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.

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.

Starter Kit

Pencil Sketching Add-on

Pen and Ink Add-on

Colored Pencil Add-on

Watercolor Add-on

Other Naturalist Essentials


Starter Kit

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.


Watercolor Add-on

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
  • sunscreen
  • lunch
  • 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

36 thoughts on “Field Sketching Supplies and Naturalist Equipment

  1. Eileen Benson says:

    Thanks for explaining that we don’t need every color of pencil for sketching in the field. I want to buy an arts bag so I can draw on the go. Your article should be helpful when I fill the bag with supplies!

  2. Kelly Fleming says:

    I am deeply appreciative of your work and publications. As a field biologist in the Southwest
    who uses my own journals extensively, I have learned so much from your generously shared published materials.
    Do you plan to do workshops in Arizona this year?
    Or New Mexico? I am in southern Arizona and would happily travel to participate in your workshops. Thank you!

  3. George Rogers says:

    So glad to have found your site and all its resources. I used to live in the Bay Area long ago, and used to like hiking on Mt. Diablo and around its base, but now in Florida. Found you while Googling around looking for advice on drawing plants, and your advice has been exactly what’s needed for a novice…clear concise fundamental instructions. Best I’ve found anywhere. Much enjoyed and much appreciated!

  4. Carol Cramer says:

    At your workshop in Salt Lake City last week I saw that you use a small palette with gouache in addition to watercolors. Did you fill it from tubes or can I get it already made? What brand do you like?

    • John Laws says:

      I made that kit from a old empty palette and tubes. You can make a good small palette from an altoids tin. I have a few blog post about that. For a brand, I am still seeking a best recommendation. Many brands crumble out of the pan when dry. Right now I am leaning toward M. Graham. I will do more testing and do a workshop on this subject, perhaps next year.

  5. Carlo Albano says:

    Hello John!

    I enjoyed your presentation and workshop at our NGSS institute in Santa Cruz!
    I would love to know of any cost-efficient resources you know of to supply my 4th grade class with sketchbooks for this year’s field studies! Can’t wait to get them out there. If you have any ideas or knowledge on such resources I’d love to know! As of now, I am thinking of using a composition journal with grid paper. Would this be ok? Thanks so much. Looking forward to the next workshop/ class!

  6. Aide Villalobos says:

    Hi, I’m introducing scientific illustrations, including field sketching, next year with my 2nd graders. My budget is $500 for 2 classes of 24. What would you say are the most important/basic tools and materials I should buy?
    Thank you

  7. stephey baker says:

    Hello and thank you for all the sharing of Nature Journaling and technique that you offer! I have a question I’m hoping to receive some insight about: How do you use the Goniometer? I recently purchased an 8″ one for easy carrying in my backpack. I was hoping to use it to get more accurate angles on tree branches etc. But for the life of me, I don’t know how to use it. Any insight you may offer is appreciated!
    All My Best,
    stephey

    • John Laws says:

      Hi there! I think the best way to answer you would be to make a short video and add that to my blog. This is one of those things that is easier to show than tell. You will like it though… Give me a little time and I will try to put that up.

  8. Jane Hittinger says:

    I am so sorry that I live in Ohio. I would love to take you classes but you have made it nice with your books and tutorials! This is a great way for people who do not live in the immediate area. Thank you for the blog and great suggestions to all of your fans. Keep up the great work!

  9. 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

  10. 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?

    • John Muir Laws says:

      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.

  11. 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

  12. 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?

  13. 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.

  14. Howard says:

    John,
    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.
    Howard

  15. 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.
    Thanks,
    Judy Caldwell

    • John Muir Laws says:

      Thank you Judy,
      I am working on a book on nature sketching. I hope to be done with the draft this year and have it published in 2015.

  16. 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

    • John Muir Laws says:

      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.

  17. Diane Bradley Mary says:

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

    • John Muir Laws says:

      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.

  18. LEE SOLLENBERGER says:

    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..

    Thanks

    Lee Sollenberger
    BC,Canada

  19. 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.
    Roger

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