Pocket Art Toolkit Review: Everything you need for Paintpacking
Are you a painter who loves to bikepack? Or a bikepacker who loves to paint? The Pocket Art Toolkit’s minimal, lightweight paint set comes included with everything you need – from a miniature palette, room for a small watercolor notebook, and water brush. Botanical artist Emma Bucke takes one on her local mountain loop to see what she can create…
Words and illustrations by Emma Bucke; photos by Cass Gilbert
Making art while on an adventure, no matter how big or small, is both soul-satisfying and an age-old way to document a journey – be it a botanical illustration, landscape, map, or simple sketches – à la Alexander von Humboldt, the esteemed Prussian naturalist.
Art Toolkit is a small business based in the seaside town of Port Townsend, Washington, founded by expeditionary artist Maria Coryell-Martin. Maria’s experiences, focused on polar and glacier science, inspired her to design a versatile sketching and painting system, suited to all skill levels.
Given my love of bikepacking and painting – paintpacking, as I call it – I’ve put together my own DIY kits in the past, using a mint tin, a cardboard stiffener, and plastic bags to hold my paints, brushes, and papers. I can’t claim it was especially elegant or robust, but it did the job! Art Toolkit’s Pocket Art Kit is effectively a far more refined and professionally made version, and I was thrilled to discover it was available.
Size matters when it comes to bikepacking, especially when considering what “non-essential” items you have space to pack. At 13cm x 20cm (5in x 8in), this pocket art toolkit fits easily into a handlebar bag – such as my Swift Catalyst – among layers and snacks. What’s more, I was never too worried about a banana explosion decorating my precious paper, as it’s made from durable 1000d nylon with a burly zip around it. Note that although the cover is weather-resistant, it’s not fully waterproof, which is something to keep in mind if you’re expecting torrential conditions.
Once opened, the whole kit measures around 26cm x 20cm (10.25in x 8in). It includes a Moleskine Watercolor Album (5.5in x 3.5in) that features 135lb acid-free paper. There’s also a whole range of pockets that hold a water brush, a syringe to refill the water brush and wet the paints, two mini binder clips, a waterproof fine-tipped Sharpie for drawing (great for out in the elements, or using with watercolours), and a 6in transparent metric/imperial ruler. All the pockets are measured to fit perfectly, so there’s no jostling around when you’re riding, nor is there any space wasted. My kit also came with a pocket palette, featuring 12 mini paint pans and two mixing pans, not including the lid of the palette, which also serves as a mixing well. One small comment: make sure the binder clips aren’t lined up with the palette or they’ll scuff its surface.
The palette itself is a rust-proof, hinged aluminum case, with a tight, form-fitting clasp – the case itself is just 7mm thick. It also features a clever magnetic backing on the inside, for holding all the pans and mixing wells in place. Each is easy to remove, clean, customize, or even replace, depending on your painting needs.
You can purchase a pre-filled palette from Art Toolkit’s website – mine came with six expensive Daniel Smith professional-grade pigments, which aren’t included in the kit’s price. But you can also spec it with more affordable student grade paint (an essential Colour Set by Daniel Smith is $36) or just use paints you already have. All mixing pans are made with a white surface, so as to see the paint colors more clearly.
I personalized my kit with the addition of a pencil and a cotton blotting cloth. And at some point, I’d like to add one of Art Toolkit’s X-Shot Collapsible Water Cups, so I have the option of bringing smaller standard brushes for detail work.
Using the Art Toolkit in the field
In addition to painting on bikepacking trips, I love to forage for mushrooms and other wild edibles. On a recent trip into Oaxaca’s Sierra Juarez Mountains, I came across an especially delightful specimen that was barely poking up through the duff. After clearing away the earth, I carefully harvested it. As it was still mostly enclosed in the volva, I then slowly peeled back the casing, revealing a glowing, young Amanita caesarea. A perfect example for both a botanical illustration – and a tasty treat to enjoy for breakfast afterward! After quickly sketching it, I began to work on bringing it to life with paint.
The water brush provided in the kit is well suited to bikepackers, as it’s nice to not worry about an additional water cup when inside the tent. It did, however, make painting fine details a little tricky at times, because the brush itself is fairly big, and occasionally it released water when not intended. As for paper, I found the Moleskine notebook takes color well and has nice granulation. I liked how its elastic strap also helps hold the paper down, as do the mini binder clips that come with the kit. The paper did begin to warp while I was painting, perhaps in part due to the humid climate or my particular style – for the detail work I enjoy, I think a sturdier paper would be better.
At just 13mm across, the paint pans are very small and thin. This means they don’t hold much paint and are better suited to small brushes, which worked for me, as I tend to paint small subjects with high levels of detail. I can imagine it would be more difficult to use them with larger brushes, as are sometimes favored for landscape paintings – though, given the size of the paper, it shouldn’t be too much of an issue. Another comment: because the lid of the palette has no lip, it does mean that water and paint can spill. This is okay when you’re outside, but when I was in the tent, I often only used the other two smaller mixing wells.
All in all, the kit included pretty much everything I needed and worked really well as a field kit. On this occasion, I was able to almost completely finish the Amanita caesarea illustration that morning, leaving it to dry while I packed away my gear – and later finishing it up when I got home. There was even time to cook up some mushrooms for breakfast!
It’s always hard to put a price on specialist gear like this, especially when it’s made in the US by a very small business. Yes, making your own DIY version is going to be far more affordable. But while Art Toolkit’s kit is relatively expensive, it’s really well thought through, durably made, and super compact. Plus, you can custom order exactly what you need to fill it. For instance, my kit – which included the pocket palette – came to $88. But you can also order the kit without, for $62 – or even the case by itself for $35. What’s more, there’s a whole variety of different pan inserts, paints, and brushes, so you can really tailor-make everything to your needs – or use supplies you already own – and a larger kit is available with an A5 Moleskin Watercolour Notebook if that suits you better. A 15% discount is offered to students and educators, too.
- Small and easy to pack
- Well made with a a durable cover
- Contains everything you need for sketching or painting
- Water brush makes it easy to paint anywhere, without the need for a water cup
- Not 100 percent waterproof
- Water brush difficult to use for detail work
- Lid of palette has no lip, so water and paint can spill
- Relatively expensive, especially compared to a DIY kit
- Weight238g (as tested)
- Dimensions (Height x Width x Depth)20cm x 13cm x 2.5cm
- Price $88USD (not including paint)
- Place of Manufacture Washington, USA
- Manufacturer’s Details Art Toolkit
An illustration of a wood sorrel, a forest plant that is fully edible and packed with vitamin C. It’s tart and tangy in flavour, and great for liver and digestive issues.
I found Art Toolkit’s Pocket Kit a wonderful addition to the artsy bikepacker’s gear list, no matter how experienced you are as an artist or your intentions. At just about the same size as a paperback romance novel, it comes equipped with almost everything you need for painting that beautiful sunrise you wake up to on bike tour, or the mushrooms you found on the trail – and later cooked up for breakfast!
Compared to my previous and somewhat bulky and finicky DIY version, the Pocket Kit stows perfectly in my handlebar bag, where it’s quick to get to. Everything stays in place exactly as it should, no matter the trails I’m riding. And because it’s so well organised and easy to manage, I found myself using it when I stopped for lunch or longer breaks. In fact, I can see it being great in an urban setting too – such as a small coffee shop – or just about anywhere that you might get inspired to paint!
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