Travels Abroad with Pastels

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Taking the stress out of sketching abroad

It always sounds so romantic; ‘I’m going to Italy to paint’, ‘I’m going sketching in the Alps’. But when it’s time to pack, the panic can set in.

I’ve been teaching on art holidays abroad for 10 years, and I know that travelling with pastels can be easy and stress free.

After a recent trip to Tuscany, to Lucca and the wonderful Watermill at Posara, here are some tips on travels with pastels, that involve airplanes and hot climates…

Lucca in Italy
Lucca in Italy

As a pastel artist, I am used to a studio with a huge quantity of pastel colours to choose from, and my favourite surface is a primer painted onto card.

I stand at a full size easel, and use a large drawing board.

Packing for a painting trip in the UK usually results in a very full car, but actually that really isn’t necessary.

There is nothing quite like the airline weight restriction to focus the mind!

23 kg sounds like a lot, but for clothes and art materials, you have to get clever.

A selection of sketches done using a variety of pastel media, all out of my little rucksack.
Pastel and mixed media sketches of Lucca, Italy. Each 7" x 11"

1. We go away for a change, so be prepared to change your methods a bit. It’s refreshing to get out of your comfort zone.

2. You may need to use slightly different materials. I use paper when I go abroad rather than a primer on card. It’s great for travel sketches, and also for finished paintings.

3. Keep the weight down…less really can be more.
It’s pointless dragging your entire studio with you, as you will be too exhausted to draw and  paint. 
If I am sketching abroad I want a day-bag that’s a small rucksack. I might have to carry the paper separately, but that’s ok as it’s not heavy.

4. Don’t set your sights too high, painting ‘en plein air’ (outdoors) isn’t easy, and takes a lot of practise to get right. View everything you do as ‘experiments’, then it will be a lot more satisfying.

Pastel and mixed media sketch in progress

5. Be prepared to adapt.

6. Be prepared to make new discoveries.
As my friend Nel Whatmore says, ‘if you haven’t got the right colour, you just use another one, and that is how your work develops’. Maybe you need to get out of a colour rut anyway.

7. Customise your equipment to suit yourself. I spent years looking for the perfect pad of pastel paper colours, but now I just rip up a few sheets of colours that I like, and clip them onto a piece of card with a bull dog clip. Then I can spread them out to assess progress, rather than keeping them hidden away in a precious sketch book. 

Unison Colour pastel sketches in Italy
Unison pastels on Canson Mi-Tientes Touch

8. Same thing for all of those colours of pastels. I take one New Pastel School Small Starter Set and a second small box with about 50 extra colours, as smaller pieces so I can cram more in.

This selection box needs to have a varied range of colours, not just what I am used to using in the UK. On my recent trip to Italy I wished that I had taken some brighter, fresher colours, to capture the intense light.

Next time, if I have room, I will also take our New Pastel School Landcape Set, as it contains a lot of those fresher colours.

See below for the kit list…

Rebecca de Mendonca sketching in the Piazza San Michele, Lucca, Italy
Yours truly sketching in the Piazza San Michele, Lucca

9. I make my own folder with 2 sheets of card and some tape. It’s designed to fit into my suitcase, and stores clean paper and also finished work. It could also act as a temporary drawing board.

I put the work neatly in a pile, and never work on the back of the paper.

10. Try working at a different scale. I have worked smaller this year, but that has required a change in the way I use my pastels.
The sketches here are about 7″ x 11″.
Some of the time I combine pastels with pencil, pens, Conté crayons, pan pastels and pastel pencils. I like doing this, as I am discovering a new look to my work (remember….treat them all as experiments).

11. Practise with your kit before you go away!

Sketch done in the Palazzo Pfanner, Lucca, with pen, charcoal, Unison Colour pastels and Conte Carre Crayons.
Unison pastel, Conte Carre crayon, charcoal and sepia pen on Canson Mi-Tientes paper. 7" x 11"

When you get there
Remember to sit in the shade.

Assuming you are going somewhere hot, you will need water to drink, a hat and sun cream. Insect repellent is a life saver.
If you are heading somewhere a bit cooler, then take a look at my blog on Extreme Plein Air Painting!

Last tip, and I find this the hardest to do; you have to stop being self-conscious, and get used to people looking at what you are doing.
The thing is, they are far less judgemental than you think, and usually just genuinely interested. Anyway, if they say anything critical, do what Nel Whatmore does, and give them the pastel/pencil/brush and say , ‘Do show us how you do it then’, they soon run a mile.

Verrucola, one of the venues used by The Watermill at Posara for their painting holidays.
A student sketching in Verrucola, perfectly equipped!. Thank you Anne x

You soon realise that no one is noticing you when so many of them stand in front of you, blocking your view!

One really useful piece of advice
Practise with your kit before you go away. A few trips out locally can help you to develop your sketching style and tweak your equipment.

My kit list
Unison Colour Pastels in boxes.

I take a New Pastel School Starter Set everywhere I go, and if I can carry it, another box with extra colours suitable for landscapes. These are smaller pieces, so I can get more in the box!

Top tip; if you put a layer of clean tissue in the lid every now and then, it stops dust in the box from making your pastels dirty during transit.

Pencils, pastel pencils, pens, willow charcoal, Conté Carré crayons and Pan Pastels.
I use pen when I am working small scale, to give me more details, when drawing subjects such as architecture.

Unison pastels, Pan pastels, Pitt pastel pencils, pens, and pencils

These all go in boxes and a pencil case, along with a scalpel to sharpen the pastel pencils, and an eraser. The scalpel needs to travel in your hold luggage NOT hand luggage!

Top tip; use rubber bands to keep the boxes shut. No one wants loose pastels rolling around inside their bag.

Also a wet cloth in a bag for my hands, or packet of wipes, and some loo roll/tissue to clean my pastels. (Don’t get the pastels wet!!)

I  like to take a carrier bag to sit on. A folding stool would be a luxury that I am not sure I can carry!


Conte Carre crayons, charcoal, hand wipes and tissues, paper clipped to a board

It all goes in boxes, or bags, and don’t forget the elastic bands!

I usually use the boxes that the pastels or Conte crayons arrived in. Some people use larger plastic boxes with compartments, and cut pieces of foam to fit.  

Or others use the cardboard boxes that the pastels arrive in, but customise the foam fillers to get more in.

See what works for you.

I take the pastel boxes in my hand luggage, which is this rucksack. I can then handle that bag gently.

Unison colour pastels in a Small Starter Set. All boxed up, and secure with elastic bands
It all goes It all goes in boxes; don't forget those elastic bands!

I use my favourite papers, in a variety of types and colours, ripped into smaller pieces and clipped onto a piece of mount card. If I keep to size A4, this fits into my rucksack, but if it’s a bit bigger, I just carry it. Card is much lighter than  a drawing board.

I store all of my paper and my finished work in an A2 folder that I made out of mount card and some tape. This size fits perfectly into my suitcase. It is also useful to put on the floor of your hotel room when you get your kit out. Pastel can be messy!

So it is all very home-made, developed from years of trial and error.

Canson Mi-Tientes paper and Winsor paper, ripped to size and clipped onto card. Underneath is the card folder for storing paper and work.
Paper clipped to a piece of card

All ready to go!

The kit goes in a small rucksack, which is actually an old laptop bag. This means it has a good layout inside for storing flat papers as well as the other materials.

I hope that this blog has been useful to you, but remember, we learn from each experience.
You will at some point think…’I wish I had brought such and such with me’, but just make a note of it for next time, and have fun on this trip with what you have now!

Bon voyage!

You can find out about my pastel courses  and zoom workshops on my website

All packed and ready to go!