A few minutes ago, Pippi Johnson wrote from Crete, “I’ll be in Greece for thirty days and plan a small painting a day plus ink and wash sketches. I have everything in a wheeled hockey bag. I brought a small metal easel that goes into a sling-handled case and a collapsible camping table. I’m interested in how you and other artists travel and paint.”
Thanks, Pippi. A lot of painters have been asking this question lately. How much you take has a lot to do with your mode of transport — with a car you can pretty well throw in the kitchen sink. On the other hand, when backpacking you have to do some serious eliminating. The most important thing, as Pippi understands, is to decide what you can realistically expect to accomplish in the allotted time. You need to consider and visualize all of this before you buy the ticket. Then kit yourself out with the material and tools you will need to accomplish your goal. No more, no less. I’m one of those who believe in going straight for the jugular — no pencil drawings or little sketches. I recommend making ship-of-the-line — full fledged works brought close to finish.
Right now I’m laptopping you from the library on Coral Princess — an Alaskan cruiser. While the trip is eight days long, it includes only six days where work will be possible — three shipboard and three ashore. In my case it’s reasonable to expect two paintings per twenty-four hour watch. I like to decide on a uniform size during such events — the idea is to make a sort of set — in this case a dozen 11 x 14 inch canvases. Regarding the pochade box, it need only carry what’s necessary — basic and site specific colours, (I threw in some turquoise for the glaciers) mediums, five brushes, custom glazes in closed plastic bottles, etc. I keep it simple.
It all goes into a suitcase — the soft kind with wheels and a pullout handle. The box, stretched canvases and a “critiquing frame” are packed around with paint rags, sandals, socks, gloves, pre-spotted painting shorts, extra yogurt cups, etc. I know that inspectors like to look into these things so I have “water based paints only” written on the paint box. When returning from a trip, there need be no signatures on any paintings — unfinished works are of “no value.”
PS: “He who would travel happily must travel light.” (Antoine de Saint-Exupery)
Esoterica: Down on the Juneau wharf I met up with Pua, Jane and Constance, three members of the Juneau Plein Rein Painting Club. In the rain we went up to Mendenhall Glacier where even in the observation shelter our work-in-progress got splashed. The clouds hung low over the glacial lake and made for marvellous grey atmosphere and wet-in-wet effects. I thought of Confucius: “An inconvenience is an unrecognized opportunity,” but even the ducks seemed tired of the rain and the beavers had wisely checked into their dam lodges for the rest of the season.
No tubes to carry but white
by Laura Marie Anders, Billings, MT, USA
As a high mountain painter I have learned to pack light. Just joking. I have grown large calf muscles. I prefer my French easel because of the winds. I have learned to set my easel up so that the wind cuts through the canvas. (I’m not sure how to say that the wind hits on the edge and skirts across the front and back. Even if it is not windy when I set up I try to prepare for it.) I carry everything in a large backpack. I now carry 33 lbs. I put out an ample amount of paint on my palette. Because I never know exactly what I might run out of or need for colors I have filled those little paint by number containers with a variety of colors so that I don’t have to carry any tubes, except white. This has saved me quite a bit of weight. I get a great workout and prefer to stand while painting.
Bring back everything you can
by Marion Landry, Vancouver, BC, Canada
I have a cotton pouch I made myself with about 20 pockets for my acrylics. I can roll it around my brushes and everything fits in a carry-on including my clothing. I am a really light traveller. I always pay a visit to the local art shop to buy local pigment and see what they offer… Sometimes nothing, sometimes, a lot. I travel with my paintings everywhere! If I don’t have time to finish my paintings before returning, I make sure I take lots of digital shots of everything I am painting. I like close-up more than anything. Before finishing my painting once I am back home, I set my laptop to slide show and let myself immerse in my travel again. If I could pack the smell, I would! Sometimes I bring back spice or incense.
Shipping materials in advance
by Roger Anderson, Plymouth, MI, USA
I too like to go for the jugular. A few years back I took my pastels in my Julienne easel on a plane for a sailboat and ground tour of Belize. The pastels were such a mess by the time I arrived I could hardly tell one broken piece of color from another. I have resorted to shipping my oil painting supplies by UPS to my destination in advance. I just do not trust that Bubba will let them go through on my flight.
Speedy air changed to slow boat
by Lois Jackson, Corinth, VT, USA
Last fall I registered for 2 botanical art courses at the Chelsea Physic Garden in London. I carefully packed my favorite brushes, paints, palettes, etc. into a box, padded with some extra clothes and my toothbrush and sent them all off to myself a full month before my scheduled arrival. I was congratulating myself on being so clever and able to travel with just a carry-on bag, but when I arrived in London, my box was nowhere to be found.
I had sent it air freight and had paid close to $50.00 for postage with tracking, but I had not allowed for ‘homeland security.’ There are new regulations pertaining to overseas shipments. The Post Office must use a metered postage label, or if stamps are affixed, the postmaster must affirm that he/she knows the sender. Neither thing happened. So, even though I had paid all that extra for air, it went by ship, and arrived in London just after I had left (three weeks later). I had left funds for it to be returned to me, and it did finally arrive back in the U.S. about a month after I did.
Simple watercolour setup
by Jane Champagne, Southampton, ON, Canada
After years of travel and painting, thanks to advice from Tony van Hasselt for his Greek Island workshop, I can now fit all I need for half-sheet watercolours into a standard suitcase, even the Winsor & Newton Bristol Easel he recommends (the one designed for watercolourists, not the model for oils). It’s the most easy to adjust and carry I’ve ever used and leaves room for all the other paraphernalia, even a three-legged stool, plus clothes. And a short bungee cord along to hang your water bottle underneath it in case of high winds.
Brother builds small box
by Karl Dempwolf, Van Nuys, CA, USA
Since my style of painting involves scouting and completing a field study in around 30 minutes, I carry as little dead weight around as possible. I paint small scale. I asked my brother JD, who owns every tool and machine ever made for the woodworking craftsman, to build me a pochade box that was sturdy, light weight, and small enough for a backpack. I told him that the paint box should have a small pallet, weigh less than two pounds (it weighs only 22oz empty), have a place to store ten 5″ x 7″ boards, some brushes, a knife, and a few small tubes of paint to make painting excursions a delight. The last requirement was to be able to attach the lightweight JD Paintbox to a tripod. And finally, I discovered the perfect backpack to hold all of this gear. This backpack also has wheels to pull through the airport. This is the only way to travel when you want to paint and you must fly to get there.
Stuff for the road
by Liz Reday, South Pasadena, CA, USA
I just returned from a three-week trip to Newlyn, Cornwall, London and Paris with my husband and ten year old son. I managed to squeeze in twelve paintings between sightseeing, museums and family stuff. I brought with me two wet panel carriers made by RayMar, 8″ x 10″ and 9″ x 12″ respectively, and I put six canvas RayMar panels in each one. I used Griffin Alkyds which are oil based but dry fast and minimize mess in rented kitchens. My pochade box and tripod is made by Easyl, and has been pretty tough and lightweight; it’s especially useful for smaller size panels. For larger canvases, nothing beats my battered Soltek Easel, but the small panels are secure in the Easyl, and the palette inside the box is (almost) big enough for paint and mixing. At home I bring a larger 12″ x 16″ piece of glass in a Masterson plastic box with lid and prop it on top. In other countries, I bring empty turps containers (with handle and rubber seal) and as soon as I get off the plane, the search for paint thinner begins.
When I get near a good painting spot, I put all of the above plus brushes, rags, Viva paper towels, palette knives, wipes, sunscreen and water into a small rolling bag with just one or two panels and one wet panel carrier and my camera and voila, I’m good to go.
by Nicholas Georgiou
I’m also in Greece — not on an island but in Athens. It’s funny to read your letter now as my trip is coming to an end. I spent a few weeks in Cyprus, then took a boat to Paros — I packed light and felt free. I found inspiration practically everywhere, using my pencils and pens to quickly capture a future sculpture or painting, shading with my fingers and saliva — something very raw and natural about it. Now a few days before my flight back to NY I’m excited to head back into my studio, lock myself away and just create. This trip was about getting back in touch with myself. It felt liberating to leave behind all my comfortable paints and papers.
Rock drives tacks in Tyrol
by Karen Dawson, Burlington, VT, USA
Last summer I flew out of Burlington, Vermont to Germany, then train to Austrian Tyrol for 2 weeks, and then train to Vienna for 1 week. A lightweight canvas golf bag (purchased for $2.00 at Recycle North) was just perfect for my art supplies. It easily accommodated stretcher strips, a roll of pre-primed canvas, and my metal collapsible easel. In the side pockets I stashed things like copper tacks (stapler too heavy), tubes of acrylic paint and brushes. I used a borrowed hammer in one place, a rock in another, to assemble canvas. Canvas I cut with a single-edge razor. I came home with 6 paintings from the Alps and 2 from Vienna. The largest were 30 x 30 inches. There’s nothing like a good challenge.
Velcro sticks all together
by Suzy Pal, Plains, TX, USA
I have one of those small plastic palettes about 8 inches long. I got the self-stick Velcro and in one corner out of the way, I put one small piece and then I took a clear small fruit cup and put the matching piece on the bottom of it. Stick it onto your palette and so that is your small water container. It stays right there on your palette. When the wind is blowing (it always does where I am!) it stays in place too. I put a small piece of Velcro on the top of the palette with it closed and then wrapped a piece of the matching Velcro on a small traveling brush. It all sticks together.
Bug spray and other valuables
by Nick Farbacher, Pittsburgh, PA, USA
I gave a plein air class in Taos a few years ago and I watched a determined soul battle ants for a spot she just had to paint. There was no compromise in her thought pattern. If it weren’t for the bug spray this determined lady may have been more akin to an “Indian torture session” on that anthill. I don’t advise taking on an anthill, but bug spray is good to have. Bottled water and handy wipes go a long way. Safari pants that have zipper legs, allowing pants to become shorts are great; shoes with a good arch and heavy socks make for a solid platform to support yourself (fatigue can shorten your work time). Don’t forget the water, a folding hat with a large brim and of course your umbrella. Look for an umbrella that is vented as the wind could give you an unwanted uplift for your work. Personally I’ve grown to enjoy small panels and larger brushes to paint with. Two drops of Cobalt drier in your medium means panels dry in an afternoon and handling is not as difficult. The open M box series allows for work and carrying of work with simple good design in planning of their products. I add a glass insert to the mixing area and clean up is done with a razor scraper in two seconds. It all works better with good company or someone you love.
A seat of power
by Leslie Aisner, Newburyport, MA, USA
My company, Howda Designz, makes the HowdaSEAT. This is the most extraordinary, lightweight portable seat ever made. It is as much for artists as it is for people who need more support in all kinds of seating situations from the ground to rocks to hillsides and even inside the car, bus and airplane. Whew! It’s a marvel. Made of basswood, the lightest of hardwoods and 100% canvas. Rolls up and stores or just hangs over your wrist as you move along, hiking or cruising. I also make a plushy liner for it as well as a shoulder strap bag for “hands free” — does this sound like a commercial? Well, when you are as convinced as I am that you don’t want to leave home without it, or at least, paint scenes without sitting in it, you would advertise it too.
Little exhibits while traveling
by Susan Holland, Issaquah, WA, USA
When I did a riverboat trip through France, I packed gouaches in jars, some brushes and a water bottle, a little round pallette, and a counted-out stack of watercolor boards that would fit flat in my suitcase. Also one of those mesh European shopping bags and a fisherman’s vest with a lot of pockets. I actually put a flap of acetate on each of the boards with tape, creasing them at the top so they could be flipped out of the way for painting, and then flipped back over the dried work for travel, so as not to let friction nick the paint surface. This really was perfect, and also allowed me to have little exhibits as I went without worrying about people handling the paintings.
Stretching canvas on location
by Bill Adams, Victoria, BC, Canada
I get around the inspection problem by taking water-based oils, explaining to the check- in clerks that I have water paints and that seems to make them rest easier. For painting surfaces I take primed and underpainted pieces of canvas that I can stretch on a 12″ x 16″ frame, pinning the canvas to the frame with map pins. At my destination, (Tuscany, Southern France or wherever) I rent a car to haul stuff around and explore for painting locations, (plus wineries, restaurants etc.) The painting is complete in three or four hours, but I usually have a second look later that day or the next morning for touch-ups. Then I un-pin the canvas and hang it like wet laundry at my accommodation. That way I only need wood for two frames, (assuming a two-painting day). My choice of paint medium means that I need a single base of operations, and don’t move around except for day trips. This is the way I like to travel anyway. Using Quick Drying Medium as a solvent when I paint usually has the canvases dry enough for this sort of handling so there is little need for touch-ups when I return home. It’s easy then to properly stretch the paintings on a frame to prepare for the gallery frame and the next show.
Alkyd paints unflyable
by Kathryn Wiley, Rockville, MD, USA
If you’re traveling by air, the transportation security authority will confiscate alkyd paints, which I thought would be perfect for traveling since they dry quickly. Turns out the petroleum distillates are considered dangerous.
In principle you can take real, old fashioned oil paints on an airplane — they’re made with safflower or similar oil and should not be more flammable than the salad dressing they provide with those wonderful meals. You can get online an explanation of the contents of Gamblin oils, for instance, showing their innocence. Williamsburg oils say on the tube that they are non-flammable, non-hazardous. You may have to convince the people who search the luggage, though. You can use Liquin as the medium when traveling, as that will make oil paints dry quite fast — transfer it to a plain container.
Everything, including French half-easel, goes into an old hard-side Samsonite bag, which protects it all, even if it isn’t really light. Instead of stretched canvases, which take up space and are vulnerable to puncture wounds, you might consider using canvas paper or hardboard, or canvas taped to a drawing board, all relatively easy to transport.
by Mary Kilbreath, Ft Lauderdale, FL, USA
I recently flew from Detroit airport after a painting trip in the north. Although I had no trouble at my departure airport in the south at the beginning of my trip, in Detroit I encountered a world of woe. The person checking my bags recognized my French easel and began to question the contents. He told me that if it contained oil paint, it may be confiscated as I went through the security area. He further cautioned me to put the whole easel in my regular checked bag, and pack clothing around it, which I did. When I returned home, I checked the Transportation Security Administration website as he had suggested, to confirm that my paint was illegal, and found no such entry. Now I am not sure how to handle packing in the future. Must all oil painters travel by car from now on? What on earth do they think a terrorist could do with a tube of Cadmium Yellow Light? Of course I didn’t even think of carrying thinners or medium of any kind, but paint? This security business has gotten ridiculous… clearly the airport security are chasing the wrong folks. Can’t remember the last time I ever heard of someone being painted to death.
(RG note) Thanks, Mary. The security inspections are most thorough when traveling to, from and within the USA. It’s my feeling that, while diligently doing their job, not all of the inspectors are up to speed on what’s dangerous and what isn’t. Where possible I engage in a pleasant conversation — it’s good to let them size you up — they’re not just interested in what’s in your suitcase. It’s not always possible to meet them. On returning from Alaska by air, my checked bag was somewhere opened and examined by the TSA. Everything was “water based” and noted as such, even though I have it in mysterious bottles. Everything was neatly replaced and nothing was removed. I knew they had a good look because the order of my pile of paintings was changed. I’ve included a copy of the printed material they left behind.
Methods to avoid search problems
by Stella Violano, Thousand Oaks, CA, USA
First — expect to be searched and allow time for the search. Do not get angry with the searchers, they are just doing their jobs. Many pigments are mineral based and will look suspicious under x-ray. In fact, if you are nice often the search is quicker.
Second — Keep your paint in the original containers and refer to your paint as Pigments. I know of one artist friend who was told no paint was allowed and her oil paints were confiscated.
Third — be prepared. Have a printed copy of the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for each tube pigment and hi-light the combustion temperature. This is the greatest concern for searchers. Keep the MSDS with the paint if you check it in your suitcase so the searcher will see it. MSDS Sheets can often be obtained online through most of the manufacturer’s web sites. Some companies such as Utrecht email them on request.
Fourth — Mediums: If you paint in oils do not bring medium on board a plane. Either buy it at your destination or, if you mix your own like I do, mail it ahead of time to your hotel. The combustion temperature is too high and it is considered a fire hazard.
Using these methods I have been able to travel by air anywhere with no problem at all even with the most aggressive searchers.
left: Dyea, right: Mendenhall River
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2005.
That includes Linda Archinal of Marin County, CA who asked, “What do you mean by ‘rake-lit’? I tried looking it up in art lex, google and photography terms with no success.”
(RG note) Thanks, Linda. Rake-lit generally means photographing works that have surface texture so that the raking angle of light shows the texture off to advantage.
And also Jane Morgan who asked, “What do you mean that you keep “custom” glazes in closed plastic bottles? Do you have a formula for glazes?”
(RG note) Thanks, Jane. When travelling, I pre-mix a few glazes and carry them in plastic bottles. The mixtures are poured onto half-finished paintings then spread out and controlled with a rag. You don’t want to pour them on the carpet. In acrylic they are made up of water and acrylic medium (about fifty-fifty, plus a dab of the colour desired. Glazes can be made quite strong as you tend to rub it off anyway. My favourite glazing colours right now are Phthalo blue, Quinacridone red, Cadmium orange and Black.