How Do You Travel With Art Supplies? (A Practical Guide From Experience)

I’ve backpacked through East Africa carrying all my art supplies, including a box full of 200 pastels on my back and I’m never going to that again. So how do you travel with art supplies, practically?

Whatever medium you choose, take the bare minimum. A small pad, pencils, pens, and watercolors are perfect for traveling. Painters should store paints in zip-lock bags or containers when flying and, along with any sharp tools, pack them in your main luggage. Buy solvents and liquids at your destination. Use a travel easel or a lightweight pochade box with a tripod.

What you take will depend on your medium, destination, and mode of travel. This post will help you pack for a flight and travel light. Whether you are backpacking or going for a short break, this guide will help you travel with art supplies in comfort.

First things first…

Can You travel With Art Supplies On A Plane?

The world has changed, when I started to travel you could take just about anything with you on a plane. Not anymore.

Any liquids are out of the question. We all know it now so you’ll be foolish to push your luck. The TSA has strict rules and this is a direct quote from their website.

“You are allowed to bring a quart-sized bag of liquids, aerosols, gels, creams and pastes in your carry-on bag and through the checkpoint. These are limited to travel-sized containers that are 3.4 ounces (100 milliliters) or less per item.”

Transport Security administration

That’s fine but everything is at the discretion of the inspector, which means if they have any doubts you may have your paints confiscated.

It should go without saying that you can’t take your solvents, thinners, and fixatives on board. You’ll have to buy them at your destination. Unless you are flying to the back of beyond you won’t have a problem finding a local store.

Art supplies are usually available in the developed world but can be trickier to find in developing countries. Bring all the colors you need.

Oil paints are the most problematic medium to transport. They should never be carried on in your hand luggage and always be securely contained and labeled clearly. Try getting a Material Safety Data Sheet from the paint manufacturer. Customs officials must be made aware that they are vegetable oil-based pigments, which are non-flammable and non-hazardous materials.

Water-based paints should not present the same problems, even so, make sure tubes are securely stashed in zip-lock bags. In fact, any kind of liquid should be contained on a flight, I know that from experience.

Pencils and brushes are easily damaged in transit. I often find pencil points break, this occurs when I carry them loose in a pencil case. Consider taking a pencil/brush roll-up wrap. Retractable brushes are also great for traveling.

Drawing and Traveling With Art Supplies

What Drawing Paper Should I Take Travelling?

You don’t need much. You need a small drawing pad, no bigger than A3. I like to use an off-white paper with a slight tooth paper.

Always use a recognized brand. We all have our favorites, I personally use Daler-Rowney pads, not because they are the best, it’s mainly out of habit and they are easily available.

Further Reading: My Toolkit

You must ensure that the paper is acid-free and of sufficient weight (thickness). Anything less than 90lbs is going to feel like tissue paper and will not take any punishment.

Only a thicker paper will take a light wash. You really need at least a 140lb paper to add some watercolor.

A Strathmore 500, 6″ x 8″, 140lb / 300 gsm, watercolor pad is ideal.

Paper acts as a sponge and soaks up moisture in a humid climate. I have taken paper to a tropics and seen first hand how it buckles in the climate. The paper develops a wave and it doesn’t always flatten out again. Nowadays, I make sure to seal my pad in a Zip-lock bag while I’m traveling.

Further Reading: What’s the Right Paper for Pencil Drawing? (How to Choose Wisely)

A quality pad will always have a rigid backing board and you will need that support. Don’t buy a pad without one, it won’t be a quality brand. Also, think twice before buying a spiral-bound pad if you plan to travel for any length of time. The wire gets bent and twisted and it can’t be used as intended.

I advise you to have a second board clipped to the front of your pad to sandwich the paper. Ideally something light and rigid. I use a perspex sheet, cut to size, and secured with 4 bulldog clips.

It serves three purposes:

  • It prevents the corners of your pad from getting damaged and dog-eared
  • Holds the paper so tight that it prevents your drawings from smudging
  • You can use the sheet as a drawing board or even a palette.

This simple hack prevents disaster. You have to travel with art supplies to know this stuff. You will not find this travel advice anywhere else, that I know.

What Drawing Pencils Should I Take Travelling?

Take a small selection of your favorite pencils along with a pencil extender so you can use them right down to the stub.

It’s important to use a good pencil brand. Don’t think pencils are all the same because they are not. Choose a trusted brand name for consistent and predictable results.

Choose one brand and get used to them. Don’t be tempted to mix and match different manufacturers because the grading system is not universal. An HB in one brand will not be the same as an HB in another.

I use Derwent pencils a noted British brand but they are not available everywhere in the world. Take what you need with you or be prepared to switch brands when you arrive. I like to take a couple of hard pencils, a medium and a soft. In the Derwent range that’s 4H, 2H, HB, and 3B.

I’ve noticed one brand, in particular, that seems to be available in most countries that I visit. Staedtler Lumograph Pencils are more easily found world-wide and if you need new art supplies, they’re a good bet.

Should I Take Mechanical Pencils?

These days, I like to use mechanical pencils more than conventional ones. It’s easy to take plenty of spare leads as they only weigh a few grams. I use Pentel Hi-Polymer 0.3mm leads and take plenty with me. I don’t rely on being able to replenish them.

Further Reading: Can You Draw With Mechanical Pencils? Folly or Game-Changer?

Pigment Ink Pens

If you like to draw in ink, I always used Sakura Pigma Micron pens. They are permanent and affordable and available in a wide range of widths. They start from 0.05mm, which is a hairline and fantastic for my style.

They are disposable, which in this day and age is less desirable, but I used to keep my pens in various stages as they ran out of ink so I could draw in grey. I had the full range of tones and my finished drawings looked more like etchings.

Having a complete drawing as a base I could apply some light watercolor washes as the final touch.

Erasers

I take a couple of kneadable erasers with me. They are usually available locally but not always as a recognizable brand. Blu-Tak is a good alternative.

Normal plastic and rubber erasers will be available everywhere.

I like to take a Tombo-Mono eraser pen for erasing fine lines and a Jakar battery eraser with plenty of spare eraser nibs. That said it’s not a tragedy if you have to make do with a school eraser. If you need to rub out a sharp line, slice a wedge off a hard eraser and use that.

Painting and Traveling With Art Supplies

Do yourself a favor and take watercolors. Take a small watercolor box with a selection of sable round head brushes and a small watercolor pad, that’s all you really need.

Cut down the size of your kit but not on the quality. Please don’t be tempted to save money and buy ‘student’ watercolors or generic Chinese rubbish. Only buy professional watercolors with genuine and stable lightfast pigments.

Buy a Windsor and Newton watercolor field box, it has 12 half pans of paint and that’s enough to take traveling. You might want to add a tube of titanium white gouache just for highlights.

Windsor and Newton Watercolor Field Box

Unless you are going on a short trip or putting all your gear into the back of the car I wouldn’t take oils. You need so much gear, and oils take way too long to dry. Chances are you will be on the move with a wet panel or canvas in tow.

The compromise is to take some acrylics but, drying time apart, you still have all that gear to lug around.

Do you really want to take an easel? a pochade box? at least 6 tubes of paint, 4 or 5 brushes, panels or canvases? I’m stressed just writing about it.

You can tell I’m not an oil painter can’t you?

And then there’s my original folly when I took a full range of pastels backpacking through Africa. Don’t do that.

  • The deadweight was hideous,
  • I ran out of key tints,
  • I ran out of my favorite paper (Canson Mi-Tintes tint 55),
  • And couldn’t travel with a finished painting.

You may well ask why I took them? Well, at the time, that’s how I made my living at home. I was a pastel painter. I just didn’t think about the logistics. I do now.

What’s It Like To Travel And Make Art?

Quite apart from carrying the extra weight, it’s more difficult than you might think. It’s hard to switch off and get into the zone. If you think about it, you are in a new place, possibly a new country and there’s a sensory overload.

Making Art in the Developing World

There’s so much to do and to see, so many interesting people to meet, new places to visit and new food to try. It’s almost impossible to sit down and concentrate. Distractions are everywhere.

And then there’s the weather, can you find a sheltered space? I travel to the tropics a great deal and the heat and humidity can wipe you out.

Further Reading: What’s it like to Travel Solo? (Isn’t it Lonely to Travel Alone?)

You would think the answer might be to sit down somewhere, in the shade, and away from everyone. Easy right? Well, not always. Privacy means different things in different cultures.

I’ve innocently sat down with a sketch pad and been mobbed by onlookers.

I remember scrambling to the top of a roadside earth-bank in Southern India to draw the street stalls lined up below. I assumed that I would escape the masses but I was wrong. Within minutes the traders were scrambling up after me to take a look!

Another time I sat down to sketch some village huts in Malawi. It didn’t take long before all the village kids had gathered around me in an arc to watch me draw. They sat in total silence and completely blocked my view!

I ended up snapping all my pencils in half to hand out a pencil stub and a sheet of paper to each kid. I had nothing left, but you’ve never seen such happy children.

Sometimes you travel with art supplies at your peril.

Not even the privacy of your own room will always guarantee that no one will bother you. Imagine drawing at a table and looking up to see a row of faces all looking in, yes that happened too.

Making Art in the Developed World

The rules are different in the developed world but you still have to have discipline to stop what you’re doing and start sketching.

I’ve only found success making art (and selling it) when I’ve taken a break from the road and settled somewhere for a few weeks at a time. It’s the only way I’ve been able to focus my mind properly.

I’d settle in somewhere cozy and cheap, find a quiet place to work’ and get to know the area. I’d create a routine and work every day for a few hours. It wouldn’t take long to get known.

When I first started to travel, way back in the 1980’s, I would use my art as an ice breaker. I was a shy young man and drawing was a great way to attract attention without being pushy in any way.

I’d sit down in a hostel or cafe and draw. I’d be noticed and approached tentatively. People would gravitate towards me in an apologetic way in case they were disturbing me. It couldn’t be easier to meet people.

Not only did I meet new people, but I could also make contacts, take commissions, and sell the odd painting. You’d be surprised how much money some backpackers have, they’re not all broke by any means.

Conclusion

If you are going to travel with art supplies, there is one golden rule, travel as light as possible. Take the bare minimum and make the best of what you have to hand. In many ways, a limitation can help you to be more creative.

Put everything in bags or plastic containers. Paints tubes can split and paper can get damp.

Don’t spend a fortune on everything you might need, you will only regret it. Check out the local art stores for basic art supplies. There is always the chance of finding a bargain.

Now all you need to do is make it happen!


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How to backpack with art supplies for pinterest. Picture of a passport, pencils, and a drawing of an elephant.