Tips on Traveling with Art Supplies

If you teach, you probably travel. If you use your car, you can load it up, but if you fly, you are limited to sending the material ahead or taking it with you on the plane.

If you are traveling to class, you usually scan the supply list and balance your need to take the class with the ability to take the supplies.

It’s not easy either way. Over the past few years of taking classes and teaching them, I’ve found a few short cuts that may be useful to you:

The easiest rule is to take only what you need. It’s easy to take everything you like to work with, but thinking through your class and taking just what you need will lighted your burden considerably.

1. Make big items small. Once I learned the trick of cutting watercolor pencils in half, I transferred the idea to other art items.

  • Instead of taking six journals so I can show 12 pages in them, I do samples on loose-leaf pages and take just the pages I need. Strathmore Ready-Cut paper is already cut in sizes that fit in standard frames. And their watercolor paper is wonderful.
  • Instead of taking big tubes of watercolors, I buy small palettes and fill the pans with watercolor and let them dry. Covered with cling wrap, they can be reconstituted in class.
  • Instead of a many Micron or Pitt Pens, I take a Medium and a super fine. I can make broad strokes with the medium, and the super fine will do the rest.
  • I also take a brush pen, because with varying pressure I can get different widths of lines. Black is my go-to color, as I can use a water-soluble one and blur the paint with water for shadows.

2. Take multi-use items.

  • Matte Gel medium can be used is glue, sealant on collage papers, and can waterproof colored pencils.
  • Newspaper is a smooth surface to work on, protects the table, and is packing material.
  • Inks can be watercolors, worked with pens or brushes.
  • Beeswax can smooth thread for sewing, serve as a resist for painting, and rub over a surface for a shiny finish. Be careful of using beeswax in summer or on paper that you’ll leave in a car. Or anytime in Phoenix and other desert towns.
  • A pencil can be used to write, draw, shade, create an area of graphite to use as tracing paper, check to see if a surface is level (it will roll in the direction that is lower), or a line is straight. Pencils can make temporary lines that don’t smear or have to dry.
  • A travel iron can keep your clothes tidy, dry a watercolor page, melt beeswax, get glue to set. A hair dryer can do the same, but it won’t iron your clothes.
  • A cheap shower curtain will protect a table and can be used to line your shipping box to protect from potential leaks. You can also cut up the shower curtain to work wet at your table or to place between wet pages in a journal.

3. Use what you have at hand. Instead of a long, cumbersome ruler, take a soft measuring tape used in sewing. If you can be approximate, the length of your fingertip to nose is about a yard, the distance between the middle knuckle and the one toward the fingernail is an inch (any finger). I know that if I spread my fingers, the distance between my thumb and little finger is 8.5 inches (I have big hands)–so you can approximate sizes and distances.

Instead of a variety of cases, roll pencils, pens, inks or scissors in wash cloths and pack in ziplock bags. You’ll have wipe-up cloths ready to use. (Iron them dry them before you pack up again, wash between trips.)

You can take a pencil sharpener, but a piece of sandpaper will have more uses–everything from smoothing the surface of your paper or book corners to sharpening your pencils, watercolor pencils, and sewing needles.

Pack tiny items in bags or small boxes so they don’t disappear in a big packing box.

Separate items that won’t go through security at the airport and keep them out of your carry-on or roll-aboard. X-acto knives or craft cutters and their extra blades, sharp needles, spray cans, scissors with sharp or long blades–all can create long delays in airports if you accidentally take them along. The TSA will confiscate them and search you for other infractions.

Worse, the rules are enforced differently at different airports, or even the same airport by different personnel, and it’s not smart to argue with the inspectors. I pack them in ziplock bags that have the contents written on them in red marker. That way I pack what it says on the bag and put them in bags or boxes that get shipped.

Traveling light takes a bit of planning, but your arms and back will thank you.

-Quinn McDonald is spending two weeks teaching five courses in six days and two time zones.

8 thoughts on “Tips on Traveling with Art Supplies

  1. I like the idea of smaller items. I make sure that I have small tubes of paint for plein air, I’m taking off tomorrow and need to go through my supplies today. I think I will see what else I can make smaller. Thanks

    And, have a safe trip. It will be nice to get out of the Phoenix heat.

    • I just came back from the D.C. humidity, which nearly did me in. Made PHX seem a lot easier to take! I found that sample-size cosmetics make traveling easier, and a LOT of stores will give you samples of the cosmetics you use, if you ask. The Origins people at the mall know me, and are very helpful, so being a good customer helps.

  2. I take some of my art supplies back and forth with me as I balance life between Arizona and Wisconsin. Some of these ideas are great travel tips in general.
    I love the idea of rolling the watercolor pencils and such in a wash cloth. I’ve noticed when they are transported back in forth in a plastic bag, the lead breaks in the pencil and sharpening is a forever task.
    I love your idea of making watercolor palettes too. I never want to carry a heavy load when I’m hiking, especially in the desert, but I hanker for a watercolor sketch now and then. Bet if I made up a palette of desert colors and then used a bit of water from my drinking source, I could do some minimalist paintings — a very exiting idea.
    I’m sure I can come up with a few more uses from your post. Thanks so much. Very helpful for travelers with a bag of art supplies.

    • You can also carry a small container–my printer ink cartridges come in plastic containers that look like individual ice cube trays. I find this useful as a water color brush-rinse container. We need less water than we think.

  3. Here’s one my wife just encountered: when returning to the US with an assortment of beads in your suitcase, be prepared to explain to Customs that no, they are not seeds requiring quarantine.

    When, upon closer examination at home, you discover that some of them actually ARE seeds (or made of seeds), be prepared to cope with feeling very guilty.

    • A friend of mine had that experience. She came home with a seed necklace and decided to dampen it and put it in the microwave, to kill any of the seeds that may be under quarantine. The seeds popped like popcorn, because, you know, it was a microwave. She wore the necklace anyway, because it was really interesting once it was “clean.”

  4. I don’t have much experience in this area, but running the creativity club after school for kids I found the most important thing to have was snacks and drinks! The kids were coming straight from school, and having a snack as we started really settled them.

    • That’s important, even for adults. I carry a bag of mixed nuts, so if I have to skip lunch, I can keep my energy up in a healthy way. I know otherwise I’d reach for cookies! Good tip!

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