Travel tips


Dear Artist,

I’ve been asked about getting gear to workshops overseas, since not everyone can afford to re-equip themselves on these occasions.


“An Artist Painting Near Lamorna, Cornwall”
oil on canvas by
Alfred James Munnings (1878–1959)

Actually, re-equipping some of your stuff on location is half the fun. I recommend that you go as wild and crazy as you can afford. Foreign art stores are full of magic stuff with unfamiliar names. It’s one of life’s major highs. Renewal is the game. In France, for example, they sell brushes with handles that are 18 feet long. Easels are a different matter. You can’t go buying a new French easel every time you land somewhere. They go in the hold with your luggage. Because they’re awkward and pointy, I put on a couple of turns of bubble-wrap in both directions. Still transparent, security personnel can see what’s in there. When they ask, I say, “Paint-box; I’m an artist.” They often say, “Go away.” Load your paint-box carefully. If you’re working in oils, you leave out the turps and other flammable fluids. No spray cans. Linseed, Copal, Damar, etc., in little bottles seem to be okay. Acrylic: no problem. For some reason they look at tubes; I once had a douanier squeeze a little bit from a random selection. I let him keep his efforts. Watercolour boxes can snuggle in a sweater in your luggage, and tripod-easels can be taken along with other people’s skis by “Special Handling.” Powdery pastels arouse little suspicion but they don’t travel well. You might think of buying a few when you get there. “When in Rome, etc.”


“The Duke of Edinburgh, painting at his easel on board the Royal Yacht Britannia”
by Edward Seago (1910–1974)

With regard to the art you produce while you’re away, don’t sign it. Art’s not a customs event if it’s not signed. Don’t finish it either. Give your travel-work the benefit of home-eyes. That last sentence is some of the best advice I’ve ever given. It pays for a pile of travel. Another thing: Stretcher sizes in Europe and other places tend to be in centimetres and won’t fit your standard-size frames if you bring them back to North America or the UK. I take stretchers with me, remove the canvas and layer them on the bottom of the suitcase for the trip home. If you work in oil, three days on the Riviera will dry them.


Sara with The Lap Top and Dorothy
Sara’s arm injury means unfamiliar
left-handed painting

Best regards,


PS: “No mode of creation is more direct or naturally arrived at than the accumulation of materials found close at hand.” (William Seitz)

Esoterica: A favourite home-built easel is one I call “The Laptop.” It’s a folding box designed for horizontal 11″ x 14″s. This may seem an unnatural limitation, but sometimes a limitation can be a creative source. It’s not the only easel in the world, but it’s simple to build and a piece of cake to ship.

This letter was originally published as “Travel tips” on March 12, 2002.


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Featured Workshop: Alan and Libbie Soffer

Alan and Libbie Soffer Workshops
Alan and Libbie Soffer Workshops
The next workshop is being held at the Chester County Art Association, PA from September 10th to September 13th, 2015.
The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order.





'A Green Flash by Carole Mayne, California, USA

A Green Flash
oil on gessoboard, 8 x 8 inches
by Carole Mayne, California, USA




  1. Phoebe Flory, watercolour portait painter taught her students to make easels from liquor boxes. Cut across both sides at about 45 degree angle, but stop about 2″/5 cm short of bottom. Cut upwards at 90 degrees to have diagonally-cut sides with notch at the bottom to put painting support on. Then cut across front between the 2 side cuts and remove upper part of box. Voila, a portable, disposable easel. Sit on a stool or a rock in front of it, or set it on a table, tall-top, or rock to work standing. Set a rock, or your pack, inside the easel to keep it from blowing away. Cut a handle in the back and carry stuff in it, like one wet canvas. (I have a set of photos, but don’t know how to get them to you…a picture is worth 1,000 words….)

  2. Painting on site is one of the great pleasures of being an artist. Overcoming the challenges makes studio painting a breeze afterwards. I’ve trekked through Europe with a suitcase of watercolour paper because I didn’t know where to buy it. It would be easier now because I could google Art Supplies on my phone and hopefully find a store nearby. I’ve always brought watercolours and my own paper and found them very portable, and easy to work from later. Painting on site always draws a crowd, and responding to comments,good or bad, is a whole other challenge.

  3. Another plus from buying paint on site while traveling is that you tend to be more liberal with it as you may not want to bring it home. This means more fun, more art and usually, better art. And yes, it is really exciting finding paint, sometimes at a regular house paint store. One lesson I learned the hard way was to ensure all the moisture (liquid paint) is out of a watercolor box before packing.

  4. I was informed by customs (when I travelled o/s in 2014) that oil paint, even in tubes, is not permitted under any circumstances. It may have been different when Robert wrote that piece.

    • Hmm. There is nothing flammable in the paint. It’s less likely to be a problem than those bottles of hand-sanitizers (mostly alcohol) that people carry in their purse. If I were to travel with my paints I would check the ingredients and locate a definitive list of what is not permitted. Having it in writing would also help. Many people not in the art field think artist paints have ingredients like acetone and the vapors are toxic. Each custom official would give you a different answer.

  5. I bring brushes and unstretchered canvases, and buy only the most necessary paints – I like how the paints from a local source inform my work. Sometimes the simple difference of one color – like Naples yellow – will change my work completely. I like that.
    What did you do to your arm? Hope you get better fast!

  6. I love the idea of buying supplies where you are but it depends – my husband and I lived in Italy and in many of the off the beaten path places we lived there were no art supply stores anywhere nearby – I was able to order them online, but not locally.

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