I recently got back from a two-week trip to Big Bend National Park, and I thought I’d share what I took in my Duotone Desert A5 Art Toolkit. It always amazes me how much I can fit in there!
Big Bend National Park is the largest protected portion of the Chihuahuan Desert in the United States. It has been described as three parks in one: desert, mountain ranges known as “sky islands,” and a riparian ecosystem along the Rio Grande River.
I played with some colors that were sitting in the back of my drawer, including Serpentine and Sodalite Genuine. I found myself wishing for Chromium Green Oxide instead of the Serpentine Genuine, as it would work better for desert greens.
All colors are Daniel Smith unless noted.
I packed some sample dots of handmade paint to play with. I’ve found that handmade paints work great in this dry climate as they rewet better and don’t get gooey when wet. These are by Letter Sparrow. I kept them in a glassine envelope. Dots are a great way to bring along colors to test out without redoing a palette.
Here are some key colors to think about being able to mix:
Desert green: Think of a dusty, opaque, granulating green for sage, yuccas, agaves, and cacti. This color used to trip me up all the time when I first started sketching. My favorite mixes are Cobalt Teal Blue and Venetian Red, Chromium Green Oxide on its own, or mixed with Cobalt Teal Blue or Raw Sienna/Yellow Ochre. Another favorite is Cerulean Blue Chromium and Yellow Ochre.
Sky blue: There’s nothing like a big desert sky reaching overhead! The lack of humidity makes for such a clear blue. I love using Cerulean Blue Chromium mixed with Cobalt Blue, with more Cobalt Teal Blue toward the horizon. In the summer, I like to add Ultramarine Blue toward the top. Indanthrone Blue captures that velvety sky at dusk.
Rocks: Think about the rocks where you’ll be going. Some of my faves are Transparent Red Oxide mixed with Quinacridone Rose or Quinacridone Coral. If you have room in your palette, Piemontite Genuine or Lunar Earth are other good ones!
Distant mountains: You want to be able to mix a grayish-purply blue color for distant mountains. Lavender is nice to have for this, but not necessary if you don’t have room on your palette. I’ve also been exploring lavender as a way to add opacity mixes.
Pines: Oh yes, there are pine trees at higher elevations at Big Bend National Park! I usually use Phthalo Green and Transparent Red Oxide for this mix. Chromium Green Oxide plus Phthalo Green is another favorite.
Cactus spines: I bring along white gouache for adding cactus spines. Mix a little watercolor in with the white gouache for yellow or red spines. I also like using a white Posca paint pen for the spines. Tip: Put down the white and then paint over it with other colors.
I love having different options for paper. I brought along the following:
Hahnemühle Toned Watercolor Book: The beige color goes so well with the desert and makes those cactus spines sparkle.
Hahnemühle Agave watercolor paper pad (3.1" x 4.1"): I thought it would be fun to paint an agave on agave paper, and it was!
Pieces of Arches 140# cold press watercolor paper: I tore them to roughly A5 size. I like having Arches paper since it has a longer drying time and is much appreciated in an arid climate.
Pens and Other Tools
I brought along a variety of pens, pencils, and other gear to play with. From left to right, we have:
A Pentel Brush Pen, which I love for doing quick sketches. Tip: Set the sketch out in the sun to dry faster!
Copic .2 multi-liner for both sketching and writing.
Faber Castell PITT pen in sanguine, size S.
Kakimori brass nib and pen holder.
Pentel Water Brush, size L — Water brushes are great for using in the desert since the continual flow of water gives you more working time.
I prefer a pipette for refilling the water brush to a syringe because I can get down further in my water bottle.
Posca white paint pen, extra fine for adding spines to cacti and other details.
Koh-i-noor magic pencil — super fun for warming up your hand to sketch.
Clutch pencil, sharpener, and kneaded eraser.
Mini Water Mister — I mainly use this for cleaning my palette and wetting the paper before painting. I don’t usually mist my paints because I’ve found that misting them at high temperatures can make your paints get gooey, and then they’re impossible to work with!
Lastly, a shop towel that I learned about from Maria!
Now, let’s see the kit in action!
I love sketching at camp as it gives me more time to experiment. Our campsite faced Casa Grande Peak, and I loved trying to capture the ever-changing light.
I felt so lucky to call this beautiful spot home for two weeks!
Casa sweet casa.
Red Rock Canyon
I sketched in the shade of a persimmon tree on a hike to Red Rock Canyon — gotta find shade where you can in the desert.
For this sketch, I used a water brush to apply color to my nib pen and drew those red rocks. Another swipe of the water brush blended the color down.
Taking “shade breaks” is a must when it’s hot — and it’s also the perfect time to sketch!
A canyon wren was singing while I was sketching — it was so peaceful I didn’t want to leave.
If you look closely at the page opposite my canyon sketch, you’ll see three bears that I spotted from camp that morning!
Whether you’re headed out on a big adventure to a National Park or going for a walk in your neighborhood, try popping a few new fun supplies into your kit—it’s sure to boost your creativity! I hope you enjoyed this peek into my Duotone Desert A5 Art Toolkit, and let me know if you have any questions.
All images by Lisa Spangler.