Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Lessons Learned: Sketch Kit Review and Fresh Tizzy

Items used daily: 9 colored pencils, 1 waterproof brush pen, 1 waterbrush

After every major trip, I review my sketch kit to look at what I used most and what I didn’t use at all (for more kit reviews, see my posts after Portugal, Chicago, Italy, United Kingdom, Japan, France, Brazil, Barcelona/Germany). The prep before Holland was easy – everything in my bag was the same as what I carry every day – but I still considered each item carefully before I left it in. (I took out only two items.)

Shown above are the items I used most – every day, in fact. Not surprisingly, except for Verdigris green (Caran d’Ache 182), the colors and tools are all items that I use most at home, too. I often think about what I’d take with me to Gilligan’s Island, and while some of that thinking is mostly hypothetical, the photo above shows the practice instead of the hypothesis. These are my bare essentials, and I’ve proven that I could probably be happy for a long time with nothing but these items.

Never used.
A few things (at right) I never used even once: * the Bic ballpoint pen (I had a feeling I wouldn’t use it, but I admit I brought it mainly to show off), the vermilion/blue bicolor pencil and the white Derwent pencil. (I knew the latter was unnecessary – I didn’t bring along a toned sketchbook or even my usual red Field Notes, so I had nowhere to use it – but my reasoning was that my symposium swag bag could contain toned paper as it did another year, and then I’d want a white pencil.) I thought I might make a bicolor study at some point, but the only time I did, I used yellow and purple instead. In retrospect, I should have known to leave it at home, since I always carry enough colors that I could still make a bicolor study without the vermilion/blue pencil. However, all three items added very little weight or bulk to my bag, so I don’t have deep regrets for having taken them along.

(*Edited after taking the photo at right: I discovered a sketch in my travel journal that I had forgotten about, so I did use the ballpoint pen after all. Sketch will be shown in a future post.) 

Another few items (below) were used infrequently – in fact, the graphite pencil and related eraser and tortillon were used only once – but when I did use them, I was happy I had them, because nothing else I carried would have substituted for them. The brush pen containing water-soluble ink came in handy several times when used in a classic way: shading with a quick swipe of the waterbrush. Though I haven’t used this tried-and-true technique much lately, it’s still handy in a hurry (which I often was in Amsterdam’s heat).
Although these items weren't used often, I would have been unhappy without them.
From left: eraser, graphite pencil, tortillon, water-soluble brush pen.

Although my intention has been to quit the gray marker grisaille habit, I still brought one along as a security blanket. As I happily reported a few days ago, Holland helped me to wean myself off it, so I used it only a couple of times early in the trip. I have removed it from my bag permanently!

More than half the colors I carried were not used often, but when I did use them, they were essential (such as red and blue for the flag of the Netherlands). 

I'm disappointed with Faber-Castell's Dark Red. My current replacement is
Derwent Inktense Red Oxide.
I was continually disappointed with one colored pencil, however, and I’m now looking for a replacement. Caran d’Ache’s Museum Aquarelle palette doesn’t include a brick red, which is essential in most European cities I’ve visited (and often at home). For a while now, I’ve been using Dark Red in the Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer palette, which is acceptable when dry. But as soon as I activate it, the hue changes to nearly magenta, which is too bright for old brick. Sometimes I don’t mind – the sketch I made of Amsterdam’s skyline during the heatwave, for example, seems to express the swelter I was feeling! More often, though, it’s not the red I’m looking for. For now, I’ve replaced it with Derwent Inktense in Red Oxide.

All my sketchbooks served me well -- and taught me the biggest lesson of the trip.
As for sketchbooks, they all served me well in different ways. I filled only three of the six signatures I had stitched from Stillman & Birn Zeta paper (I made fewer sketches on this trip than expected, due to the extreme heat). But I also made four spreads in the landscape-format Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook, so it was well worth taking along. I even made a few postcard sketches and gave them to friends – something I always intend to do but rarely do. A win! (The pocket-size Rhodia journal was also just right; I’m going to cover travel journals in a separate post.)

Lesson Learned: Paper

Overall, I’m happy with my everyday-carry and travel sketch kit. As expected, the items I used most are ones I use most anywhere. If I had followed my hunches about things I probably wouldn’t need, I would have had no regrets, but my bag wouldn’t have been significantly lighter. The net result is that it’s easier to keep materials as much the same as possible, which reduces surprises and annoying results.

My biggest lesson from the trip is related to paper – and what I learned has left me in a new tizzy! After much hemming, hawing, testing and regular use the past several months, I thought I was happy with Stillman & Birn Zeta. While it isn’t perfect, I saw it as the best compromise in meeting all my media needs: smooth enough for graphite, ballpoint and markers and adequately (but not ideally) sized for wet media.

Oh, Zeta. . . I had hoped you could be everything to me.
Shortly before I left for the Netherlands, though, I started having doubts; a sketch in a S&B Beta book reminded me how much I’ve missed using paper with a bit of tooth and, more importantly, sizing that brings out the best in water-soluble colored pencils. Each time I used the Beta landscape book on the trip, I was reminded again. Beta paper is a joy to use with watercolor pencils: The hues look vibrant, and water behaves nicely on its surface.  

I’ve known all along that Zeta’s sizing leaves my watercolor pencil pigments looking a bit flat, and I miss the texture, but I had been resigned to the compromise because I need a smooth surface to use the “Eduardo graphite technique” that I so enjoy.

But guess what? At least on this trip, I used graphite only once! I might have predicted this; graphite used in this slow, methodical way takes more time than I’m usually willing to commit when I’m on familiar territory, let alone while traveling. The 47 other pages I filled on Zeta paper were all done with watercolor pencils and/or brush pen.

What does that tell me? Perhaps a Beta book should be my daily-carry (and Beta paper made into signatures for travel). The medium I use most often, watercolor pencils, would be ideally served. For those occasional graphite (or even rarer ballpoint) sketches, I could carry a thin signature of Zeta paper. The tizzy I’m in, of course, is that I would be back to using multiple books simultaneously, and the sketches would not be bound in chronological sequence as I prefer.

I have only a few pages left in my current Zeta book. When it’s full, I’m going to switch to a Beta book as my daily-carry. If I continue to enjoy the paper after a month or two of consistent use, I’ll tackle the tizzy. (Edited 10/7/19: Full review of S&B Beta published.)

My Holland sketch kit 


  1. LOL When I started reading this I thought to myself thatI would never be able to tell which materials I actually used in Amsterdam. I carry far too many pens and as soon as I take a few out something else seems to sneak in overnight to fill those spaces.

  2. Very interesting. I can cull my kit for an overseas trip, but once I'm back, I want to carry everything again.

    "six signatures I had stitched from Stillman & Birn Zeta paper". Do you buy it as 22x30 and tear down?

    1. I bought a 9x12 spiralbound book, cut off the spiral and ragged edges, and folded. Probably more expensive than buying full sheets, but I have such a small studio that this was easier than handling a large sheet.


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