Sunday, July 9, 2023

Review: SketchBox Urban Sketching Watercolor Palette


Entire contents (except sketching bag) of the special edition SketchBox Urban Sketching box.

[Edited 7/21/23: Blogger "unpublished" this post today for supposedly violating malware and virus policies. I have no idea why, but I've removed links to sites outside of my own blog.]

I’m sure you know about SketchBox – a subscription service of periodic art supplies. ArtSnacks is another (and Grabie, one I haven’t tried). If you like trying new media, it’s fun to receive a “curated” sampling of a variety of art materials to play with. The box contents are kept a surprise until subscribers receive them. At various times, I have subscribed to both SketchBox and ArtSnacks, quit, resubscribed, quit again, repeatedly learning (but apparently also forgetting) the same lesson: Although it’s fun to receive a box of new toys regularly, an art supply junkie like me either already has most items in the boxes or has no interest in the few that are new. And yet the lure of that periodic surprise – Oh, look! A box of new goodies just landed on my porch! – is irresistible.

This one was especially irresistible: A special edition SketchBox (a one-off, not part of a subscription) had the words “urban sketching” in its name. The promotional teaser for the preorder, which launched right about the time I was beginning to think about using watercolors on location again, showed a custom sketch bag and portable watercolor palette. Delivery was projected for early June, the beginning of the 30x30 Direct Watercolor challenge! (It’s so annoying when a company “has my number.”)

Unfortunately, the promotion was a bit anti-climactic when the box was delayed by several weeks. By mid-June, preordering customers received notice that “Customs decided to do a random audit of the vessel carrying our custom travel bags and it's causing major delays for all of the product on that vessel.” Rather than continuing to delay shipment of the entire box, SketchBox decided to ship everything but the travel bag, which would come later. (I feel kind of bad for SketchBox, which had no control over that untimely outcome, and the whole mess put a damper on their exciting release.)

Initially I had planned to wait until the bag arrived before writing a review, but since that delivery date is still unknown, I changed my mind. Shockingly, almost everything is new to me, so the box is a good value in that regard.

Here’s everything I’ve received:

  • SketchBox Signature Opaque Watercolor Palette
  • Princeton Snap! 3-piece brush set
  • Faber-Castell Clic & Go Cup
  • Hahnemühle 100% Cotton Watercolour Sketchbook (5 ½-inch square) (This is the only item I already had, and I’m delighted to have another because I already know I love the paper.)
  • Winsor & Newton Cool Grey Fineliner Set
  • Lyra Aqua Brush Duo Grey Set
  • Schmincke Aqua Masking Fluid Pen

This review is mainly about the watercolor palette, which is the item that interested me most. I also mention one of the brushes and the collapsible cup.

Thumb loop on the back

Closed, the palette is 3" x 6 1/4" and weighs 8 oz.

From the promo photo (which teased only a few items), the watercolor palette appeared to have a unique form factor. Closed, it brings to mind a clunky 1990s cell phone – none too elegant (compared to, say, the portable Kuretake palette, which looks like a makeup compact). The back includes a thumb loop for plein air painters and standing urban sketchers like me.

Opening the main compartment like a book reveals 12 paint pans and a single-compartment mixing tray. When you pull out the tab on each side, two more trays swivel out, each holding 12 more pans for a total of 36 colors.

Fully opened, the palette reveals three panels of paints and one mixing tray.

I have to get this out of the way right up front: This palette was a huge letdown. Perhaps it has a handy thumb loop, but like the ‘90s cell phone, it’s a heavy son-of-a-gun (8 ounces – heavier than a hardcover A6 Hahnemühle sketchbook) that makes me tired just to fully open, let alone hold horizontally in one hand. The weight is despite being made of plastic, not metal. With both “wings” expanded, it’s very awkward to hold. I was skeptical about using it in the field. Heck, I can barely use it on my desk or on a café table because it takes up so much space when fully opened.

Awkward and heavy.

It would also be nice to have a couple of dividers in the mixing tray to keep mixes from coming together like mud, especially since the tray is likely being held at a tippy angle. I do like its surface, though, which does not bead at all. Finally, if the paint pans are still wet when you swivel them back inside the case, the wet paint will smear inside the panel’s pocket.

If you close the "wings" before the paints are dry, they will smear inside the pocket. The color name next to each pan is helpful.

I probably haven’t been using watercolors enough to evaluate paint quality, but they seem student grade to me (the set of 36 retails for $25). In addition to a decent range of expected colors (the color palette “was designed with color theory in mind”), the set includes metallic silver and gold and a few opaque pastels.

A decent color range, though only a few of the pastels look opaque for a set billed as being "opaque watercolors."

The Princeton brush set includes a ¾-inch angle, a No. 8 filbert and a No. 10 round. Again, I’m not qualified to review the quality of these brushes, but they are synthetic (retail price: 3 for $19.99). Since I had never painted with an angle brush before, I thought it would be fun to give it a shot without knowing anything about its appropriate or intended uses (ignorance is bliss).

Using it for the portrait below, the angle struck me as “the fude of brushes” (I realize that’s a laughably redundant expression, since “fude” literally means brush): It can make a wide range of brush strokes from a fine line (I used the point to paint the man’s nose tip and lip lines) to flat, broad washes. The brush Liz Steel says she uses 95 percent of the time is a dagger, and this angle brush is probably similar in terms of mark variety. It’s a fun, versatile brush. (Humorous moment: So used to waterbrushes am I that I kept trying to squeeze the handle!)

Although I obviously could have used any cup at my desk, I used the collapsible Clic & Go Cup for water. If I ever get around to taking real brushes out on location (unlikely, but I never say never), this cup would be handy.

The portrait below is the result of using those three items – the paint set, the angle brush, and the collapsible cup – from the urban sketching box. 

7/5/23 SketchBox Signature watercolors in Hahnemuhle Akademie sketchbook
(Earthsworld reference photo)

I used the same process as I did with the portrait I showed yesterday. First, using an ochre-colored Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle pencil, I drew the profile line and blocked in major facial features.

Initial drawing

Next I picked out three paints that seemed closest to the Zorn palette I like to use for portraits – Permanent Red, Jaune Brilliant and Ivory Black (the color name is helpfully right next to each pan). Although I did a messy job of it, I had fun using the angle brush to mix colors both on the tray and directly on the paper.

Painting stage

Then I went in with Museum Aquarelle pencils in colors close to the paints and filled in facial features. Finally, I drew the beard and that tiny braid over the top of his head. (Earthsworld, photographer of the reference photo, finds amazing people in the country to photograph!)

Watercolor pencils to finish the sketch.

Skeptical as I was, I couldn’t review an “urban sketching” watercolor palette without taking it on location. Despite being more than I like to carry while out fitness walking, I jammed the palette into my water bottle holster and set out. I picked out a primary triad with colors only on one “wing” plus the main panel so that I wouldn’t have to open both wings. Holding the palette with the thumb loop and the sketchbook with the same hand meant that I had to do everything else with only one hand, including taking the caps off my spritzer and my waterbrush. I managed a sketch in the usual 30 minutes or so, but my arm was tired less than halfway through.

My arm, very fatigued at this point, is under there somewhere.

7/6/23 Maple Leaf neighborhood (SketchBox Signature watercolors in 100% cotton Hahnemuhle sketchbook)

Although the SketchBox palette is definitely not ideal for stand-up sketching, I think that was the first time I tried using a palette with a thumb loop. That part of it wasn’t as bad as I had expected and was actually less fiddly than the Velcro/clip-on setup I had devised years ago. It might be manageable – if it were lighter and smaller. It gives me something to think about as I continue exploring potential watercolor setups.

When the sketch bag eventually shows up, I’ll review it, and I may get around to trying the Lyra brush pens (which look nearly identical to Tombow Dual Brush Markers). How’s that for an anti-climactic ending to a review of an altogether anti-climactic SketchBox release?

OK, it’s not the end after all. 

I can’t help but look at this box from the overall urban sketching perspective the way I did the Tombow Urban Sketching Set. If I had been the “curator” of this SketchBox, what would I have included – and left out? Do all the materials in the box make sense to use together?

The Hahnemühle sketchbook is definitely an excellent choice. While the paints and brushes may be of questionable quality, the paper is top-notch – which is exactly the priority I would give to materials. I also think the 5 ½-inch square is a great, portable form factor for urban sketching. A+ for the Hahnemühle!

The brush set offers a practical range, though I wonder if the ¾-inch angle is a bit large for use in a 5 ½-inch sketchbook. Instead of the collapsible cup, I would have included a waterbrush as an option for sketchers who prefer the simplicity.

The set of fineliners and the set water-soluble dual brush pens seem like a heavy emphasis on pens that needs to be balanced with at least a few pencils (OK, so maybe I’m somewhat biased in that direction). Perhaps just one soft graphite pencil and a primary triad of water-soluble colored pencils would be a nice alternative to ink.

I’d omit the masking fluid pen completely. I’m sure it’s useful sometimes for preserving tiny white spots, but do sketchers really do this kind of fussy stuff on location in a 5 ½-inch sketchbook? Seems like that’s something I’d be more likely to use on a studio painting. Similarly, the cumbersome paint palette would be easier to use with an easel when I didn’t have to simultaneously hold a sketchbook in the same hand. Both of those tools seem more suited to studio work.

OK, now I’m done.

Better in the studio than on location, but not ideal either way.


  1. I laughed as I read your first paragraph. I'm always amazed at how some people talk about "portable." Clearly much of it is car trunk portable, not feet portable. Also, don't you sometimes wonder if the advocates/sellers of some of this stuff have never drawn on location with any tool? Portable Painter's micro-palette would be far superior to the one you received. Even comes with a thumb ring and water holder :-)

    Glad also that you mentioned the lack of pencils. It's nonsense not to include at least a 2B pencil in an urban sketching kit. And masking fluid? Are they kidding? Anyway, great post.

    1. I do question whether anyone tested the materials while actually sketching on location! But maybe the kit will inspire more people to take up urban sketching -- with other materials. ;-)

  2. That palette definitely looks too cumbersome to take out sketching....and who needs all those colors??? There are so many smaller palettes that would work much better. You got nice flesh tones with the colors though. I haven't tried the Hahnemühle sketchbook yet but have only heard good things. I've never ordered one of these boxes. I don't need more materials that I'm not going to use, although I guess it is an interesting way to try out new materials. Thanks for the review.

    1. How come these companies never ask you and me for our opinions before they make these urban sketching kits??


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