The art you make while you travel is the best art in the world. Yeah, I said it. Of course figuring out how to pack art supplies is the challenge.
In a technical sense, of course, it’s nice to work in a studio with all your paint, equipment, and tools instead of on a park bench with a pencil you stole from a miniature golf course—but in terms of impact, passion, and capturing the spirit of a place or a moment, art in transit is unparalleled.
The Art of Travel
Old Moleskine journals are stacked on a shelf in my room, each packed with sketches, doodles, thoughts, and impromptu English/French hybrid poetry. While I hope those poems never see the light of day, and my many sketches of Notre Dame probably belong at the bottom of a lake, that stack of journals would be right at the top of the list of things I’d rescue in a fire.
Every page is a creative time capsule that immediately transports me back to the exact time and place I created them. Travel is a special time of flux, transition, and inspiration; if you can capture that feeling with something you physically create, you’ll never forget it. Seriously. You are a different version of yourself on the road, and that time and place is worth capturing in more than an Instagram selfie.
But traveling with art supplies is hard. So here’s a list of carry on packing tips, tricks, and hacks from some great traveling artists to get you back on the road to creativity. See what I did there? That’s art, baby.
How to Pack Art Supplies: Carry On Only
It goes without saying that this is a carry on only artist packing list, but I’ll say it anyway—Don’t check a bag full of art supplies. Trust me, you don’t want your fragile brushes, sketch pads, and watercolors chucked around as they’re shoved under a plane.
3-1-1 Rule: Art Without Liquid
TSA’s 3-1-1 Rule is about more than just tiny shampoo bottles. It applies to all liquids—which includes your oil and acrylic paints. Since 3.4 oz isn’t enough to paint with—especially for color mixing—and since you probably already filled your one clear plastic bag with actual shampoo already, let’s assume that you can’t pack any liquid paints. It’s a bummer, I know, but great art is about exceeding your limitations with what’s at hand. Man, I feel inspired already.
So, if paints are out, what are your travel art supply options?
Pencils, Watercolor, & Moleskine
Moleskine: The Travel Artist’s Work Horse
Moleskine journals are practically synonymous with travel. You can’t walk into a cafe in Spain without hearing the snap of that iconic elastic band and the skrtich of a pencil furiously sketching a stranger that isn’t aware they’re a subject.
The name in the travel journal game for the last 20 years, Moleskine’s extensive line of sketchbook options includes:
- Moleskine Sketchbook Pocket (3.5” x 5.5”) — $13.95
- Moleskine Sketchbook Large (5” x 8.25”) — $19.95
- A4 Sketchbook (8.25” x 11.69” – this one is metric) — $29.95
- A3 Sketchbook (11.69” x 16.5”) — $39.95
Each journal is made with the same high-quality paper, thread binding, bookmark, inner pocket, and iconic cover and elastic clasp that have become the icon of artists, travelers, and doodlers for decades. However, the age of the traditional sketchbook as a travel journal might be over.
Even Moleskine is embracing the move to digital media with their Evernote Sketchbook partnership.
This journal features all the analog you can handle, but comes with a 3-month Evernote trial account. What’s more, the page layout is designed with Evernote in mind, so you can just snap a picture of what you’ve sketched with the Evernote app and it’s instantly digitally available to save, search, or share with your fans.
If 3-Months of Evernote isn’t enough, click this link for one more free month.
Travel Watercolor Kits: Make a Splash on Instagram
If you’re not familiar, watercolor is super hard…but, damn, it’s pretty. And for the traveling artist, watercolor might be your best option for creating vibrant art on the move.
Watercolor paint isn’t a liquid (you’ve got to wet it first) so it’s carry on compatible. Bonus: you can wet the paint multiple times without ruining it (unlike leaving the cap off your acrylic paint for five minutes) and the amount of paint you need is tiny in comparison to oil paintings. Plus, watercolor brushes are adorably itsy bitsy.
The best part about watercolor though, has to be the ease of cleaning and use. Unlike other paints, you don’t have to clean a watercolor brush right after using it—like at the cafe. Just run the brush under water when you get a chance, and boom, all better.
If you do have a brush fetish, and the smaller watercolor brushes that come with most kits aren’t enough for you, upgrade to a small flat brush. However, a flat brush is really only necessary if you want to paint with gouache paint, like James Gurney.
Sidenote: James Gurney is awesome and you should totally experiment with gouache paint.
Artist Hali Karla recommends this setup for traveling with watercolor:
- Moleskine Watercolor Notebook ($18) — The heavy duty 200gsm paper is designed to withstand watercolor
- Koi 24-Color Watercolor Field Kit with Brush ($20)
- 4ml Koi Watercolor Brush ($8)
- Pilot Point Ultra Fine Black Pen ($11) (for those sweet outlines)
- (1) small bottle of white acrylic paint (for corrections)
- (1) Winsor & Newton’s Payne’s Grey watercolor paint ($11)
- (1) quart sized bag with Gouache paint (basically “opaque” watercolor)
National Geographic artist and contributor, Candace Rose Rardon recommends:
- (2) Winsor & Newton watercolor brushes (size 2 and 4)
- Winsor & Newton watercolor compact
- (1) Mimik synthetic squirrel hair brush (round, size 6) — only $3!
- Canson Montval watercolor pads (various sizes)
- Faber-Castell’s PITT Artist pens ($3 each)
Like Candace, I’m a big fan of the Winsor & Newton Watercolor Compact set ($68). It’s got room for 14 colors, a brush, and it seals shut in a tidy container you can take anywhere with confidence.
If you’re looking to go smaller than the Winsor & Newton case, I’d recommend a pair of binder clips work can help organize and contain your travel-sized palette, especially outside or on the go. Just clip the watercolor palette to your moleskine, and you’re all set to make some great art.
Pencils, Charcoal, & Graphite: Sketch of a Travel Artist
For the rest of us who can’t grapple with the subtle complexities of watercolor (it’s seriously super hard) colored pencils, graphite, and pens are solid travel art supply options. There are even watercolor pencils as a hybrid option.
Megan Van Groll, from Travel, Paint, Repeat says that her secret for making art on the go is a mix of pencils and preparation:
“About 10% of my portfolio consists of hyperrealistic colored pencil drawings. So when I do choose to make art on the road, it’s usually small works on paper with graphite or color pencil. I’ll sketch the outline of my piece before leaving, secure the paper with archival artist tape to a piece of masonite or very hard cardboard, cover it with another protective piece of board or cardboard, and lay it flat in my hard-sided carry on luggage. Pencils are very easy to transport so there are no flammable materials or liquids to worry about there!”
Colored Pencils & Graphite
Three of the biggest names in colored pencils are Prismacolor, Faber-Castell, and Derwent. They each make great color pencils, but what you want depends on how you draw.
- Prismacolor’s Soft Core Pencils ($74) are perfect for blending, but they’re expensive, and break easily
- Faber-Castell’s Polychromous Set ($40) is smooth as butter, but doesn’t keep a sharp point
- Derwent Studio Color Pencils ($45) feature a hexagonal grip, if that matters to you
It’s really up to how you sketch. Regardless of which pencils you choose, remember that you don’t always need the full set to make great work. Pick and choose a few of your favorite hues from the 72-pack and see what happens. Also, a pencil nub is kind of perfect for traveling, so don’t be afraid to take along some old stubby pencils from around your workspace.
Here are some other non-traditional pencil options (and an erasure eraser, because we’re not all perfect).
- Derwent Charcoal pencils ($11) come in a handy 6-pack that includes a case and a pencil sharpener
- White Stabilo marking pencils (1 x $4) are perfect for sketching on damn near any surface. Water soluble, and very erasable, this pencil is perfect for sketching and removing.
- White Pearl Erasures (3 x $3) are great…even though you never make mistakes.
Digital Art Alternatives
Before I finish, I’d be remiss if I didn’t include some of the fascinating new digital tools available to today’s traveling artists. Styluses and digital canvases have finally upgraded to the standards that working artists demand, while being intuitive enough (and affordable) for your average backpacker with a vision in their heart and some time to kill before their next flight.
53 Paper App (FREE)
Art is messy and in today’s digital sharing economy the incentive for artists and travelers to share their work immediately from the road is pushing a lot of creators to move away from the traditional sketchpad and pencil.
The app features a host of color options, palette blending, sketch tools, digital watercolor, markers, and pens, not too mention handy list and note features. The recent software upgrade now lets you upload your own photos or pictures to the app where you can edit, sketch, and doodle on top of them. It’s a brave new world.
“Pencil” Digital Stylus ($59)
The actual stylus is kind of fantastic. I own one, and I’ve taken it on several trips with great results. The battery life is great—I get weeks of sketching out of a single charge—and it’s USB rechargable, so I just plug it in when I have down time to make sure it’s topped up. But, the real treat is the functionality.
The stylus tip is pressure sensitive and responsive—it actually draws what I want—which is saying something. I’m also a massive fan of the digital eraser on the top of the stylus. It works just like a real pencil, simply flip it over, erase, and flip back to continue. I forget it’s not graphite sometimes.
Organization is Key
Forget brush sizes, fancy paint, and 300 gsm quality paper. TSA regulations, packing cubes, and ziploc bags are the real tools of the traveling artist’s trade. Before you sketch a single line, you have to know how you’re going to carry your tools safely, cleanly, and effectively.
Now that you know what to pack, how do keep your supplies organized and your t-shirts unsoiled?
Tortuga Packing Cubes ($59 set of 3)
The Outbreaker line of packing cubes are ideal for storing and organizing your art supplies. The large cube is great for oversized sketch pads, moleskines, and large brushes, and the two smaller cubes are ideal for travel-sized supplies.
Keep your colored pencils in their tins, along with a quart-sized bag of watercolor, or gouache, paint all in one convenient spot. I pack all my pens, moleskines, paint, and tools like small ruler and scissors in one packing cube, and it works great.
Alvin Double Pocket Mesh Bags ($17 each)
Alvin is a trusted name in the art supply game with a lot of different options for storing your art supplies on the move. I like the double-pocket mesh bags because I don’t store a lot of particularly messy items, and the extra pocket helps keep everything together.
If you’re really fancy, the Alvin Prestige Deluxe Mesh Bags ($17-$42) feature clear reinforced vinyl with a zipper for keeping all your messier supplies—like brushes and watercolors—far from your clothes.
Art is messy, but so is travel. I can’t imagine leaving home for my next adventure without a camera and a sketchpad to capture my experience. Photos are great at capturing the harsh reality of your travels—the people, places, and things—but sketches, drawings, collages, and paintings capture something so much more vivid and memorable than even the best DSLR in the world. Art makes the best souvenir.
- Moleskines come in dozens of customizable sizes—find yours
- Watercolor is hard but worth it
- Gouache; look it up
- The 53 Pencil Stylus is the real deal
- Colored Pencils are TSA approved, and all the tool you need