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.
Below I give a basic “starter kit” and then suggest items that you might add as your journaling develops. Again, there is no ideal kit. Modify yours as your intersts, skills, or focus change.
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 0.5 mm and 0.7mm pencils for fast sketching. A soft lead makes rich dark lines but is more prone to smudging. I prefer 2B 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.
Journal I suggest a hardbound sketchbook. Both the oversized and mini books are impractical. Bring the largest book that you would realistically regularly bring onto the field or on a hike.
I have a strong preference for hardcover sketchbooks with sewn in bindings because they will protect your work and they stand 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 current favorite is the Laws Sketchbook for Nature Journaling, available in my store (as of Feb 2021). I designed this sketchbook, and carefully tested and chose the paper, format, size, and binding. This sketchbook also includes bonus pages with nature journaling tips and prompts. I also like the Stillman & Birn Alpha Series Sketchbook, 11.75 x 8.25, hardbound. If you like working on toned paper, the brown or gray Strathmore 400 series Toned Paper Sketchbooks are excellent.
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. A good option is 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.
Nature Journal Bag to Hold Your Kit
I suggest a handy shoulder 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). It is best if you create this kit and keep it by the door so you can take it with you whenever you go out. You may have a bag already in your closet that will work well. I recently worked with a team of nature journalers to design my Custom Nature Journaling Bag, and it is what I have been using for the past year. I love it.
Pencil Sketching Add-on
Kneeded Eraser 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.
White Vinyl Eraser Use a soft white vinyl eraser to remove mistakes. This eraser does a good job of lifting graphite without tearing up the paper. I use a stick style Pentel Clic-erase.
Fine-point pencil style eraser: Mono Zero Eraser, Round, fine This 2.5mm circle eraser is a super thin, pencil-style eraser that you can use to “draw” slender erased lines into a graphite drawing. When I am doing a pencil drawing with shading and values, this nimble eraser allows me to “draw in” little white lines and details just as I would with a pencil.
Blender 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. 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.
For these pencils you will need a pencil sharpener and a protective pencil case to hold your pencils.
Pen and Ink Add-on
Fiber Tip Pens If you want permanent lines of consistent width, get a few Pigma Micron pens of mid to wide widths. 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).
Brush Pens 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. Also consider a light brown pen for a sepia toned look.
Flexible Tip Drawing Pen The Superfine Zebra Brush Pen WFSS4 is a wonderful pen that makes both think and thin lines in response to pressure. It is my go to pen for most field sketching.
Colored Pencil Add-on
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 (pictured here). Very high quality and made in Germany, these pencils 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). In my store, I offer the 24-pencil set with the two bonus colors I suggest: Fuchsia and Violet.
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.
Heavy paper 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. Alternatively, you can keep using your lighter journal (if you do not mind a little buckleing) and bring as set of watercolor postcards and a gluestick. The postcards are heavier stock paper that takes watercolor better than a sketchbook. You can glue the cards into your book or mail them to a friend.
Paint If you are just starting, try the Winsor & Newton Cotman Sketcher’s Pocket Box (12 color set). See my blog, for ideas about customizing this palette. This takes the kit from a good start to a great practical palette that will last you for years. If you are doing watercolor with young kids, try the Prang oval pan 16 well set. Maria Coryell-Martin makes a great little pocket palette that you can fill with your favorite 14 tube colors.
My Custom Watercolor Palette This is my favorite watercolor palette, customized with all the paints I use both in my studio and in the field. This is the best palette that I have found for watercolor in the field. It features 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). You can order my Custom Watercolor Palette on my Naturalist Store, or you can make your own (though keep in mind that the initial investment for the paints I recommend will be at least $300-$500). Empty palettes are available 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 approx $10 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. 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 These brushes are made by several companies. The Pentel Arts® Aquash™ Large (18mm), Fine Point Water Brush is by far my favorite. If you use a waterbrush, carry a rag to wipe the brush clean to change colors. I use an old sock with the toe cut off and put it around my wrist so my rag is accessible any time. 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.
Also consider the Kuretake Fude Water Brush Pen, Flat Type, 2 Heads. It is an adaptable and useful tool. It can be used a a flat (chisel shaped) brush, a spalyed brush for texture effects, a large mop head brush, or a broad lacy fan brush.
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. My Prismacolor 3 Pencil Accent Set is a good option.
White Gel Pen 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. My favorite is the Signo Uni-Ball.
Other Naturalist Essentials
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 I love the Vortex Optics Razor HD 11-33X50 Angled Spotting Scope (RZR-50A1). This is a mini spotting scope that you will not mind bringing anywhere including travel. Consider the AmazonBasics 60-Inch Lightweight Tripod. The whole system costs about $725.
- 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
- lightweight stool or sitting pad
- drinking water
- day pack
- seasonally 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