon and Zion, but ended up using my tried and tested watercolor and ink pen method the most. For the Bosque del Apache birdwatching trip, I used just my favorite mechanical pencil and a cold-press, mixed-media paper sketchbook that was part of the equipment list from a workshop at the ASBA conference.

I love to see the field-sketching kits used by other outdoor and nature artists. Every artist who works outdoors on a regular basis develops a preference for some materials and gear over others. Below are some ingenious ideas for ways to make drawing and painting on location more comfortable and practical.

Hope you enjoy taking a peek at these ingenious set-ups, and maybe get some ideas for your next outdoor painting foray. If you have an interesting tip or idea for traveling with a sketchbook, please share it in the comments!

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. 🙂

Wildflower Wednesday: Seven tips on wildflower identification

A detail view of purple-pink Astragalus lentiginosus, or blue locoweed.

A good example of observing carefully: The leaves grow in opposed pairs. The flower stalk begins its blossoming from the bottom up.
Beakpod milkvetch or blue locoweed in its second florescence of the year.

Now that wildflower blooming season is winding down, I thought I would share some techniques I’ve learned to make wildflower identification easier.

  • Use your smartphone as a camera. No matter how light you travel, you can always squeeze your phone in your pocket or hip pack. I’ve been surprised by how consistently my iphone takes better flower snaps than my new point-and-shoot digital camera. Photos will help you recall details when you get back to the house.
  • Measure. There’s a reason why fossil buffs always have a pencil in the photo of their finds. A rough guide to the size of your find helps in identification. Is it hip high? Smaller than your hand?
  • Count. How many petals? Do the leaves come single or paired?
  • Observe. What month is it blooming? Do the flowers open in the morning or evening? Is the plant growing in the sun or shade, by the road or in the forest?
  • Touch. Too often we neglect our other senses. Are the leaves fuzzy? Sticky?
  • Smell. Does the flower smell? What about the leaves? Sometimes you need to pinch or brush the leaves to release the scent—or stink!
  • Don’t taste! Too many wild plants are toxic, or have toxic look-alikes. Better safe than sorry.

Wildflower Wednesday will be taking a slight break this winter. The near-weekly posts will return in the spring. In the meantime, I hope to write more occasional pieces on Wednesdays to share what I learn about wildflower botany and identification. Please join me, won’t you?


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