Monday, November 20, 2017

Minimal Sketch Kit: A Personal Challenge

My current daily-carry sketch kit.

After reading my review of Mike Daikubara’s book in which he talks quite a bit about maintaining a minimal sketch kit, a blog reader asked me what my minimal sketch kit would be. Believe it or not, I have tried to answer this question for myself many times, at least in theory. However, I can’t say I’ve ever answered it in practice – at least for more than a day or so.

The photo above shows my current daily-carry sketch kit. Although I’ve carried much more at times, my current kit could hardly be called minimal. (If you do a search on my blog for “bag dump,” you’ll see variations of the contents through the years.) I don’t ever need all of these supplies every day, but since I never know what subject matter I’ll encounter or what I’ll feel like sketching on any given day (and this is doubly true when I travel), I always feel a need to carry everything – just in case. And more to the point, I don’t want to stop and choose which materials to bring each time I go out, because that just adds to the general maintenance and overhead of sketching. I want to grab and go each time I step out the door, and this kit serves me well that way.

Nonetheless, I do think often about lightening my load and streamlining my supplies, especially when I’m due to travel, but also here at home. So, my reader’s question prompted me to review the various ways I’ve tried to answer it for myself.

The one time I really don’t want to be encumbered with a bag is when I go out fitness walking around Green Lake, which I’ve been doing regularly for nearly 30 years. Until I started sketching, I carried nothing but my phone, ID and keys on these walks. You can read about the event that eventually prompted me to carry a minimal sketch kit while fitness walking; here’s what it looks like:

My fitness-walking kit

 The contents change from time to time, but in general, the kit consists of a small notebook and two or three pens.

When I began using Field Notes notebooks for quick, casual sketches, I started thinking about the concept of a minimal sketch kit further, and I realized that my choice of media was determined by my choice of small notebook. Depending on which one I used – one with red paper, one with bright orange paper, or one with white paper – I could choose one or two pens appropriate for the paper. That’s fairly minimal as well as compact, just like my fitness-walking kit, but I also find the page size limiting. (I do carry and use a Field Notes daily, but only in addition to the rest of my kit – not instead of.) Here are a few variations:

Field Notes Sweet Tooth, white Gelly Roll, Franklin-Christoph fude fountain pen

EEEK Field Notes, white Derwent colored pencil, white Gelly Roll, Copic brush pen

Dime Novel Field Notes and Zebra brush pen
Dime Novel Field Notes

Of course, I know it’s possible to streamline even further, and a couple of months ago I set out to prove it to myself by taking nothing but a slim, A5-size notebook and a pencil to the park. If my goal is to simply capture daily scenes from my mundane life, a pencil and paper could easily serve that need. Who needs all that color anyway? (I can hear you laughing all the way from here.) Well, that lasted only for the one trip to the park, but it was a good theory. Again, I do regularly use that particular notebook (a Baron Fig Vanguard) with a single pencil, but I carry them in addition to everything else – not in place of.

Baron Fig Vanguard and Blackwing pencil

When I started using a new Stillman & Birn Nova sketchbook with toned paper a couple of months ago, I realized it could be the centerpiece for a nicely streamlined sketch kit. A brush pen or gray toned markers, a white pencil or gel pen for highlights, and a couple of colored pencils for spot color were all I needed.

Stillman & Birn Nova sketchbook, brush pen, fountain pen, colored pencils

Of course, then the trees started turning, and I got frustrated that the brightest, boldest urban palette I can use all year seemed dull on gray paper, so I quickly put away the Nova and went back to my standard white paper – and all 25 colored pencils as usual.

Every sketch kit begins with paper: The sketchbook you choose sets the stage and determines all the other choices you make. For example, if you choose a small notebook with thin paper that can’t stand up to any media other than pencil, that would make an ideally minimal kit. If the book has red paper, then you don’t need color – a black and a white pen will do – another minimal kit.

My problem is that for most of the years I’ve been sketching, I’ve been making my own sketchbooks with paper I chose specifically to hold up to as many wet and dry media as possible. Although not of the highest quality, Canson XL 140-pound watercolor paper can take everything I’ve ever tried with it – watercolor paints, watercolor pencils, traditional colored pencils, inks (applied with a pen or a waterbrush), graphite, brush pens, India ink, and water applied with a brush or sprayer. Since the paper accommodates everything well, I have a challenging time eliminating media options. And that’s how I end up with a relatively hefty, non-streamlined kit. 
Not exactly minimal.

I’m motivated to simplify my kit, but I know I wouldn’t last long using only a pencil, or even only a red Field Notes and brush pen. I’m thinking I’d do better with a kit somewhere in between. What about that toned Stillman & Birn? I’ve been intending to give it another try anyway once the dead gray of winter settles in, and I’m mostly sketching indoors. So here’s my plan: Come January when the red Santas and green wreaths are a fond memory in the white pages of my usual DIY sketchbook, I’ll switch to the tan S&B Nova. At the same time, I’ll streamline my tools to a half-dozen (or so) colored pencils, a pen, a couple of gray markers and a white pencil. And I’ll commit to that kit until the book is full (or until the cherry blossoms bloom, if that comes first! Every promise has a cherry blossom clause). It’ll be my version of a New Year’s resolution (which I otherwise never make).


  1. Love this post. I carry way too much stuff on the "just in case" basis - I had it down to one case consisting of some Derwent sketching pencils and a slection of coloursoft plus a Derwent mech pencil plus a Blackwing in the pen loop of my sketchbook holder. But then inktober came along and ink pens, black and white and colour got added. So my rucksac I take to work was getting full of this kit and it never got used. Tomorrow I have a trip to London, so as I'll have time to sketch (I'm going to Parliament to meet some MPs) I suspect my pack will have mainly sketching kit. Just hope I do get some done.

    1. Sketch kits (and their relative portability) are probably the single most-discussed topic among urban sketchers, so you're not alone! :-) Have fun in London -- so much to sketch there!

  2. Hi Tina, I left a comment on Bloglovin, do you get those too?

    1. I did just see it there! I'm not in the habit of looking there, so thanks for letting me know! Let's see how minimal we can both stay! ;-)

  3. As you wrote, there is so much discussion about what's in our bags. I have a very minimal kit that stays in the car for "emergencies". But I carry a large backpack for regular outings that I have been unable to trim down.

    1. The struggle is real! :-) But it's also fun to add to and subtract from the kit and continually think about what's ideal or optimal. It's always an interesting balance between what you want to have and what you really need.

  4. I keep trying to come up with an "easy to take" sketching kit so that I can just grab and go. Then I always seem to miss something that is in my backpack I left home which has just about everything but the kitchen sink. It is hard to take a minimal sketch kit since quite often I end up painting not just sketching. I have found that I can survive with my pen case and a sketchbook if necessary but although that sounds like just a small amount of materials you'll have to see what is actually stuffed into the pen case. lol If I get a chance I'll have to take a photo of what is in the case or even better...sketch it.


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