Sketch Kits

Painting in the moment works best with tools that are available on a whim. A well-designed sketch kit will be small and light enough to carry all the time, unobtrusive, and easily accessible. There should be nothing about one’s tools that present a delay to spontaneous use. Each artist’s needs are different; finding the balance between essential gear and immediate accessibility is the key to developing the perfect setup.

You’ll rarely find me out and about without one of these two kits.

The Starry Sketch Kit

The Starry Sketch KitThis is about 7″ x 10″ and was designed specifically to hold my most essential gear. It’s made of kraf-tex™, which is amazing stuff… the case is close to three years old now, has seen daily use for all that time, and looks nearly as good as the day it was made. This is the natural color material, crumpled for texture, and antiqued with an India ink wash. The star map and compass motif are drawn with India and white acrylic inks. It’s sewn with a machine on the bottom and double-needle style by hand on the vertical seams.

The size and shape is tailored to my very minimal plein aire gear. I believe in being able to set up and put everything away on a whim and a moment’s notice. This allows me to take advantage of random opportunities that would otherwise be wasted: lunch breaks, waiting rooms, rest breaks on walks. I don’t want to spend time and energy wrangling anything that isn’t absolutely necessary, so this case holds just those essentials and nothing more. That’s what led me to make my own kit in the first place – nearly every bag for sale that I liked was far bigger than I needed. Bigger bags just attract more stuff!

What’s Inside

Sketch 9 Finished PaintThere’s really only three things that are essential to watercolor painting: paper, brush, and paint. Something absorbent to clean the brush is usually in the case, but I’ll go without in a pinch – it does create an interesting challenge. (It’s also an excellent rationale for wearing black jeans.)

  • Paper is supplied by the sketchbooks, in this case handmade ones. All my hardbound books have featured 90lb or 140lb watercolor paper and 6″ x 9″ pages. This is an odd size for watercolor – it creates some scraps from 22″ x 30″ full sheets. The scraps are useful though, and the size just feels right for me for everyday use. Every book has featured different paper. This presents an opportunity to thoroughly explore one paper’s qualities, and changing it up once in a while keeps me form getting stagnant.
  • The brush is a Sakura Koi Waterbrush – large brush size and large handle. These are remarkably efficient painting tools! The water in the reservoir seems minute compared to the amount found in a wash bucket, yet it lasts for a good hour of sketching. The tips do get mushy after a time. When that happens, I’ll trim them with a sharp Xacto and get several more months of use out of them. Water is stored inside the brush, so there’s no need to carry a dedicated water container, unless it’s a really long session.
  • The palette is a repurposed vintage tin. In this case, it’s a hinged box that once held little cigars. It happens to be the perfect size for 27 half-pans of watercolor paint. These are a mix of Da Vinci, Winsor Newton, M. Graham and Maimeri Blu pro-grade paints.Platinum-Pen-3
  • My favorite sketching tool is the Platinum Carbon Ink EF fountain pen. It comes with a truly waterproof ink that dries instantly and a nib that’s nearly as fine as a crow quill dip pen. It draws smoothly and the ink doesn’t bleed – it’s the pen I’ve been dreaming of! If you hit the link, you’ll note that the pen is actually quite long. It’s a desk pen, so it’s designed to sit in a fancy holder. As-is, the cap doesn’t post. In my world, that guarantees a lost cap, so I took a Dremel tool and a pair of pliers to it. Shortening the barrel made it possible for the cap to fit securely on the back of the pen. It’s now a mini-pen, which fits well in the kit and suits my personal style perfectly.
  • A Kuretake #40 Ink Brush allows for expressive ink work, and uses the same waterproof Carbon ink cartridges as the EF pen. The cartridges hold enough ink for many sketches and the built-in supply allows for hassle-free use in the field. The ink is delivered through a fine sable brush tip that is a joy to use, allowing for nearly infinite line quality variations.
  • A mechanical pencil and detail eraser complete the setup.

The Compass Pocket Kit


This tiny folder serves as a both a stealth sketch kit and a contingency plan if I’m not taking the other case. It’s also made of kraf-tex™. (This was actually my warm-up project for the Starry Sketch Kit, so I could learn about the material prior to starting that project.) It fits in a jeans pocket and contains everything needed for little paintings. I’d like to make several more of these and scatter them around my truck, desk at work, and other places – just in case there’s some kind of art emergency.

Here it is, ready to paint. This picture shows an empty plastic palette on the side. It was always my intent to repurpose that little tray, which came to me via a pack of gum. In situ, it just didn’t look sufficiently vintage to make sense with this particular kit. A very small palette is required and I didn’t have the budget for one of Maria Coryell-Martin’s nifty Expedition Palettes – so I made a little one out of copper foil and pans from a cheap makeup kit. (The white card with the palette is business-card sized, for scale.)


This has 10 tiny pans, with neutralizing complement pairs in the two largest wells. That way, each color is available individually, and it’s also easy to gain the neutral by sweeping across the center where the two paints meet. This technique is a little unpredictable, which is fun to work with and keeps me on my toes.

The waterbrush is the large tip Koi, with the smaller handle. Paper is supplied by a removable mini-book. I usually fold up a few scraps and give them a simple binding. This then tucks into a pocket, like a book jacket.

The paper, brush, and paper towel blotter all fit inside the closed cover. All in all, it’s a very handy little setup for capturing random good scenes, like these two gentlemen enjoying a gorgeous spring day at the park.