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Packing to Paint

Packing to Paint - Scott Burdick Outlines Four Options for Taking Art Materials on Your Travels

Afternoon Sun

So you've gotten the trip of your dreams arranged to Tibet, Italy, or maybe just across the state; then comes the dilemma -- what kind of painting equipment to bring? I'm constantly asked this question, and thought I'd go over some of the things I've learned (many times the hard way) from the numerous painting trips my wife, Susan Lyon (also a painter), and I have taken both far and near over the last ten years.

There are four different setups I use on painting trips, each one progressively lighter and simpler. Which one of these setups I choose depends on our destination.

The first setup consists of a full-sized French easel, a large palette that folds up onto itself like a suitcase, and a backpack that holds about twelve oil colors, my brushes, palette knives, solvent jar, paper towels, and canvases. I use this setup when we're painting within the US, have a rental car, and aren't going to be hiking long distances to find our subject matter. This is perfect for plein air shows like the Laguna Plein Air Painters of America and the Plein Air Painters of America show on Catalina Island. In both instances, I simply pack everything up into a large cardboard box and ship it UPS to the hotel I'll be staying at, avoiding all the hassles of checking it through on the airplane. This first setup is also ideal for local landscape painting or driving trips. It's nice having all my brushes, colors, and a large palette when doing larger on-the-spot works.

My second setup is for places that you can't ship your gear to ahead of time, and where you might be doing quite a bit of walking to find your painting spot -- National Parks or Europe, for example. For these trips, I usually substitute a large pochade (self-contained) box that holds all the paints, brushes, canvas panels, and other equipment compactly into one, easily carried unit. The box itself attaches to a tripod so I can stand and paint or simply sit, and it rests on my lap or on a table. This is perfect in Europe where you can sit at a café and paint while sipping tea! I don't usually do anything larger than 12" by 16" with this setup, and most of the paintings tend to be around 9" by 12". Everything fits nicely into a backpack with just enough room for a camera and jacket.

Now, for places that are a bit off the beaten path, like trips we've taken to China and Nepal, you really need to travel light. So, I use a third setup which consists of a small box, three or four brushes, and only four tubes of water-based oil paint (red, yellow, blue and white). We use water-based paint since it is nearly impossible to track down acceptable paint thinner in such places; and would have the extra weight of carrying a jug of thinner around all the time. And of course, paint thinner isn't allowed on planes! Water can be found everywhere, and it makes cleanup especially easy. To replace bulky canvas panels, we paint on 6" x 8" museum boards that we seal with gesso. Make sure they're not paper mat boards, the latter being acidic. These are so thin and light that you can easily take as many as you want; they come in many different colors, which can also be fun to experiment with. With a razor and some tape, you can easily construct a cardboard slot-box to hold the wet sketches, then simply stack the one that have dried. I've also occasionally used gouache and acrylics with this setup -- then you don't even have to worry about them drying. You might think 6" by 8" is very small, but you can easily get all the info you need to do a larger painting in the studio. If it's the choice between nothing and 6" by 8", which would you choose?

My last setup isn't even a setup -- just my sketchbook, a few pencils and an eraser. This is great when you want to do some serious hiking, or are sick of carrying all your painting gear. For most of the time in Nepal, for example, when we were trekking up into the Himalayas at high altitude, my sketchbook was all that I needed or wanted. I have been lucky enough to paint with many of the best plein-air painters around, and each has their own quirks and equipment that suits them. Like me, most have a few different setups, with the common element being smaller and lighter for far-flung trips, and more elaborate setups when doing large paintings within the US When in doubt, I'd go with the smaller and lighter setups -- there is nothing more frustrating than struggling to haul all your equipment down street after cobblestoned street, with that magical aura of old-world beauty obscured by the sweat pouring into your eyes. Believe me, I know!

completed sketch

Other Tips

  • Lay out your paint before setting out and, if at all possible, at the end of each painting session. That way you can just open up your box and start when the creative juices are flowing. I'm sure I don't have to to you how frustrating it gets to be fussing around laying out paint while that gorgeous magic-hour light is disappearing!
  • Wear a dark, neutral T-shirt if painting out in the sun. The strong rays can bounce off a brightly colored shirt, and either color your canvas or create a glare on your darker brushstrokes.
  • If the wind takes your finished masterpiece and dumps it into the grass, gravel or sand, wait until the painting is dry to brush all the dirt and gravel off -- it will be a lot easier and you'll be surprised at how little damage has been done. Sometimes, a few bugs and gravel in the paint make it that much more authentic.


About the Author
Scott Burdick was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1967 where his mother and father early on encouraged his interest in Art. "I spent a lot of time in hospitals as a child and remember my mother showing me how to transform simple shapes like circles, triangles, and squares into objects like planes, helicopters, and fish. It seemed such a magical thing and made spending so much time in casts and on crutches much more bearable."

In high school, Scott began taking life-drawing classes at the American Academy of Art under the legendary Bill Parks. "Though I'd always loved drawing, it was Mr. Parks who filled me with the enthusiasm and discipline necessary to improve my skills. His love of painting and creative expression infected us all." After finishing the Academy, Scott continued his study at the Palette and Chisel Art club, where he met his wife, painter Susan Lyon. "It's a wonderful thing being able to paint together all the time and grow as artists together," Scott says.

His ideas for paintings come from everywhere. "What makes a subject attractive to me are the same things that attract us all. The beauty of a young girl, the character of a weathered face, the solitude of a farm at sunset, or even the story itself behind someone or something that makes it interesting." Scott believes it is the job of the artist to recognize this when it happens, analyze why, and use his technical skills to convey the feeling to someone else. He notes that some paintings are as simple as stopping at the sight of something interesting, while others may take more time to research than to actually paint.

Today, Scott and Susan live in a rural area of North Carolina. Surrounded by forests and the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, their house is a perfect resting place after the many trips they take throughout the world in search of subject matter to paint.

Artist Statement

"I see painting as both a way of exploring the world and then as the vehicle of sharing those discoveries with others. I travel to find subjects to paint as much as paint so I can travel and expand my horizons. Through this unique language, one can say things that are impossible with words."

Materials List