Friday, June 22, 2012

Portable Sketch Kit, Part 1: Size Matters

Trader Joe's Green Tea Mint tin with Daniel Smith watercolor sticks
The Internet art world is full of amazingly creative artists, not only in the art they create, but also in the ways they modify tools or repurpose materials to suit their needs. I am especially inspired and impressed by sketch kits I see – the smaller and more portable, the better. Some of the best ideas are on a ridiculously long-running thread on the Wet Canvas forum, on Russ Stutler’s highly informative Book About Sketching, and on an impromptu thread that recently grew on the Sketching Forum.

In fact, devising a watercolor paint box that contains the greatest number of colors in the tiniest space possible is practically a competitive sport. Not to be outdone, I decided it was time to come up with my own.

Not that competitiveness was the primary motive. Up until now, I have been mostly happy with my off-the-shelf Sakura Koi watercolor box with its 24 colors and convenient, built-in mixing wells. But the box itself, measuring 6” x 4.5” x 1”, can get heavy and somewhat cumbersome when trying to paint while standing. So I was interested in making a smaller, lighter box. That was the motivation.

But the inspiration for my box was attending a recent demo of Daniel Smith watercolor sticks by Seattle-area artist Che Lopez (seen in these video demos). Che had a Winsor & Newton Bijou box that he had filled with cut-up chunks of watercolor sticks instead of traditional watercolor pans. Since I had not yet acquired much of a collection of either pans, tube paints, sticks or anything else that might go into a watercolor box, I was starting with a fresh palette, so to speak. Why not sticks?

I knew instantly which box would house my paints: Trader Joe’s Green Tea Mints are my spouse-man Greg’s favorite, and I am fond of the bright green tin with a clear plastic window that the mints come in, so I had saved several. The tin measures 2¼” x 2¼” x ¾”, so it is appealingly small and light.

The paint box came together in a very short time. I used a utility knife to cut off quarter-inch stubs from the sticks. With a brush, I dabbed a somewhat generous drop of water onto one end, and smushed the stub down firmly into the box bottom. Once the water dried completely, the stubs were firmly attached. I was able to get 16 colors to fit. I’ve been carrying the box around in my purse all week, and the colors haven’t popped off yet.

The only issue is the very handy mixing wells attached to the Sakura Koi box, which I sorely miss. For now, I’m using a plastic mixing well that is about the same dimensions as my smallest sketchbook, but since it’s not attached to the paint box, it was something of a juggling act at a recent visit to the zoo, where I typically have to stand while sketching and painting. I tried using a binder clip to attach the mixing well to the tin lid, but it was rickety at best. So that part of the sketch kit still needs work. (See Part 2: Velcro is the Key for the resolution.)
Bare-essentials sketch kit for the proverbial desert island.

Shown here is my bare essentials, stuck-on-a-desert-island-with-both-size-and-weight-restrictions sketch kit: A pocket size Moleskine sketchbook, mixing well, Daniel Smith watercolor sticks paint box, Kaweco Sport fountain pen, Copic Multiliner SP pen (0.30) and Kuretake waterbrush. Actually, the fountain pen is probably a second-tier item, but since it’s so small, I threw it in. Everything shown fits easily into my Nomadic pencil case with plenty of room to spare for second-tier items such as Akashiya and Tombow markers, more sizes of waterbrushes and water-soluble pencils. Everything shown also fits into two large pockets of my sketch vest.

For fellow color geeks, these are the Daniel Smith sticks I chose for my first custom-selected watercolor paint box:
    Color swatches on the bottom of the tin.
    Permanent alizarin crimson
  • Organic vermillion
  • Quinacridone burnt orange
  • Bismuth vanadate yellow
  • New gamboge
  • Rich green gold
  • Sap green
  • Phthalo green (YS)
  • Phthalo turquoise
  • Phthalo blue (RS)
  • French ultramarine
  • Carbazone violet
  • Burnt sienna
  • Burnt umber
  • Lamp black
  • Titanium white


  1. Nice solution indeed. Size dont matters, it's also on about how to use your resources!


    I liek a lot your blog and thanks for the words on mine.


  2. Great zoo sketches below!

    I like how you're experimenting to find a sketch kit that works. The problem with standing while sketching is always how to juggle everything you need to hold. lol I haven't solved that problem yet.I have a really tiny metal palette that I like to use. It has a lot of tiny wells and a thumb holder on the bottom that helps.

  3. Thanks, Joan and Stefano, for your comments. I think I may have figured out a way to attach a small mixing well pan to the mint tin lid with a rubberband. . . will report back on it after I've had a chance to field-test it. It's fun being an art geek! ;-)

    - Tina


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