Monday, July 15, 2019

Amsterdam Sketch Kit: Same as Every Day

Bag dump: My sketch kit contents for Amsterdam (and every day)

As participants gear up for the 10th annual international Urban Sketchers Symposium in Amsterdam, much of the social media discussion is about what sketch materials and tools to bring, accessories to keep them organized, and the bag to haul everything in (And let’s face it: Everyone likes to talk about art materials!). I understand the anxiety; no one wants to be caught short thousands of miles from home, where replacing or finding an essential product might be challenging. This uncertainty would be present for any kind of travel, but the symposium adds another level of challenge because of the workshops. Instructors may have a long list of required or suggested supplies that must be added to the usual at-home arsenal.

Amsterdam will be my sixth symposium since 2013, and with each I’ve attended, I’ve learned more about my sketch material needs. In between those travels, I’ve made numerous other domestic and international trips, and all those travel experiences have helped me refine my sketch kit.

I think I can boil down everything I’ve learned to this one principle: The best travel sketch kit is one that is no different from the one I use and carry every day. There’s nothing to get used to or learn, like bag pockets in unfamiliar places, or new materials and tools. If I don’t reach for a tool during a walk around my neighborhood, then I’m unlikely to use it in Amsterdam. Conversely, if I don’t need it 5,000 miles from home, maybe I don’t need it at home, either.

Before writing this post, I reviewed the posts I wrote before all the previous symposiums I attended and looked at the photos of the art materials to see how they (and I) have changed. I did a lot of hemming and hawing to prep for Barcelona, my very first symposium, and that’s to be expected. At that point, I had been sketching for less than two years, and the trip was also my first international travel since I had begun sketching. Everything would be a new experience, and I didn’t know what to expect. I still recall (fondly now) the high excitement as well as high anxiety about that trip. My uncertainty shows in the amount of stuff I brought! After that trip, I learned so much about travel sketching that I wrote a lengthy post summarizing my new knowledge.

For Brazil and the Paraty symposium the following year, I heeded my own advice from Barcelona and refined my kit. But something happened in 2016 as I prepped for the UK and the Manchester symposium. Maybe my responsibilities as a correspondent that year made me feel like I had to be prepared for any possible sketch material need (once again, my level of anxiety was directly proportional to the amount of stuff I brought). Or maybe it was just that I was making a transition from ink and watercolors to colored pencils and markers, so I had to have everything. When I look now at the photo of my bag dump, my shoulder twitches from the memory! According to the post, my travel haul was very similar to my daily-carry. At least it shows that I was following the same principle I follow today: The best travel kit is one that is the same as usual.

By the Chicago symposium in 2017, I had made the full transition to colored pencils, which slimmed down my sketch kit substantially. It doesn’t look much different from what I carry today. Prepping for Portugal and the Porto symposium last year, my travel kit was so much the same as my daily-carry that I didn’t even bother to show the contents – I just updated my color palette.

Now, as I prep and pack for Amsterdam, I’ve followed my basic principle almost literally: The sketch kit that I’m bringing (top of post) is exactly the same as what I carry every day (except for two items that I took out; see below). Typically I prepare for travel by researching Internet images of the cities I will be visiting to see if I’ll encounter any hard-to-mix or unique hues, and I refresh my colored pencil palette accordingly. Amsterdam, as colorful as it is, doesn’t seem to have any unique colors, so that step was easy: I’m using my usual spring/summer palette:
My current colored pencil palette: Mostly Caran d'Ache Museum, a few Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer and one Caran d'Ache Neocolor II water-soluble crayon for sky washes.

(Incidentally, for any European trip, I make sure to bring verdigris (Caran d’Ache 182), which is so useful for statuary and building details. I would normally take it out of my bag upon returning home, but more recently I’ve discovered that a pale, minty green is difficult to mix, so I’ve left it in my bag, and it has come in handy many times.)

Out: Gelly Roll and fountain pen
The two things I took out of my bag? A white Gelly Roll gel pen (which I use only with toned or red paper) and a fountain pen. The latter is a big deal to me – its removal represents a full transition away from the ink linework I had been using since almost Day 1. I’ve been moving in this direction for a while, but I’ve been carrying a fountain pen all along, “just in case.” I still love drawing with fountain pens, but I’m trying to avoid the fiddly details that fountain pen nibs seem to invite. When I occasionally use linework now, I tend to use a brush pen in that role. As I was examining my bag contents last week, I realized I rarely use a fountain pen anymore, and this trip would be a good opportunity to take it out entirely. (Maybe I’ll take care of my fountain pen needs by devoting next InkTober to one.)

Here’s a closeup of the tools and other materials:

1. Tortillon
2. White Derwent Drawing Pencil. Like the Gelly Roll, I use this only with toned or red paper, which I won’t be bringing on the trip. I almost took it out, but what if I receive some new toned paper in my goody bag as I did in Chicago? There’s no substitute for a white colored pencil.
4. 8B graphite pencil
5. Blackwing graphite pencil with soft core (about 4B)
8. Kneadable eraser (kept in a slender, hinged Daniel Smith watercolor crayon box)
9. Two black brush pens – one waterproof, one water-soluble. I use many different brands with no specific favorites as long as one is waterproof and one is water-soluble. Shown here are a waterproof Tombow Fudenosuke and a water-soluble Kuretake Fudegokochi.
10. Pentel Pocket Brush Pen with dark gray waterproof ink
11. Water spritzer that I find essential for a couple of techniques with watercolor pencils.

If you’re wondering which materials are specifically for workshops, the answer is none! Both workshops I signed up for are related to composition, not materials, so the supplies suggested by the instructors were only the students’ usual favorites.

The sketchbooks I’m bringing represent the largest deviation from my at-home daily-carry:

1. Instead of the softcover Stillman & Birn Zeta sketchbook that I’ve been using the past several months (and for the most part have been enjoying), I bought a 12-by-9-inch spiralbound Zeta sketchbook and removed the spiral binding. After trimming off the binding holes, I folded and stitched the paper into six signatures (four sheets/eight pages each). These will enable me to carry a thin, lightweight signature instead of a bound book while traveling. When I get home, I’ll bind them together with Coptic stitch.
2. As I always do when I travel, I’m also taking a softcover landscape-format Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook for panoramas. Those two books will cover most of my sketches.
3. The pocket-size Rhodia notebook will serve as both my travel journal and my receptacle for quick sketches on the run. I used Rhodia notebooks for several trips before switching to a Field Notes Signature last year for Portugal. While I enjoyed the slightly larger format of the Signature, it contains only 72 pages, and I filled it before the trip was over. I’m going back to the Rhodia, which has 96 pages (and the hardbound covers are more durable).
The Rickshaw Musette tote bag
4. The Strathmore watercolor postcard pad is one I carry routinely in my suitcase when I travel with every good intention of using (but you know what they say about where good intentions lead). The problem is that it stays in my suitcase instead of coming with me in my bag – so it rarely gets used (though I did use a few in Porto). I would like to get into the habit of making and mailing at least a few sketch postcards whenever I travel. This time I’ll keep it in the Rickshaw Musette tote bag that will supplement my daily-carry bag.

Speaking of bags, there’s no change at all – I’m again taking my small-size Rickshaw Zero Messenger Bag that I’ve sketched with on four continents since 2012.
My trusty everyday-carry since 2012.

Here’s a top view showing how all the materials fit. The colored pencils stand upright in the Tran Portfolio Pencil Case. All other materials are housed in a custom-made accessory organizer.
Everything in its place.

Finally, two other items will be carried in the tote bag when I’m not using them: my new Costco sunhat (festooned with symposium buttons) and my tiny Daiso folding stool. Although most of the time I prefer to stand while sketching, it’s nice to have a seat during workshops and when I’m doing a leisurely graphite sketch that could take a while.

OK – I’m ready to go (well, except for nonessentials like clothes)!

Hoping for sunshine!
Yes, I fit on it -- barely. I'll have to be wary of
my consumption of stroopwafel.


  1. Taking what you use on a daily basis is a good idea. Aside from a few materials for workshops I won't take anything different. In fact, I'm hoping to take less than I normally carry. It will give me a good excuse to shop for something at the Symposium market and maybe in the Sennellier when I am in Paris.


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