Thursday, August 18, 2011

Top tips for travelling artists - pastels

This is the second in my mini-series of posts about travelling with different media.  This post focuses on travelling with pastels.

You can find the first in the series here - Top tips for travelling artists - oil painters
Each post aims to
  • provide some links to useful information
  • invite people to identify the blog posts on which they have discussed what they do
  • ask people to contribute their three top tips for travelling with different types of media 

This is an interactive post - which means that if more top tips and blog posts are identified in the comments on this post, I'm going to add them into the body of the post and then republish it. Which means this post will also up date over time.

Do please make suggestions as to what you have found to be invaluable advice for travelling with pastels or any useful article you have read.  I've not got them all as yet - but hope to round them all up in time!

My Unison Pastels flew to Walden Pond in Massachusetts
and collected a new Artbin Backpack en route!

How are you going to travel?

Your mode of transport is critical to how you pack your pastels.
  • If you are weight limited that has implications for how many pastels (and other kit) you take and the way you carry them.
  • If you are plein air painting weight is still an issue but it depends how far you have to walk.  You could keep the pastel version of the kitchen sink in the back of your vehicle!
    Travelling with pastels by air

    The two critical issues when travelling by air are weight and getting past airport security.  The latter has become particularly important in the last five years or so following various security scares.  It used to be possible to always travel with pastels in your carry-on baggage.  Now it is a lot more diffcult

    • Include your pastels in your carry-on luggage if possible - it's very expensive to replace them if they get lost 
    • Make sure you check what size of carry-on luggage you can take - and indeed if carry-on luggage is allowed.  You will need to tailor to the allowed size.  It has become more difficult to carry pastels as part of carry-on baggage of late
    • Baggage allowances (weight / dimensions / number of pieces) vary and you need to check carefully as to precisely what is allowed - Make sure you check baggage allowance for the specific airline and type of travel (eg domestic, inter-continental) - allowances vary.  In particular check dimensions - they're very fussy now about dimensions as well as weight.  
    • If carrying pastels in carry-on baggage, always pack your pastels so that you can get at them really quickly and easily after the airport security have identified them as possible bullets or explosives! I'm not joking - this has happened to me again and again when flying with pastels.  Do NOT get uptight about this - just be very co-operative. 
      • Make sure you turn up early as checking your baggage might take about 15 minutes longer than other people 
      • Tell them what they are going to see as you go through.  Don't act surprised.
      • Tell them they are artists quality pastels - and that you are an artist
      • Be prepared to break any of them in two to demonstrate they are not.  Ask them to choose which one they want you to break.
      • They may well get swabbed. 
    • Check how many bags you can can put in the hold.  If you can send two include pastels in a dedicated backpack and/or ship ahead of time in same. 
    • Ship your clothes and pack your pastels!
    • Take the minimum necessary is a maxim advocated by many artists.   On the other hand you could pack less of everything else if you want the comfort of enough colours to keep you happy! 
    • Use foam core as a base for your supportIt's very light and consequently travels well if you are flying.  I personally prefer the 5mm depth as it's more robust
    • Check the size of the base of your suitcase well in advance.  Unless you take a portfolio or are travelling by car, this is the maximum size of your support Cut a piece of foam core to fit the base and then pack supports at the base of your suitcase. 
    • Beware tubular steel chairs can go missing for a day while they review whether you've got anything inside the tubular steel!  The chair has always been hand-delivered the next day - to date! 
    • Fixative is flammable and cannot be put in either checked or carry-on baggage
      • Buy fixative when you get to your destination - and then leave it behind
      • Use abrasive supports to reduce the need for fixative (my preferred choice)
    Travelling with pastels - other tips

    I've travelled all over the world with my pastels and I've never had untoward breakages and only ever lost one pastel.  Investing in good storage pays off in the long run.  Unfortunately options for storage are more limited than they used to be as manufacturers rationalise their products which have a limited market.

    Whatever mode of transport you need to pay particular attention to how your pastels are packed as they are potentially fragile. 

    Storage and Carrying Pastels
    • When you got to a pastels workshop have a good look at how other people transport their pastels - and the impact of carrying pastels horizontally or vertically.  It can make a big difference.
    • Make sure you have a pastel box which is stuffed full of pastels as then they are less likely to move around, break and create lots of pastel dust.
    • Make sure your pastels box has a secure catch and closure which cannot come undone.  There is nothing worse than pastels mixed up with the rest of your luggage and/or opening and scattering their contents around as you move them.
    • Try using smaller rigid plastic boxes with good closure for colour palettes of pastels - see Felicity House blog post.  You can keep them in cornmeal
    • Use elastic bands to secure boxes of Unison Pastels.  I bought my Unisons in complete sets and like the fact that I can choose to take out just as many boxes as I need for the subject.  However  have found it difficult to find a lightweight box to accomodate them so I keep them in their boxes - but I always secure the lids with elastic bands
    • See how few pastels you need to take pastels on a plein air trip - Casey Klahn has got it down to six!
    • Try a backpack for carrying pastels - it makes carrying weight a lot easier.  Which means you need to make sure your pastel box will fit in a backpack! 

    Pastel Boxes

    If you've not had a plein air box for pastels before it's a good idea to check the options - although American artists have a much better selection compared to those in the UK.  Artists have individual preferences and criteria which means that what suits one person may well not suit another. 
    • Before you buy a pastel box for travel / plein air work:
      • Decide what sort of weight you are prepared to carry(try it!) and create a limit - this is a really fast way of reducing the shortlist of potential buys!
      • remember to estimate and imagine the weight of any box when it is fully loaded with pastels - it will increase a lot in terms of weight.  Plus as stated before you don't want any scoope for pastels to move around.
    • Boxes with trays with slots are:
      • good for separating colours and brands of pastels
      • bad for carrying pastels which don't fit.  (Ask the manufacturer to state which brands of pastels can be accommodated).  Certain boxes will not take the larger pastels.
    • Pack your box with pastels so they can't move.  Loose pastels break and create dust.  Use foam to cushion.
      Dedicated pastel boxes
          The following are some of the dedicated pastel boxes suitable for use when travelling. See some of the references at the end to discussion threads in the Wet Canvas Pastel forum for more detailed comments and recommendations for particular boxes
          • Heilman Designs - Pastel Boxes  - Lots of pastel American artists recommend the Heilman Box - which is not available in Europe.  This is very well made - and was designed in consultation with pastel artists.  It uses a piano hinge so that the box when open can lie flat.  The box has tripod threads and can be mounted on a tripod.  Also complements the Heilman easel.  Has rings for shoulder straps.  General consensus seems to be very expensive and very good.
          • The Roz Pastel Box (Empty) has its fans and those who are less enthusiastic about it.  
            • The larger one, although hefting a fair few pastels about is a fair old weight when full.  
            • Some find the foam supports - which protect the pastels - to be very annoying
            • Nonetheless it seems to be well made and has very secure clasps.
          • Roz Bag Pastel Tote with 4 foam lined lift out trays seems to have more fans- in part because it is much lighter.  See Dakota Pastels for best description of both box and bag
          • Dakota Deluxe Traveller - said to be like a Heilman but less expensive.  Comes in small and large size
          • Pastel Pods are small boxes designed for specific brands of pastels.  A Pastels Pods Docking Station holds none of the pods.  Some criticism of inefficient use of space
          • Unison pastel boxes - I transport all my Unison pastels in their original boxes which have proved very resilient over the years - and very lightweight.  You can also purchase empty Unison boxes
          • Get hold of an Art Bin Pastels Box if you can.  They've been discontinued but these are brilliant for transporting a decent selection of pastel.  They are made of rigid heavy duty plastic and contain three trays.  The only problem with this bin is it won't take thick pastels like Unisons.  On the left below is what they look like when new and on the right is what my two looked like when filled with pastels!  Other artists like the much bigger Art Bins.
          Make your own box

          People who have made their own boxes recommend the following as being useful
          • hiking bedrolls are made of thin memory foam which is useful for lining boxes
          • use foamcore and packing tape to make trays with lids and use bungee cords to hold them while in transit - this is what Donna Aldridge has been doing for very many years when travelling to work and teach
          • Think hard about whether you need to carry an easel.  It's extra weight. There can be issues about where to put the pastels.  
          • Think about how you can compromise with what's available.  Options for an angled drawing board and support include
            • the back of a chair (I do a lot of artwork sat in cafes!)
            • I use the bag on my shopping trolley which transports my art "stuff".  Of course what I'd really like is a shopping trolley which converst into an easel!
          • Use a folding camping chair as a base for a pastel box (works better if you are sitting down)
            • Consider which easels are most pastel friendly - given that if your easel collapses or blows over so do all your pastels
            Sally Strand Pastel Workshop - My art supplies all travelled to New England on the plane with me.
            Rosalie Nadeau's Take It Easel in the background

            • Determine the size of your supports by how you are going to carry the finished product.
            • Ways of protecting supports and preventing past dust on clothes
              • Before you set off make sure you find a very large and well made plastic bag which is big enough to encase your largest support - which means no pastel dust on clothes!  The plastic bags for a ream of watercolour paper works fine for me.
              • Two foam core boards of the same size can protect your work in your suitcase.
              • the heavy cardboard sleeve used for delivering paper can double as support protection
              • A portfolio is useful - but can be heavy / too big / unwieldy
            Other tips
            • Don't forget:
              • wet wipes
              • your favourite implement for erasing pastel
              • tape for fixing support to board / or pins
            • Have a place for everything - and everything in its place - and that way you will realise when something is missing or not packed
              • Travel with smaller pastel sticks.  Only take full sticks for colours you will use a lot.  For the rest break off only as much as you will need. 
              • Take a bag of cornmeal with you to clean your pastels.  Absolutely essential if you are using your pastels a lot. 
              • Think about mixed media before you travel - do you want an extra set of media/materials to carry or would you be happier using mixed media in the studio
              • Study the kit in hardware stores and photography shops for stuff which might be suitable for pastels
              Reference sources

              Forum Threads
              Blog posts
              Other resources for Pastel Artists


              1. Donna's Fome Core (foam core board) boxes are a delight to see. They are the epitome of DIY and I love her drawings of them. Bravo!

                My own recent trip to the coast (9 hour drive from home) had me using my 6 Unis and my two-layer cigar box kit for plein air work. I have struggled mightily with "home mades" and am re-tooling often to get things to work right. This year, in early spring, I dumped my biggest box upside down on the ground and broke a few sticks. That provided motivation for renewing my systems to make them more rugged.

                All this to say, I have renewed my interest in buying a commercial box for travel, and now especially because I will be teaching in far off places like California and Canada. Mustn't look like a vagabond.

                So, this article is well timed for me. Thanks for it, and for the kind links, too.

                My top contenders are the Dakota Boxes and the Guerrilla Box. But, then again, my two-tiered cigar box has started working like a well-oiled machine. And also again, I now see Donna's excellent boxes, and I am back wondering what will be right for me!

                The truth is, the materials are part of the joy of this medium.

              2. I can highly recommend the smallest Heilmann box,which they offer. It's just about the size of an Laptop and you can fit about 100 to 150 differnt pastel sticks in it.Fully packed it weighs about 3 kg (4lb)and fits easily in my backpack.
                I did a lot of travelling. It was attached on the carrier of my bike and the pastels were never broken. When I travelled by plane I had the box with me as carry-on baggage. I was always asked to show my box(in Europe and America), but I had some postcards of my paintings inside the box. It was easier for the staff to get what pastels are actually for. But if you do this plan an extra five minutes for security check, because some of them wanted to show their collegues the poastcards.Some of them asked if they could keep the postcards!

                What else you should consider is how much paper/painting ground you take along when travelling by plane.The paper quickly adds up to the max. weigh.So I did cut most of my paper in advance to my standard size and considered how many paintings I would approxomately do each day.


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