Travel Sketchbooking / updated 23Aug2013

The old adage is correct: when you sketch what you see you engage more closely with what you are experiencing. Whether it's traveling across the country or across the globe. Or on your daily commute across town.

Below are:

  • General Info websites
  • Websites with example sketchbooks
  • Paper and Binding
  • Pens, Inks, and Tools
  • Paint Kit
  • Field Bags and the Stool
  • Book Lists: an "A" list (must-have books), a "B" list, and related books that I have liked 


General Info websites

Example sketchbooks


✱ Paper

  • Paper: The paper I like, use, and recommend is Strathmore Aquarius II. It is heavy enough to take multiple watercolor washes and scrubbings, yet smooth enough to be a delight for pen sketching and for writing.
    Tinted and Colored Paper: Try gouache paint. It's fun on colored paper. I like:
       --- Stonehenge "Kraft" colored paper
       --- BFK Rives "Tan" colored paper
       --- various colors of St. Armand 'Coloured Paper'
    ☛ Make your own tinted paper: tint the white paper with liquid acrylic or watercolor washes.
  • The Midori Travelers Notebook: Lately I am enjoying the heck out of this. I have one of their "Kraft" inserts in it along with a signature I sewed myself using Strathmore Aquarius II paper. When opened, the full spread is 8" x 8". Closed it's 4" x 8". Very portable! Very endearing as well.
  • More on the Midori Travelers Notebook is here:
  • Ready-made sketchbooks: I have tried a ton of these and then only ones I like (so far) are the "Delta" and "Gamma" sketchbooks (with the ivory-colored paper) from Stillman & Birn. Especially the medium-duty "Gamma".


Pens, Ink, and Tools

  • My Favorite Fountain Pen: For everyday sketching (on all kinds of paper) the best fountain pen that I have found is the Namiki Falcon. The semi-flexible nib allows you to vary the line weight and it's a delight for writing!
      ☛ Other fountain pens currently being tested and considered: TWSBI Mini with the 1.1 italic nib, a Micarta with a "B" nib, a Waterman Caréne with a stub nib, and the legendary Nakaya with a music nib.
  • Inks: My current go-to ink is Iroshizuku Yama-guri. In my everyday sketch kit, I carry two fountain pens. I carry one pen loaded with Yama-guri and one loaded with another color, currently Private Reserve Velvet Black. Since I use a few different kinds and tints of paper in my everyday sketchbook, it's nice to be able to choose between ink colors. Both are water-soluble and can be washed with the water brush easily.
  • More on Ink: I have used these other inks in the fountain pens from time to time and liked them all:
    ☛  Noodler's Ink Walnut, Black Swan in English Roses, Lexington Grey
       ☛  Private Reserve Velvet Black and Chocolat
    ☛  Iroshizuku's Tsukushi, Syo-ro, Fuyu-syogun, and Kiri-same (All of the Iroshizuku inks are  wonderful sketch, wash, and writing inks -- I recommend them!)
  • Compare ink colors easily online using the Swab Shop on the Goulet Pen website. 
  • Sketching Inks: Tips, Suggestions, and So Forth are more of my thoughts on the issue.  
  • Essential reading! ===> Pen Maintenance, by John Mottishaw
  • My Stalwart Go Anywhere Pen: The modest yet powerful Pilot Razor Point, in black. It's cheap and you can find it practically anywhere. The way the water-soluble black ink washes is just great. I use this one on the bus where, if I drop it and it rolls away, no great loss. I ALWAYS have one of these with me.
  • Mini Pens: The Kaweco Classic Sport is a small pen, nicely sized for carrying around in your pocket. I have a few of these that I have converted to an "eyedropper" pen. (Update: you can now buy italic nibs for these!) Another cool mini pen is the Kaweco Liliput. No converter for these, but you can use a syringe to load a cartridge with your ink of choice.
  • Waterproof Ink pens: For waterproof ink pens, the Copic Multiliner SP pen is nice. I especially like the line variation that you can get with the Copic BS, the brush tip pen. 
  • Fude: If you want an adventure, try a "fude" nib. These nibs are made for Eastern calligraphic writing and can lay down anything from a very broad swath of ink to a fine hair line, depending on the nib's angle to the paper.
  • Lettering: Handy ==> the Pilot Parallel pen. Its unique nib design allows you to use pigmented waterproof inks without worrying about clogging. And the various nib widths allow you to do some very cool professional looking lettering in your sketchbook.
  • White ink:  The best white ink pen I've found (so far) is the Sakura Gelly Roll. It's nice for adding catch lights in eyes or for highlights. It's also water soluble, so you can blend it with the waterbrush. Wonderful on tinted papers.
  • Waterbrush: The other essential part of my sketching kit is the Pentel Waterbrush, filled with clear water. I have tried all the "waterbrushes" out there and this Pentel waterbrush is by far the best, in my opinion. (For more, see Russ Stutler's Observations on the Waterbrush.) 

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    ✱  Paint Kit

    • Watercolors: I use mostly Schmincke half and full pan watercolors, augmented with a few convenience colors from Daniel Smith. Some travel palettes I have used are shown on the right.
    • I use a larger box on my extended travels. I got it from Kremer long ago. Here it is.
    •    ☛  A 2008 article by Rozwoundup, reviewing 'Travel Palettes for Watercolor and Gouache'
        ☛ I first saw "The Kid Palette" in the RozWoundUp blog. It's available here. The Kid is 2-1/2" x 1-3/4" closed! Clean the paint pellets out and replace with your own watercolor choices from tubes. More on "The Kid Palette" is here.
        ☛  Here's a way to attach the "Kid Palette" to the top of your sketchbook.
        ☛  Here's another idea on portable (messy?) watercolors: Peerless Sheets
    • Another very compact watercolor palette by Expeditionary Art, here. It uses magnetic pans in a very thin box.
    • Water Containers: I use a very small Nalgene jar, because both the jar and its big fat cap are useful for rinse water. It's unobtrusive. Use a few magnets, one inside the jar and one outside on the bottom and you can stick it onto your steel palette. 
    • Making a Mess: Don't worry too much about keeping your palette pristine. Here's a pic of Winslow Homer's plein air watercolor palette. Greatness can be achieved, regardless. Just go with the flow.
    • Gouache: I am still experimenting with how to deploy gouache for quick and portable sketching. Paint in pans dries so quickly and so thoroughly that pans are not practical. The most useful technique has been to carry tubes, plus a piece of plastic or plexi to use as a mixing palette.


    Field Bags and the Stool

    • Bags & Cases: The search for the perfect sketch kit bag is never-ever-ever-ending. Maybe the joy is in the hunt. Among those I have used and/or thought about (and that are still available -- alas!) :
      Tom Bihn's Field Journal Notebook. Dump the 3-ring notebook contraption (removable!) and it's okay.
      ☛ Spec-Ops makes usable bags with manly zippers. Pack-Rat is a good one. The black one is shown above.
         ☛ The Neatfreak Organizer by Maxpedition is the macho Desert Storm version of the Pack-Rat, with a similar pocket layout but ever so slightly bigger. (You may have to remove about a yard of exterior velcro to make this bag usable. Or, for swagger, leave the velcro and stick your pistol holster onto it.)

         ☛  If I am carrying the Midori Traveler and just want a small, handy same-size case for pens and color, I use the Cubix Round Zip Pencase. Pens and the waterbrush fit on the left side of the case and eighteen or so watercolor pencils (or the 8-1/4" by 2-1/2" travel watercolor box) fit in the right hand side. See photo here.

    • Folding chair (with padded back support!) that I can't do without: GCI Quik-E-Seat. Get the "tall" version, if you can find one.
      If you can't find the excellent GCI, here are some cheaper alternatives:
      The Ultimate Slacker
       -- Without the back rest, the Walkstool is nice and light. There is a 30" version.
       -- MAC TCC-100 (a cheap knockoff)


    Book Lists

    • Here is my “A” list of books (It’s a short list because these are my absolute favorites.):
      • Keys to Drawing, by Bert Dodson (1985) – I like this better than the standard “bible” on drawing, which is Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, by Betty Edwards. Dodson is more relaxed and less analytical about it all, which I appreciate.
      • Keys to Drawing with Imagination: Strategies and Exercises for Gaining Confidence and Enhancing Your Creativity, by Bert Dodson (2007) – Excellent workbook that presents material in very small, easy to deal with chunks, along with hundreds of example sketches. Not at all intimidating. Dodson has a lot of fun with this stuff. There is no pressure at all. You are invited to find your own voice!
      • Sketching School, by Judy Martin (1991) – Excellent textbook loaded with very useful examples. I recommend this one highly.
      • Drawing People, by Paul Hogarth (1971) - I like his style and his voice. Good tips amid very useful examples.
      • Art of Sketching, by Gabriel Martin Roig (originally published in Spain in 2006 with the title Dibujo de apuntes; English edition translated by N. Tizon and published by Sterling, NYC ) - Techniques and materials described in great detail. Many very useful examples as well.
    • Secondary books that I liked - my "B" list:
      • Drawing People: How to Portray the Clothed Figure, by Barbara Bradley (2003) – I like to sketch people and this book was a big help in getting better at that. Excellent section on gesture.
      • Exploring Color, by Nita Leland (1998) -- Very useful, very interesting! Full of easy exercises and projects. Author trys not to be medium-centric, but is geared toward watercolors.
      • Carlson's Guide to Landscape Painting, J. T. Carlson (1973) -- Very useful advice. What this lacks in good quality reproductions or color illustrations (there is nothing in color -- not even in the 'Color' chapter -- ha!) and 21st century political correct constructions (all artists are "men" and "he"), it more than makes up for with excellent tips and advice. Study this book and SEE better.
      • Watercolor Journeys: Create Your Own Travel Sketchbook, by Richard Schilling (2003) – Nice. Inspirational.
      • Work Small, Learn Big: Sketching with Pen & Watercolor, ed. Jennifer King (2003) – Each chapter is by a different artist. Interesting.
      • How To Keep A Sketchbook Journal, by Claudia Nice (2001) – Intro to pen+ink+watercolor techniques. Look at this author’s other books also.
      • The Watercolorist’s Essential Notebook, by Gordon MacKenzie (1999) – Subtitled “a treasury of watercolor tricks and techniques discovered through years of painting and experimentation.” It’s handy.
      • The Artist’s Sketchbook: Learn from the Professionals the Art of Effective Sketching, by Lucy Watson (2001) – Inspirational and many good examples.
      • People Painting Scrapbook, by J. Everett Draper (1988) – A nice sequel to the Bradley book, mentioned above. “This is a specialized book dealing with the drawing and painting of small figures that are an incidental part of a painting’s composition. ... I will show you how you can populate your paintings with small by lively figures to add that necessary spark of life to your art”.
      • The Sierra Club Guide to Sketching in Nature, by Cathy Johnson (1997) – If this is your interest and if the “wilderness” is your travel destination, get this one and also Gordon MacKenzie’s The Watercolorist’s Essential Notebook: Landscapes (2006).
      • Keeping a Watercolor Sketchbook, by Brenda Swenson (2005) – Nice, simple intro
      • Sketching People: Life Drawing Basics, by Jeff Mellem (2009) - Chapters are 'Observational Drawing', 'Gesture', 'Basic Forms', 'Drapery', 'Expressions', 'Body Language', 'Staging' "how to depict an event"), and 'Value'. This is a real good intro and practice book! Plus most of the sketches are in ink+wash, which allows you to see clearly the way the lines were laid down.

    • Russ Stutler's My List of Recommended Books on Sketching is here. Each entry has a mini-review. Very comprehensive.

    • Lettering! : Interesting titling and nifty hand lettering DEFINITELY enhance a sketchbook. There are a number of books out there: 
      • Calligraphy Alphabets Made Easy, by Margaret Shepherd (1986)
      • Hand Lettering, by Marci Donley and DeAnn Singh (2009)
      • Hand Job: A Catalog of Type, by Michael Perry (2007) - Excellent compendium of dozens of typography artists.
      • Handwritten: Expressive Lettering in the Digital Age, by Steven Heller (2006)