Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Search for the Holy Grail Continues

My new Rickshaw Velo backpack.
Last year around this time, I was doing a lot of fussing about which sketching supplies to bring to Europe in July (a trip that would include my first Urban Sketching Symposium in Barcelona). Receiving the most attention was the heaviest and most important component – the sketchbook itself. By June, I had mostly resolved the supply issues, but I was giving surprisingly little thought to the bag that would carry it all. I had used the Nomadic Wise Walker messenger bag as my carry-on during previous travels and assumed it would be fine for Europe. I took it on one dry run a couple of days before we left and deemed it sufficient.

What a mistake. 

The bag turned out to be completely wrong – my single biggest equipment regret. I ended up abandoning the Wise Walker after the first day and using a flimsy, unstructured tote – the kind that allows everything to drop to the bottom in a big, disorganized heap – the rest of the trip. (For details, see No. 5 in my post, What I Learned About Travel Sketching.) I’m now starting to prep for a trip to Brazil in August (which will include the Urban Sketching Symposium in Paraty!), and I’m not making that mistake again.

Fortunately, this time, my supplies and sketchbook are a non-issue: I’m bringing only the usual sketch supplies I already carry with me every day (none of the workshops I signed up for requires anything special), including my “Stefano” sketchbook system. The only question is what to carry it all in.

My beloved Rickshaw Bagworks Zero messenger bag.
What I wished I could have used last year and still want to use this year is my beloved Rickshaw Bagworks Zero small messenger bag (at left), which I’ve been using happily for two solid years. It holds everything I need every day – all my usual “purse stuff” as well as my sketching supplies – and is comfortable enough to leave on my shoulder when I sketch standing, which allows me easy access to its contents. 

The problem is that it doesn’t have enough room for a water bottle, snacks, sun hat, extra layer, sunscreen, maps and other travel essentials. But everything else about it is perfect.

With all of that in mind, last August I purchased a medium-sized Rickshaw Bagworks Zero messenger bag – my daily bag’s “big sister.” I used it on one domestic trip, but I found out quickly that I can’t carry that amount of weight on one shoulder for long. A backpack, which would distribute the weight evenly on both shoulders and be supported by my back, seems like an obvious solution, right?

A couple of months ago I purchased a Rickshaw Bagworks Velo backpack (see top of page) to replace my old conventional backpack. The Velo’s streamlined profile and dimensions fit my height better than the bulky hiking backpack I had been using for years, and it’s much more comfortable to carry. I had the idea that I would keep my sketch supplies in a small, cross-body bag (serving as a “quiver” of sorts) for easy access while sketching, and stash that smaller kit and the Stefano sketchbook inside the backpack when I wasn’t using them. The rest of the space in the Velo would then be available for water, hat, etc. while I was out and about.

I took the Velo and a small quiver-like bag to Maple Leaf Park for an initial dry run, and it seemed to work out well. When I found a sketch subject, the quiver and sketchbook came out of the pack, the pack leaned between my feet, and the quiver went over my shoulder for easy access. I was pleased that I seemed to have found my travel solution. At least the concept was sound.

But I knew I needed to do more thorough field testing to avoid last year’s debacle. So on Friday when I went to the Fremont neighborhood, I decided to use the opportunity for another dry run. Again, I put all my sketch supplies into a quiver, put the quiver and my sketchbook into the Velo, and also packed all the stuff I would normally take when I travel into the Velo. As I had found earlier, the Velo itself is ideal as a backpack – it distributes the weight comfortably on my body. (Regardless of my ultimate solution, the Velo makes a great carry-on bag, and I’ll use it for that purpose.)

Here’s what happened: I was walking along the Ship Canal, backpack on back, looking for a sketch subject. Just then, I spotted a brood of adorable goslings close to me on the path. I knew I would be able to sketch them quickly. But to do that, I would have to first pull the pack off my back, put the pack down by my feet, pull out the sketchbook and quiver, put the quiver over my shoulder and then finally sketch. By then the commotion would probably have alarmed mama goose, and they would have skittered. 

All my sketch supplies are easily accessible in my Rickshaw Zero bag.
When I have all my sketch supplies and sketchbook in my Zero messenger bag, I can pull the sketchbook out with one hand and a pen with the other, in practically one motion. Since the bag stays on my shoulder, I can start sketching within a few seconds – literally – with very little commotion. The quiver/backpack concept might work for planned sketches – but not for spontaneous ones (especially those involving goslings).

As my search for the Holy Grail continues, these are the options I’m now considering (none is ideal):
  1. I could keep the Zero messenger bag on my shoulder for easy access and the Velo backpack on my back for additional capacity, carrying both simultaneously. That seems like overkill, but separating the weight might not be a bad idea.
  2. I could use some kind of water bottle holster along with the Zero (but then what about the sun hat, which still wouldn’t fit in the Zero?). 
  3. I could decide I really don’t need to hydrate, snack or worry about the sun while traveling. (Probably a bad idea.)
  4. I could reduce the contents of my sketching kit. (Fat chance.)
  5. I could stop trying to sketch goslings spontaneously.
OK, No. 5 is not an option. (Any bag I use has to support whatever kind of sketching I want to do – not hinder it.) Any suggestions?

Updated 7/14/14: See the K. I. S. S. Solution.

My bag's typical assortment of sketching supplies. No, taking some out is not an option!


  1. My problem with backpacks is that everything ends up in a jumble at the bottom. And it doesn't look like the Velo is waterproof. If I'm going to carry it here, a bag has to be water PROOF. Though, I guess, one could just put sketchbook(s) in a zip lock.

    A middle ground might be to carry the Velo but just have your sketchbook in your hand and a pen or two in a jeans pocket. That way most everything is in the backpack but you're also instantly ready for the spontaneous.

    1. Kate, the Velo backpack is customizable, so I opted to get it with waterproof outer fabric -- as you say, that's a MUST! It does have pretty good compartments for organizing things, but I've already figured out it's not quite right for using in the field.

  2. It isn't easy to find something perfect to use when out sketching. Keep us posted on what you work out.

  3. What about your sketching vest? Could you use that in conjunction with your Zero messenger? You wouldn't have to add or subtract sketching supplies... Just rearrange everything. Then maybe you might have room for a water bottle, snacks, sun hat, extra layer, sunscreen, maps and other travel essentials without adding very much weight as well as distributing weight evenly in your vest.

    1. The vest is a really good concept -- but I've only been able to make it work in certain situations and climates. I think it would be too hot in the summer, especially if I still had to carry a bag over it. But thanks for reminding me of that . . . I'm considering all options! :-)


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