Field Sketching Supplies and Naturalist Equipment

It seems that every drawing class requires a whole new list of things that you should get. Do not run out and buy everything on this list. It is expensive and unnecessary. You can get by just fine with a pencil and a sketchbook. I think it is better to get more experience using the mediums you enjoy the most. Consider this list as suggestions and thoughts about different items that you can bring with you and not a required shopping list. There are three guidelines to keep in mind when selecting field equipment: simple, light, and portable. Hold all your materials to this standard. Everyone has favorite tools so customize this list to meet your needs.


Sketchbook or drawing pad: There are two good ways to go on this, either a bound hardcover sketchbook or a Komtrak Inspiral notebook with removable pages. Hardcover sketchbooks with sewn in bindings will protect your work and stands up to field conditions.  You may need to reinforce the binding with duct tape as the book gets older.  I avoid the spiral bound books because the pages are able to rub against each other and smear your pencil work.  My favorite is the Canson Basic Sketch Book 8.5″ X11″.  It is acid free with 65 lb. paper and cost around $8.00.  It has a hard black cover and sewn in pages.  The paper has decent texture for pencil work and will accept a little watercolor (although you will have to live with some buckling of the paper and will not be able to do much lifting out).  There are other brands of look-alike sketchbooks but the smoother, whiter paper will immediately absorb watercolor, making it difficult to make a decent wash and the color bleeds through to the next page. If you do more watercolor in a sketchbook, get your hands on a Fabriano Venezia Book (ether the 9″x12″ or the 6″x9″). It has wonderful 90 pound (heavy weight) paper. The Komtrak Inspiral Notebook allows you to remove clasps at either end of the binding, remove the spiral binding, and insert or remove punched pages as you wish.  You can buy pre punched pages from Komtrak.  I like the “premium artists’ sketch paper” for general sketching.  You can also cut your own paper to a size you wish and get it punched at a photocopy/binding store such as Kinko’s.  I use this notebook when I am backpacking and need to keep my sketching kit light or when I want to have a variety of paper types.If you can not find Komtrak Inspiral notebooks at your local art supply store, you can call Komtrak at (516) 293-7170.

I have sampled many types of inexpensive commercially available paper for illustration. I buy the paper in bulk pre-cut to 8.5×11. I currently use Neenah Paper’s Classic Crest, solar white 80 weight cover stock with eggshell finish (item 16218). I get this punched with a comb binding for use in my Komtrak journal for field use. Toned Paper:  You can buy a few sheets of gray or brown toned paper at an art supply store, cut them to fit your sketchbook.  I like the Canson mi-tientes paper. I use colors that are a mid tone so that I  can both push darks with my pencil and pull lights with colored pencil or gouache. Try Oyster 340 (medium brown), Moonstone 426 (warm gray), Sky Blue 354 (blue-gray), and Flannel Gray 122 (flat gray). You get interesting effects with watercolor, gouache, or colored pencils. Use wet media lightly or the paper will buckle a little.  You may keep a few sheets at the back of your sketchbook and glue them in at appropriate places or get them cut and punched and added to your Inspiral notebook. Watercolor Postcards:  This is heavier stock paper that takes watercolor better than a sketchbook.  You can glue the cards into your book or mail them to a friend.

Drawing Tools

Prismacolor Col-erase Non-photo Blue Pencil: This is the essential tool for sketching in the posture, proportions and angles before you start a detailed drawing. Use it lightly and you do not even need to erase.

Mechanical Pencils: I use a 0.5 mm pencil for fast sketching. A soft lead makes rich dark lines but is more prone to smudging. I prefer HB lead. For detail work, switch to a 0.3 mm pencil. You will need to draw more slowly and precisely but it will give you a consistent, delicate line. I like the Pentel Twist Erase pencils. Here is a detailed review of different mechanical pencils by Olivier Jennes of Wonderstreet.

A Derwent water soluble pencil can be used to sketch like a regular pencil but you can add quick shadows with a damp brush.

You can sketch or add details with a hard tipped colored pencil such as Sanford Verithin or Prismacolor Col-erase. These pencils do not smudge as much as graphite. Try sketching with a dark brown pencil.

White Pencils: These can be used over dry watercolor to add or strengthen highlights or before applying watercolor to act as a resist that prevents watercolor for adhering to the paper. Prismacolor pencils work well.


A water-soluble fiber tipped pen lays down dark lines that can be blended into shadows with a damp brush. Try a Pilot razor point II pen (creates a cool gray wash when you add water with a brush) or a fine Espresso pen (creates a warm brown wash- but be careful, the ink from this pen can bleed through some sketchbook paper).

A dark gray Tombo brush pen lays down dark tones which can be overlaid to black. Some have a small nib on the other side of the pen for detail work. These pens are water-soluble.



Use a white jell pen to add white lines on top of dry watercolor. Useful for plant veins, primary edges, or eye highlights. Once it is dry, it can be tinted with a quick watercolor wash or lifted back out with a damp brush.

You can lighten your pencil by tapping it with a soft kneaded eraser. Stretch and pull the kneaded eraser like taffy before using it to warm it up. When it is soft, press it firmly over the pencil lines and it will lift the graphite without smearing like silly putty on newsprint. Use a soft white vinyl eraser to remove mistakes. This eraser does a good job of lifting graphite without tearing up the paper. The Tombow Mono Zero rectangle eraser is a super thin, pencil style eraser that you can use to “draw” slender erased lines into a graphite drawing.


A rolled paper blending tool (tortillon or stump) will smear graphite lines and blend shadows. Once the tip has picked up graphite, you can use it like a gray paintbrush, adding tone to background space. creating subtle shadows or mid vale patterns.

If you like soft pencils try the Design “Ebony” jet black extra smooth pencil or the Berol Prismacolor Warm Gray 90% pencil pencil sharpener protective pencil case A handy portable bag or soft case to hold all your sketching supplies that fits neatly into your backpack or (ideally) over your shoulder with a strap. medium sized plastic bag (to protect sketchbook in a downpour or collect trash on the way home) large rubber bands (to hold sketchbook pages down in the wind)

Media for Color

If you like colored pencils, you do not need every color in the jumbo box, especially if you are sketching in the field. The Prismacolor Premier (softer thick lead that gives more vibrant color) and Prismacolor Verithin (stronger thin lead that stays sharp longer) 36 color sets are good starters. You can also buy colors individually so make sure that your selection includes Process Red, True Blue, and Canary Yellow, and then add a few muddy grays, greens and browns. These muted colors will probably become your favorites. I also recommend Black Grape and Greyed Lavender, two muted purple gray pencils that make effective shadows. Consider a colorless blender if you like to smoothly blend colors together (not necessary). Though a little more expensive, I love Faber-Castell Polychromos Pencils. They are less prone to breaking, are oil based so have no wax bloom, have great texture, are easily blended, and can be used in combination with Prismacolor (so I can still use my Black Grape and Grayed Lavender). If you get the 24 set you will need to supplement it with the Fuchsia and Violet pencils.

You may also be interested to try watercolor pencils.  Personally I have a lot of trouble with these because the colors change when you add the water but some people like them.  If you are not already comfortable with watercolor, go for colored pencils, they are much easier to use.

Dispense with the paper or metal box that the pencils come in and bundle your pencils together with elastic bands. Make one bundle for warm yellows and reds, one for blues and purples, one for earth tones and greens. This will make it easier to grab the pencil you need in the field. Store the pencil bundles in a box or bag that will help prevent the tips from breaking off. You can put a piece of crumpled up tissue at the end of the box with all the points so that they do not bang around and chip.

If you use watercolor, find a small set of colors, portable brush (see below), and small, tightly sealed water bottle (such as Nalgine). I use a collapsible plastic palette that I can recharge with colors from paint from tubes when I need to.  I let the paint dry for a couple of days before closing the palette and heading back out into the field. I use a Holbein 24 well folding plastic palette that is 3-3/4″ wide by 10-1/4 inches long.  It is lightweight and has five separate mixing areas (and a sixth that folds out).  This is the best palette that I have found for watercolor in the field.  You can order them through Vermont Art Supply 800-790-2552.  Ask for item number 10243000, the “3-3/4″ x 10-1/4″ quality folding plastic palette”- cost is $7.17 plus shipping.  They also sell a smaller 18 well palette if you use a smaller number pf paints (item # 10242000 Folding Plastic Palette 3-3/4″ x 8-1/4″). Each artist their own favorite colors and personal preferences will change over time. Some artists carry very few colors and mix everything else. I find that it is easier in the field to have more of a selection. Maria Coryell-Martin makes a great little pocket palette that you can fill with your favorite 14 tube colors. If you are just starting, try the Winsor & Newton Cotman Sketcher’s Pocket Box (12 color set). See my blog, Pimp my Palette for ideas about customizing this palette. See my blog, Watercolor Choices for a full list and description of the colors on the palette I use in the field and in my studio.

Waterbrush If you are using watercolor or watercolor pencils, consider this terrific sketching tool.   It is a brush that holds water in the handle so you do not need to dip it into water to paint.  It takes some getting used to but it is very handy for quick sketching especially under difficult conditions.  Brushes come in several sizes.  I recommend the broad tip (18mm).  These brushes are made by several companies. The Pentel Aquash waterbrush with a fatter handle and slightly longer, stiffer bristles is by far my favorite. They are sold at University Art in San Francisco. They can also be ordered from Art Essentials 1-800-736-7772, ask for the pointed Aquash Waterbursh from Pentel with the broad tip. If you use a waterbrush, carry a rag to wipe the brush clean to change colors.  If you use this brush, you can also dispense with bringing the tightly sealed water bottle for painting. I know this sounds like a gimmick but once you try it, you may never go back to traditional (and more expensive) brushes for your field work.  I now use a pentel brush almost exclusively even for my studio work.


Binoculars: I use and recommend the Pentax Papilio 8.5×21 Binoculars. They can focus on a bug on a flower a foot and a half in front of your face and are great for things that are far away as well.  The close focus feature will open up whole new worlds for you. They are inexpensive too! (I do not receive a commission for this plug).

Spotting scope: These can be expensive but allow hands free sketching. For about $200, the Konus Konuspot-80 20-60x80mm is a real bargain. There are better scopes out there but they cost orders of magnitude more. The scope comes with a little tripod that is not very useful so you will need to get a better one with the money you save.

Naturalist Tools

  • hand lens or small magnifying glass
  • bug box with a magnifying glass in the lid
  • field guides
  • 2 or 3 ziplock bags
  • pocket knife
  • small ruler (should include metric measurements)
  • portable measuring tape (good lightweight tapes are sold for sewing kits)
  • baseline goniometer (prefered) or protractor to measure angles
  • watch with stopwatch or second hand
  • small compass

Optional Equipment

  • lightweight stool or sitting pad
  • sunscreen
  • lunch
  • drinking water
  • day pack
  • seasonaly appropriate clothing. Dress in layers. Avoid bright colors as these may alert birds to your presence. In deer hunting season, a blaze orange hat or jacket is a great idea.
  • rain gear
  • sun hat (with a big brim in the back so that it shades the back of your neck when you look down to draw)
  • comfortable walking shoes

20 thoughts on “Field Sketching Supplies and Naturalist Equipment

  1. Heather says:

    Typo note for editor… not meant to be published: Use a white jell pen to add white lines on top of dry watercolor. Useful for plant veins, primary edges, or eye highlights. Once it is try (should say “dry”), it can be tinted with a quick watercolor wash or lifted back out with a damp brush.

    All the best, Heather

  2. Gill says:

    Hi John, can you please help me. I teach decorative painting, but am new to watercolours. What type of pencil can I use to stop colours running in to each other so that I have more control when painting flowers or birds?

    • Hi there Gill, The secret with getting watercolor to stop running is to let the coat of paint dry, then add a new layer. As long as the surface is wet with water or paint, your colors will move and have soft edges. Add the paint on dry paper and you can crisply control shapes.

  3. Ursula Doll says:

    For sketching I like “Nature sketch” by Pentalic. It is acid free – 130 lb. It is 7×5. I get it at Blick’s. It’s great for watercolor

  4. Arly Helm says:

    Could you give the specifics for the greyed lavender pencil you use for shadows? I know there may be several companies that make one, but which one do you use?

  5. Lela Brown says:

    Oh man, going over the kit ideas for a upcoming class. Now I’m coveting the 14 color pocket palette with the magnetic color trays.. ay! Does she have them manufactured? WANT.

  6. Howard says:

    Great classes. I,unfortunately live on the East coast and can’t attend in person. I bought your book on birds and it is excellent. Can’t wait for the nature sketching in 2015.

  7. Judy Caldwell says:

    Dear John,
    Whoa, how funny . . . . .a Dear John letter. Anyway, scuttle butt has it that you are going to do a drawing book on mammals like you did on birds. Hope that’s true. Love the bird book and recommend it to everyone but since my passion is for the mammals I would love to have an equally wonderful reference for the furry creatures. I’m a wildlife artist working in wood and found your book on birds to be of great help and did translate to in the round sculpture medium ver well.
    Judy Caldwell

  8. Olivia Moore says:

    Hi John,

    I was just wondering, what could I use instead of a soft kneading eraser? I am struggling to find one and I really would like to use a tool with the same effect for my sketches.

    I’m not that good yet but I would like to try anything that could possibly compensate for the kneading eraser.

    Thank You..

    Olivia M

    • I think you should be able to find a kneaded eraser in just about any art supply store. Ask the clerk for help and they will take you to them. If you live in an area with no art supply stores, you can order one online. If that does not work, let me know and I may be able to mail you one. You would need to send your address privately.

  9. Diane Bradley Mary says:

    Totally unskilled in any sketching journaling can I still participate successfully in this class feeling greatly intimidated?

    • Hi Mary, Which class would you like to know about? Many of my classes are open to folks of all experience levels. This comment showed up on my equipment page so I am not sure what class you are interested in taking.


    Thanks John, I have been drawing,painting birds and wildlife for 50 years and any little bit helps..I have never had art lessons, but try to do the best I can..Your book is a great help to drawing in the field..I also have been a falconer all my life as well as a motion picture animal trainer and always draw when on location..My main subjects are usually always birds of all kinds..Raptors a first choice..


    Lee Sollenberger

  11. Roger Underhill says:

    Great info, John, esp. for comparing notes, as during trips to Thailand & what I usually take with me. Had to sketch fish seen while diving after underwater camera flooded last year…and other scenes too. Googled unusual fish to help sketches. Enjoyed my 1st time in one of your classes today @ Presidio. Learned about it on Meetup site, although missed 1st 1/2 hour.

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