The Zen of Traveling with Art Supplies


Artist Daily / Article 524 Views


Like most people traveling for work, I sometimes feel as if I live on airplanes, so packing for trips has taken on added significance. I confess to being slightly obsessed with advancements in luggage or the latest space-saving trick, as I never want to be “that guy” who comes home after a month of teaching on the road only to discover an unworn sweater, a forgotten book or a lost pair of sneakers hiding at the bottom of the suitcase.

Standard protocol is to ask oneself what items to pack for a trip. But my solution to prevent over-packing has been to do the opposite: Ask, instead, “What can I leave behind?”

Thomas Schaller on painting on location and traveling light.

Here I am in action in Fengjing, China. You can see I am using my lightweight art board–one of my travelling essentials.


Apply my obsession with efficient packing to the topic of packing art supplies, and my fixation becomes even more acute. Over the years, I’ve tried to design the ideal complete, compact, lightweight on-site painting kit that can be set up and broken down quickly.

After many false starts and mistakes, I’ve finally come pretty close to something that works perfectly for my situation. There are at least a thousand reasons why painters everywhere dread the very idea of painting en plein air, but if I had to identify the single most common mistake that painters make initially, it would be trying to replicate how we paint on-site with how we paint in the studio.

It’s so easy and feels natural to commit the entirely self-inflicted error of hauling almost everything from a studio through cities and across the landscape. At first, understandably, it’s simply difficult to determine what’s truly needed. But the whole process of on-site painting can quickly become a cumbersome and exhausting experience if too many supplies are present.

What that means for the painter is that the session is wiped clean of any fun. As soon as painting becomes an activity we don’t enjoy, we’re doing something wrong.

All of my traveling essentials fit inside one small backpack.

All of my traveling essentials fit inside one small backpack.


With some thought and experience, the answer to the question of “How much do I need?” is almost always, “A lot less than you might think.”

All the art materials I discuss here—enough for days of painting—fold up and fit nicely inside a small backpack. My passport, wallet, phone, headphones and charger share the space, and it all weighs only a few pounds and can be carried onto any airplane.

I dread packing my supplies with checked luggage. Except for some occasional scrutiny given to my precious palette, I’ve been all over the world without issue. Well, OK, sometimes I’ve forgotten to empty the water bottle!

One of the most surprising benefits to come from my efforts at “supply minimalism” and the editing of painting materials is the parallel benefit of becoming better at editing my paintings. Having the mindset of carrying “only the essentials” has helped make it more clear to me what must be included in my paintings and what can be left out.

I believe that this approach has helped make my work— both in the studio and out—more clear, direct and impactful. And I paint with more joy than ever.

Travelling plein air painting essentials

Travelling essentials from Thomas Schaller

My plein-air tripod and easel are all set up and ready to go.


Everything needed for days of painting fits snugly in my small backpack. Larger paper can be taped to lightweight boards made of corrugated plastic and carried separately.

1. Misc: water containers; sea sponge; masking tape; water mister by Holbein

2. Tripod: collapsible carbon fiber with camera mount by Manfrotto

3. Paper: Fabriano Artistico Block and half sheets by Fabriano; not shown: Saunders Waterford; Arches

4. Easel and shelf: custom made by Rolando Barrero

5. Palette: hand-made silver plated brass palette by Steve Fanelli of House of Hoffman

6. Sketchbook: soft cover Beta Series by Stillman & Birn

7. Brush holder: American Journey from Cheap Joe’s

8. Backpack: canvas and leather by Montezemolo (18-in tall; 12-in wide; 5-in deep)

9. Paints: Daniel Smith Artists Materials; Holbein

10. Pencils: aluminum clutch pencil by Worther; Vintage Wooden Mechanical E-Motion sketch pencil by Faber-Castell; Palomino Blackwing–Pearl Series; classic graphite sketch pencil (not pictured)

11. Eraser: MONO Dust Catch by Tombow

12. Brushes: Perla, Versatil and Prado series by Escoda; various Raphael; Savoir-Faire

13. Art board: lightweight corrugated vinyl by Artmate/ Champion

Footbridge by Thomas W. Schaller, watercolor painting

Footbridge by Thomas W. Schaller, watercolor painting


Thomas Schaller on traveling and painting.Thomas W. Schaller is an architect and artist living in Los Angeles, Calif.

Explore the first and only collection of Thomas’s artwork in Thomas W. Schaller: Architect of Light. The book features 150 of this contemporary master’s finest paintings—buildings, bridges, boats, people and arresting scenes from around the world.

Thomas has also created a suite of video workshops available now.