Tiny Nomadic Studio

I know I write a lot about the thinking parts of art, but here’s a peek into the nuts and bolts of my practice. If you’re semi-nomadic like me, having a nomadic studio can help a great deal.

Drawing, ideally, is an extremely simple practice when it comes to supplies. Something to mark with and something to mark on are arguably the only supplies one needs. It’s like running is to the fitness world- and some runners argue that you don’t even need shoes. However, when most people begin these practices they discover they do have preferences and particularities in their practice- things they need. For example, I do indeed want shoes to run in! I also want socks, a sports bra, a not-too-bulky shirt, shorts that won’t ride up, SPF 50 sun block, a solid hair-tie and a snug pocket to store my house key and phone in. And this is perhaps the simplest of fitness activities. In the same way, I have preferences for my drawing and other art materials and tools.

As a general rule, art supplies and tools are a combination of figuring out hacks and getting what you pay for. All of these are based on the needs of the individual and what’s affordable. In pre-assembled kits, products are often selected to offer variety or the completeness of a set, and keep cost of the kit down. Or, if the supplies are high quality, the kit is likely to be expensive.

For starters, I don’t mind kits at all. Kits can be a great way to try something out, but usually they’re just the beginning. As an artist develops, materials get used up and replaced, tools get upgraded. Some items in an initial kit may be devoured while others are never unwrapped. This is because they’re designed for a generic artist- which hardly exists, even in the very beginning of one’s creative life. As soon as exploration begins, so does the individuation that results in the uneven usage of kits.

For me, 2018 has been the year of the never ending move. I won’t get into the nitty gritty, but the point is I’ve been in the process of selecting my materials and supplies back down to my own personalized “kit”. Like many artists, I have a lot of stuff. I had to pack up 99% of my studio for the move, but since I knew I’d be in flux long enough to want a little more than just my sketchbook, I’ve assembled a little nomadic studio. Whatever I chose had to include enough stuff to scratch my maker’s-itch and also be nimble enough to bounce from home base to staying with friends and family to camping- and all of these on repeat. I don’t want to compromise on my practice more than necessary, but a stationary studio lies somewhere in the future.

So, what do I want to work with? What scale can I work at? What travels well? What can I pack all my supplies into that won’t be too bulky or crushed during travel? Depending on what I pack it all in- what physically fits? What is sturdy enough not to be damaged or broken? This is an ongoing, puzzle-like process.

Walnut Shells for a project in the works.

Here’s the current inventory-

  • Brushes and a pen in my bamboo brush roll-up. These are ink, watercolor brushes, and a crappy old brush I used for masking fluid.
  • Envelope of extra pen nibs
  • Two ceramic watercolor palette dishes
  • Adorable Windsor & Newton travel kit of pan watercolors
  • Set of Royal Talons Van Gogh watercolors in tubes (supplemented with Windsor & Newton Colman watercolors where mine have dried out)
  • Set of 24 Koh-I-Noor Hardmuth woodless colored pencils
  • Windsor & Newton masking fluid for watercolors
  • Higgins ink in blue, red and black
  • Two empty Talenti sorbetto containers, for water
  • Washcloth to dry brushes with
  • Pad of Strathmore watercolor paper 6”x9”
  • Pad of Strathmore watercolor postcards
  • Pouch of drawing supplies (pencils, Micron pens, china markers, erasers… Maybe my drawing pouch calls for it’s own write up?)
  • Sewing kit I put together out of sewing tools I like that lives inside an eyeglasses case
  • Moleskine accordion sketchbook
  • Staedtler pencil sharpener
  • 14 walnut shells from the barn
  • Two packages of loose tea from a friend
  • Two thin boards, stack of random drawing paper all held together with elastic straps

There are a few items I’d like to draw attention to…

Bamboo Brush Roll-up.

First is the bamboo brush roll-up. This brush roll-up allows for air flow while protecting my brushes- both are important while traveling, there’s not always leisurely drying time and often no chance of stationary storage. I’ve used fabric roll-ups and plastic canisters for brush storage and I always get worried about them trapping moisture or mashing bristles. I think acrylic/oil brushes can handle a little more bristle contact than watercolor and ink brushes, but since watercolor/ink is my primary media, this is my preferred storage. Brushes aren’t cheap, yo! And if you do have cheap brushes that you like, you have to take super care of them because cheap brushes fall apart more quickly!

Second is the Talenti Sorbetto containers. What you need to know first is that Talenti makes excellent gelato and sorbetto, so you should just pick some up for the sheer pleasure of eating it. Or you can call it art supplies acquisition. I’m very picky about water vessels for watercolor painting. I want two of them, at least a pint in volume (hey Talenti, if you want to make a quart sized option… wink wink….), clear and wide at the mouth. One is for rinsing brushes and the other is for loading with clean water. Usually I use glass spaghetti sauce, pickle jars, or canning jars (as a general rule, do not use anything you’d eat or drink out of for this purpose). For my travel kit I wanted to meet these requirements with something plastic that wouldn’t break and had tight fitting lids. Talenti containers hit all of these marks.

Trusty old Staedtler pencil sharpener.

The third item is my Staedtler pencil sharpener. It’s one of those self-contained pencil sharpeners that keeps the shavings stored until you dump them and has ports for both graphite and colored pencils (the difference being the angle of the trim). A friend gave me this pencil sharpener years ago, declaring it to be the BEST PENCIL SHARPENER EVER- and she wasn’t kidding. It quickly sharpens pencils to a tip you could stab someone with and hardly ever breaks the end of a lead off (this happens once in a great while with colored pencils). I don’t know what gives it theses qualities or how it’s lasted so long, but I feel that when a humble pencil sharpener demands that you notice what a good job it’s doing it warrants passing that information on.

The most useless things in my kit are my blue and red Higgins ink. Have I ever used these? How did I get them in the first place? I think they are among those awkward items one can imagine uses for, but the interest in experimenting never quite hits that critical mass point, so they may get packed or given away.

The only items I use often but would like to swap out are my dear little ceramic watercolor/ink palettes. They are very cute and nice to use, but they clack against each other in the basket and aren’t able to save colors for future sessions (yeah, you can let paint dry in them and re-mix it, but I don’t always have time to allow for total drying before I pack up and some of the paints don’t re-mix well). My usual studio palette is plastic with lots of little wells surrounding four larger mixing areas and has a lid that can be used for even more mixing and for saving colors for later (not indefinitely, but for a few sessions). It is way too large to travel with, but if I could find a similar one that fit and would hold up to travel I’d pack up my ceramic palettes.

While I’m on the topic of editing- I should probably get those two little tea pouches out of the basket and put them somewhere more sensical… And swap out my walnut shells for ones I haven’t drawn already…

One thing I’d like to add to the kit would be a little hair dryer. Like a lot of watercolor artists, I struggle with waiting for paint and paper to dry. The really good painters simply wait and talk endearingly about the depth of pigment that develops over the drying process. Most of the rest of us ordinary mortals use a hair dryer. I bet a portable mini-fan would work well enough- although a cordless, rechargeable, mini-hair dryer would be ideal.

It doesn’t have to be super tidy as long as it works.

The whole thing is carried around in a small picnic basket. Picnic baskets have the advantage of being solid enough to protect the contents, maintain an upright orientation and the wooden lid can be used as a wee table on which work. And they’re adorable. So far I’ve been pretty satisfied with my set-up and have been traveling with it and working out of it while home. My hope is that in being forced to work small and with limited materials for a while, I can practice focusing in limited media and also develop ideas on a smaller and lower-stakes scale so I’m ready for more space once the time comes.