Sitting down on a sun-warmed rock to paint after a long hike is one of my favorite things to do. I love the feeling of really taking in the landscape and feeling the power of nature as I eat snacks and paint. When I sit outside to paint, I feel like all the hard work I did getting to where I am has even more meaning.
I didn’t always know I loved painting outside. When I moved to Seattle, Washington in the Spring of 2013, I fell in love with the overwhelming and awe-inspiring landscapes. Spring is the best time to arrive in Seattle (especially after a week of treacherous driving on snowy east coast roads and a narrowly escaping of a raging snowstorm in Chicago). When I finally made it here, Seattle was a wonderland of blue skies and endless cascade mountains. I quickly discovered I liked to hike, backpack, climb, swim in alpine lakes, see from the summit, and just move in nature.
For a few years all I did on weekends was just that, but I didn’t really paint. The experience of being in the mountains was unbelievably humbling and beautiful. Plus, I rationalized the time away from my art practice by telling people about all my nifty new mountain skills, like my ability to self arrest with an ice axe and pack a balanced overnight backpack. I distracted friends with weird, funny mountain stories. "I climbed Mount Baker, but I cried the last hour up," I told friends who asked about my adventures. "On the mountain you have to poop in a blue bag and then carry it out in your backpack," I said as my coworkers wrinkled their noses. For me, it was all worth it to have the experience and then to see the view from the summit.
When my boyfriend and I decided to tackle a section of the Pacific Crest Trail last year we had to make some tough choices about what would come in our already heavy packs and what would stay at home. I put baby wipes, a comb, and lots of chocolate on my packing list. Sadly we eliminated our spacious tent and fresh food for a smaller tent and dehydrated meals. But my art supplies made the packing list.
Leave no trace ethics guided me as I packed my art supplies. I wanted to paint in nature, but I needed to do it responsibly, without pouring out my paint water or leaving behind paint. Those first few adventures with my art supplies taught me a lot about what I needed to bring and how to be efficient. Now I have a dialed backpacking art kit and it is always on my pack list, whether I am going on a day hike or making an attempt on a summit. I found my balance between wild exploring and art making.
If you have been thinking about painting on your adventures, go for it! Painting on the trail is a great way to be in relationship with the landscape and people on the trail in a different, joyful way.
Painting outside on the trail can be for everyone and you can start anytime. Sometimes making art can feel overwhelming, especially if you feel like you aren’t an artist or that you don’t have enough practice. It’s ok. Let go of your expectations and try it, go have fun!
Here is my list of on-the-trail watercolor essentials:
1. Something to paint or draw on
Most of the time I use a Moleskine Watercolor Notebook that fits in a Ziploc bag. On big trips where my pack weighs half as much as me, I just take a few pieces of paper slipped against the flat back of my pack.
2. A travel-sized paint set, 12 colors will do
I would go with watercolors that come in pans (like you used in kindergarten) instead of tubes, because the paint is already dry and therefore less messy. Just use your wet brush to pick up the color you need. When you are done painting, wipe up any excess water on your palette with a paper towel or TP and close the paint set. Pack out the paper towel in your ziploc bag.
For an affordable paint set, check out Koi’s 12 color pocket sized travel watercolor kit. It comes with a water brush and palette to mix colors. Plus, it weighs less than 4 ounces.
3. A Water Brush
This is a paint brush that has a reservoir of water built into the handle. You squeeze the handle to release water onto your page or into your watercolors. It has changed everything for me! I love it because you don’t need a messy paint cup and you don’t end up with any dirty paint water. To clean the brush, I squeeze a bit of water out of the brush and onto a paper towel. Wipe the brush with the wet spot and keep painting. All the water in the handle stays clean and you can stick the paper towel in a bag to take home.
4. Pens or pencils
It doesn’t have to be fancy, whatever you have laying around the house will do. I like mechanical pencils, bic pens and micron pens (size 01). For extra fun try a brush pen like the one Sakura makes.
5. Sunscreen or gloves
Let’s face it, painting in the summer is much more pleasant than in the winter. If it is winter, your fingers are going to freeze after a while. Bring some hand warmers and gloves to keep yourself warm. If you are really dedicated to painting in the cold try this freezing weather trick: Vodka instead of water for your paint. It will freeze at a lower temperature, letting you freeze your butt a little longer.
If you are painting in the summer, bring sun protection (glasses, hat, sunscreen etc.). I always end up sitting in the sun for longer than I thought I would.
That’s my list!
The reality is use whatever makes you happy and don’t be afraid to experiment. Putting your ideas about how you see the world on paper is a risk. Embrace it and be confident in yourself!
Happy Trails and remember to pack out everything you bring in. If you see me out there on the trail come say hello!
Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.
Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.