A simple traveling kit for watercolor

I like to take my watercolor tools with me nearly everywhere I go. Some restaurants have butcher paper on the table; a perfect situation for an after-dinner line and wash. I’m also just beginning to try painting ‘en plein air’, which is French for (roughly) ‘painting outside’.

Here’s a photo of my basic kit, which I can carry around in a very small computer bag (and I can even bring the computer if I wish).


It’s not completely minimal, but close. I could leave the pens behind if I really need to go light. If I’m going where there’s water available in containers (a water glass at a restaurant), I don’t even take the folding camp cup.

I love to draw with pens, so I carry quite a few, each with a purpose. From left to right in the blue case:

  • Fountain pen with extra-fine nib (a fountain pen has a looser line than technical pens, but both have their place)
  • Fountain pen with soft nib and waterproof ink (provides wide variation in line width with hand pressure changes; good for line and wash with watercolor after ink)
  • Ballpoint pen with water-soluble ink (good for ink-only line and wash)
  • Ultra-fine ballpoint (0.28mm) (heavenly for subtle ink drawing)
  • Extra-fine ballpoint (0.5mm) (not water soluble, suitable for line and wash)
  • Four Copic Multiliners, 0.03, 0.05, 0.1, 0.5 (technical pens, superb line qualities)

The Escoda travel brushes are a dream because they are good sable brushes, but come in a metal sleeve that allows me to carry them around damp easily. But any set of brushes and brush holder that fits in your kit will work. A bamboo roll with normal watercolor brushes can be another good choice, for example.

The Zeta notebook series from Stillman & Birn shown is equivalent to hot press; the Beta series is equivalent to cold press. Both are very good for watercolor because they are filled with 180lb sheets. They will curve a bit when really wet, however.

The travel palette is a dodge. I could take the time to put together a good travel palette, but this Raphael travel kit has surprisingly good colors for an off-the-shelf palette. It’s perfect for a quick line and wash. For more serious watercolor, I would carry a different palette. More about that below. (I don’t ever use the tiny brush in the Raphael palette; I should remove it!) A travel kit with really excellent colors is the Winsor & Newton (not shown here, but take a look at the link). Winsor & Newton also offer a range of high-end palettes stuffed with lots of colors; here is a link to a review of several of them.

The folding camp cup is great for holding water, as it stores compactly but holds a lot of water. As note above, however, it’s not essential.

The Copic markers are good for coloring over water-soluble inks. I have colors that work best for outdoor subjects like trees, flowers, and cottages.

This is the stuff I carry all the time when I leave the house. But sometimes I want to have more options, but remains extremely portable. This next photo shows some of those.


The red case is much larger than the pen case, and the lower section holds quite a few brushes/pencils/pens – whatever I need. The upper section is a zippered catch-all, where erasers, eye droppers (for loading water), rulers, etc. can live. I don’t recall the brand name or where I got it, but similar pencil cases are widely available.

The collapsing water bucket at bottom holds a LOT of water. It has a handle, and you can hang it from a french easel if you go that route.

The palette in the middle has two parts: a palette proper, and a tray that fits on top of it when traveling. It’s not sealed, so all liquid must be mopped up when done. This is the Guerrilla Backpacker palette, 6″ x 8″. I use it very, very often.

The palette at top right is from Alvin. It has a rubber seal, and when closed will keep paints damp for a week or more. It also has large mixing areas. A good (and amazingly cheap) alternative is this one.

At bottom right is a typical metal tin, with some watercolor pans. This is a project I’ve never completed. The idea is to find a way to fix the pans in the tin, and then squeeze in watercolors from tubes. I will probably just cave in and get this palette from Daniel Smith instead, however.

The next level up is a French easel (or a lighter easel, without the drawer and the weight of a french).  My Father’s Day gift is a half-easel, French style. I also looked at the lighter metal easels, like this one or even this one, but I felt I’d be happier putting up with the weight of the French easel for its added stability. Time will tell if I’ve made a good choice for me…

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