Well, it’s been a whole year of sketchbook posts, so I thought it would be fun to include a word on my adventures with the tools and materials I’ve been using over the past year.
Having a number of sketchbooks on hand while working on site is key. In determining how many to bring, the two main factors are flexibility and weight. Each outing, I try and take with me as many I think I can comfortably carry. It’s one thing to fret over having to wait for a page to dry and wishing I’d had another sketchbook on hand, and something else entirely to unpack sketchbooks I brought but didn’t get the chance to use. This last point bothers me less – I’d much rather have more opportunity to paint.
This past year I worked mainly in Moleskine watercolor journals. These journals are (obviously) the most widely available and come in the widest variety of sizes – 5.5″ x 3.5″, 8.5″ x 5″, 12″ x 8.5″ and 16.5 x 12″. I almost always have at least two 5.5″ x 3″ and one 8.5″ x 5″ with me at all times and when I plan an outing, I usually end up adding one or more 8.5″ x 12″. I’ll sometimes bring a 12″ x 8.5″ as I’ve been trying to move towards doing larger on site sketches, but at this size and larger, it ends up being more convenient to bring watercolor blocks than to deal with an open sketch book.
Besides the Moleskines, I’ve discovered and grown fond of both Handbook ‘Trav • e • logue’ and Pentalic watercolor journals over the past year. Handbook journals are linen covered, made in India, and come in an interesting variety of sizes, notably the 3 1/2″ x 8 1/4″ ‘Pocket Panorama’ and 8 1/4″ x 8 1/4″ square.
Although the Pentalic journals currently only come in one size (the ubiquitous 8.5″ x 5″), the paper has an overall thicker quality to it. Pentalic uses 140lb (300 gsm) paper, Moleskine and Handbook use a lighter 95lb (200 gsm). As a result, Pentalic paper can take on significantly more water without warping too much, lending itself to a higher degree of experimentation when it comes to applying washes.
I’ve acquired a number of brushes over the past year and to date, my favorite brushes are a collection of different brands and form factors.
I’ve had a lot of fun with Blick’s retractable brushes. The clever design of these brushes collapse when you replace the pen cap-like cover, without crushing the brush tips, making them ultra-convenient to carry anywhere and access any time.
I’ve also acquired a couple of Daniel Smith travel brushes. Instead of collapsing, these brushes have ferrules that unscrew from a hollow handle. When storing the brush, the ferrule piece screws back into the handle upside down. I find the threading mechanism of these brushes a less convenient than that of the Blick’s, though what these brushes lack in convenience is made up in variety. Blick’s retractable brushes are currently available in sizes 0/2 – 4 whereas Daniel Smith brushes range from 2 – 12.
I finally tried out the Niji water brush this month. The Niji is a plastic brush attached to a soft plastic hollowed out handle that doubles as a water reservoir. I had always been a bit skeptical of these brushes on the basis that plastic bristles wouldn’t seem to have the same smoothness I have become used to with higher quality brushes. The fact that the bristles don’t hold as much water as a traditional brush is countered by the ability to gently squeeze the handle when more water is needed, directing water from the reservoir handle to the bristles through a simple mechanism in the ferrule. The Niji makes the need for a separate container of water unnecessary then, making it possibly the most convenient watercolor brush for sketching at a moments notice. One downside with this brush is that despite it’s clever design, the bristles still won’t hold as much water at one time as a natural hair brush, making it unusable for applying large washes. Also, switching between colors without mixing uses more water (and possibly a napkin or towel) and isn’t as instantaneous as swishing around a regular brush in a separate water supply. Niji water brushes come in small, medium, and large round and small flat form factors.
I picked up a variety of non-travel brushes. While studying with Tom Hoffman last September, he confessed to moving from a variety of brushes over years, but eventually settled on a 1 1/2″ wedge. Watching Tom use this brush was mesmerizing to say the least, though I’ve found the size prohibitive for working small (obviously), so I picked up a 3/4″. I’d never spent time using the wedge before, I’ve found they’re unexpectedly versatile – not only do they hold a lot of water, the wedge shape lends itself to wide strokes and a variety of round techniques you wouldn’t normally be able to do with a regular flat.
One thing I wanted to mention here is the current situation with the availability of Kolinsky Sable brushes. I have accumulated a few of these brushes over the years and have found them to be unparalleled in their ability to hold water and hold their shape over time. So I was surprised to discover that the availability of these brushes in the United States is currently on hold. For months now, many of the sources I turn to for these brushes have posted notice that they are on back order indefinitely. I did a search and found this post from Seattle blogger Meg Maples outlining a recent correspondence with the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife. Although these materials are understandably sought after, I am glad there are safeguards like CITES in place to ensure the future of the Siberian Weasel. Let’s hope the situation resolves itself soon!
Paints and paintboxes
I’ve picked up 4 paintboxes over the past year: two 6 full/12 half pan kits, a 12 full/24 half pan kit, and an enormous 28 full pan kit I had to order from an oversea supplier. In terms of form, I believe each one of these have their practical uses. For catching every chance to sketch, the 12 half pan sets are best for portability reasons, and each size larger is a trade of portability for flexibility in terms of colors on hand. I almost always have either a 12 or 24 half pan box on me wherever I go while the 28 full usually stays home, though it still makes for an excellent studio palette as it’s easy to pack away when I’m not using it.
Giving pans of fresh paint enough time to dry before taking them on outings has been another thing to learn. Once or twice this past year, I would get so excited about a new color, I’d squeeze it into a pan, snap it into a box and go, only to open the box on site and find it everywhere. Eventually I tried filling pans and baking them on a cookie sheet at a very low temperature for up to 10 to 20 minutes, which kinda worked. Eventually, the warm air in the oven causes a thin, outer layer of paint to dry, though once or twice this, too, turned out to give me a false sense of security and I’d end up with a surprise on site. What I’m getting at here, is that there’s no substitute for forethought. I’d recommend giving new pans at least five days to a week to dry before taking them with you anywhere.
A part of the fun this past year was in cobbling together a kit that would lend itself to the most portability while providing the most flexibility. Besides sketchbooks, brushes and paintboxes, these are the accessories I have ended up with.
The Monaco brush wallet by Silver Brush turned out to be pretty great. It holds every brush I need (and a few I don’t!) and features this neat, clear plastic zip pouch I use to store sponges, pigment liners, erasers, and binder clips.
I’ve used many different open water containers over the past year and have been getting the most satisfaction from the Princeton collapsable water bucket. Princeton’s water bucket is made out of sturdy nylon-like material with a waterproof lining on the inside. The bucket stores flat and folds out when you need to hold water. The other great thing about the Princeton water bucket is brush holders stitched in along the sides.
Another thing I learned this past year was the convenience and reusability of cellulose sponges to that of paper towels for water control. The common issue while working in watercolor is learning how much water to carry on the brush while one paints. Up until this year, I was using paper towel for this, to daub water from the brush I was using, or cleaning water and paint from my palette before packing things up at the end of a session. The cellulose sponge is better suited for both of these tasks than the paper towel, and can be reused over and over again whereas paper towel is a one-time only deal.
When I’m painting outdoors with a sketchbook, the wind can be a nuisance. Although I typically hold a paintbox and a sketchbook in one hand while holding the brush in the other, even a light breeze can catch on the pages and cause them to curl while I’m trying to paint. So I’ve learned to keep a supply of binder clips with me at all times. Because I work on several sketchbooks during any given outing, I find having at least as many binder clips with me suits me well.
Finally, a word about comfort. I can usually find a comfortable place to sit and do my sketching on site, but when I can’t, it helps to have a seat with me so I can situate myself anywhere. I’ve found the REI Trail Stool indispensable for this purpose. Weighing a mere 18 ounces, this stool collapses down to a convenient 4″ x 22″ and is surprisingly comfortable to use.