Field kit

18 May, 2020.

Last week I began a series of watercolor postcards by first making super quick line drawings with my pen, then spritzing the paper to work wet-in-wet with the paint. Along with scans of the sketches, I also shared an “in progress” photograph of a sketch taped to a board (above) and suddenly got a huge influx of enquiries about the kit I’m using.

To be very clear, the majority of my sketches are made with a pen (see below) and a sketchbook. That’s all.

Color on location requires a few other tools, but with a little planning an artist on the move can keep the color kit pretty minimal, light, and easy to carry. Here are the items in the photograph above:

Palette. I use the travel palette from the Winsor & Newton Professional Watercolour Compact Set. Having tried a variety of different palettes over the years, I’ve found this one is pretty much perfect for my purposes. Folded, it will fit in my hip pocket in a pinch; unfolded there is enough mixing space for lots and lots of different color combinations. It holds all the colors I use, plus a couple I really don’t.

Pen (not pictured). Occasionally I will carry my fude nib fountain pen, but to be honest I prefer that for sitting in an armchair or at my drawing table. In the field I sketch with a Uni-Ball Vision, either the Micro or the Fine, depending entirely on which one I happen to grab as I head outdoors. I like the lines, that the ink dries almost immediately, that it is permanent and won’t smear or reactivate with water.

Brushes. One of the best purchases I’ve made over the past few years was a #12 Escoda Versátil travel brush. Perfect point, holds water well, and I love the protective handle when it is broken down for travel. I also carry a #4 Faux Squirrel 1827 Rigger by Dynasty. Cheap and very functional, mine has lasted years. I don’t use it often, but it sure is handy when I need it for a few thin lines or to add a touch of white gouache.

Paper. I have a couple of 4 x 6 inch 300 gsm Cotman Water Color Postcard pads that have been hanging about forever. One side is printed with postcard details, the other is for painting. I can’t seem to find them online at the moment, so it’s possible once I finish the pads I’ll need to source something else.

Support board. I’m using a lightweight 8 x 10 Woodward and Father mini sketch board, with a bulldog clip to hold the travel palette in place. It’s small enough I don’t need a tripod, and there is a water holder and holes of various sizes to place pens or brushes that aren’t being used.

I also use blue painters tape to hold down the sketch and to create a clean white border. Just tape some of that to the board and then pull off as needed. Water comes from my water bottle, and a cheap travel size spritz bottle stays in my pocket until it’s called into action to wet the paint and the paper.

And this is the finished 4 x 6 inch pen and watercolor sketch.

Down the street from me.

16 May, 2020.

Just down the street from me is a large house, surrounded by large trees, and backed by a wooded hill. Between the woods and the house is a carriage house, an interesting anachronism, a structure from a different time, and it fascinates me. I always wanted a property with a carriage house, a place I could convert to a studio and gallery. A place that would always, no matter what, smell faintly of hay. A place I could wander around – maybe curl up in a hammock by a window, and read as particles of dust speckling in a shaft of sunlight does a slow dance in the air.

Overcast color.

15 May, 2020.

Gray, overcast days are a little amazing – the colors are saturated and flat and strangely neutral; the contrast of cool and warm is less obvious: shadows are less cool and highlights less warm. There’s a harmony that’s not always present.


14 May, 2020.

After a morning of video conferencing, grading, more conferencing, more grading, wading hip deep through emails and websites and social media and text messages, and digging through the refrigerator only to discover I’ve already eaten the leftovers, it’s time to go walkabout.

Time to get up.

13 May, 2020.

I realize that I’ve been sleeping in these past few days, not rolling out of bed until nearly seven. And while that may, in fact, seem early, the truth of the matter is that my normal wake time is around 4:30 or 5:00.

It’s time – time to get back to early hours. Time to enjoy those minutes as the sun crests a hill, peers through the trees, greets me with a rosy, pink glow.

Time to get up.

Postcards from wherever.

12 May, 2020.

I’m not very good at being stuck in one place – especially with no real sense of apparent purpose. Ennui and malaise have hovered over me these past several weeks, a murky cloud that has left me feeling directionless.

These feelings, I cannot abide – not any longer! The listlessness must go, and to combat it I began to draw. No, I can’t make sketches of people in places, but the trees around me are animate. I’ll draw them, I’ll paint them: they are good substitutes for people, and today I’ve decided it’s time to reach back out, to connect with others – even if from a distance.

These images are postcards – symbolically, and actually.

Just down the street.

4 May, 2020.

With time on my hands, I’ve got the opportunity to experiment with something a little different. These are houses just down the street from me, and with the young green hues everywhere I just couldn’t bring myself to draw them in black and white.

I’ll probably do that tomorrow, now that I’ve got this out of my system.

Sameness – meh.

3 May, 2020.

I cycle through a neighborhood of expensive homes, each and every one a version of the next. There are few trees, and those that are apparent are skinny things, and still quite young. It will be many years before they stand majestically over these houses, providing a canopy of shade over narrow front porches that will, in fact, never get used for comfy chairs or hammocks.

A few miles more, and I’m in town. Nearly two hundred years old, the center of town is populated with houses that went up at different times and each reflects a different set of design standards. Each and every house reflects considerable change as I pass: bigger, smaller, taller, squat, bricks, stone. Most have useable front porches, and in this time of social distancing it is really encouraging to see that so many are populated with entire families listening to music, playing guitars, lounging in wicker, reading, chatting. Neighbors call to each other from one porch to the next; some raise a glass in cheerful toast. Each family is different, each home also unique.

Walking the neighboring streets.

2 May, 2020.

I took a midday break from grading student artwork and one-on-one video conferences to wander around the streets of my small town. Channeling my friend Peggy, who is embracing the “close to home” nature of our current reality by painting her neighborhood, I focused on some of the interesting houses close by. The City of Liberty has some nice examples of early 20th century architecture, along with a few antebellum homes and many nineteenth century original farm homes.

My kit is purposely small as possible – for black and white, I simply carry a fountain pen or a Uni-Ball pen and a sketchbook. Painting demands a little more, but it all stuffs into a small day pack with ease. The set up and tear down takes but a minute or two. As always, I’m much more interested in simply being part of a place and absorbing it than I am all the technical aspects of plein air kit.

My students are always a little amazed to learn that grungy paper towel that I use for wiping off my watercolor brush (and even fountain pens occasionally!) has been carried around for three or four years now. I’ve got about five of them that I use interchangeably, sitting in a stack on my drawing table.

The dog and I.

1 May, 2020.

The morning began with sun and a light breeze. I’m still teaching from home, so my drawing table is currently a stage for computers, lights, microphones, and cameras, all part of the world of distance learning into which we’ve all been suddenly and unceremoniously thrust. Sunlight comes through my studio windows, filled with such promise. I feel the urge to finish my morning work as quickly as possible and maybe get in a short hour of cycling over lunch.

Heading out to the garage, I notice the light has suddenly begun to wane. As morning blends into early afternoon, clouds grow thick and it begins to sprinkle. I pull up a lawn chair to watch as my beautiful day fritters away into blustery weather. The dog looks out the kitchen door cautiously, glancing outside and down the drive. Will it thunder and lightning? Perhaps – and just to be cautious, she curls up at my feet.

The garage itself is not very organized, not especially clean. Shelves and cabinets and a couple of freezers line the walls. Items seem randomly stacked on top of every flat surface.

The dog and I watch as a light rain falls.