• Inspiration
June 1, 2023

What’s in My Duotone Desert Art Toolkit?

Recently back from a two-week trip to Big Bend National Park, Art Toolkit Ambassador Lisa Spangler shares the supplies she brought along.

By Lisa Spangler

An open A5 Art Toolkit full of sketching supplies with an open paint-filled Pocket Palette rests on a rock next to a cluster of cacti with vibrant pink blooms.

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.

The place where the rainbows wait for rain, and the big river is kept in a stone box, and the water flows uphill. And the mountains float in the air, except at night when they run off to play with other mountains.
—A 19th-century Mexican vaquero

Palettes and Paints

Now let’s see what I put in my Duotone Desert Art Toolkit!

Folio Mixing Palette for gouache and big puddles of paint, a Pocket Palette with desert colors, sample dots of paint to play with, and tubes of white and gold gouache and silver watercolor.
Folio Mixing Palette for gouache and big puddles of paint, a Pocket Palette with desert colors, sample dots of paint to play with, and tubes of white and gold gouache and silver watercolor.

Pocket Palette

I filled Standard and Mini Pans from watercolors squeezed from tubes.

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.

Extra Watercolors!

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.

A hand holds up a page of watercolor paper covered in labeled colorful dots with a desert scene in the background.
The colors of Big Bend National Park.

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! 

  • Desert floor: Raw Sienna and Yellow Ochre work great here. Mix Raw Sienna and a touch of Indanthrone Blue to capture that light sandy color. Lunar Earth comes into play again here too. 

  • 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:

Two closed sketchbooks, five watercolor desert sketches, and a pen lay on a white background.
Three kinds of paper: tan toned sketchbook, a little pad of agave paper, and torn pieces of Arches cold press.
  • 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

A cactus sketch and lots of pens and pencils lined up side-by-side on a white tabletop.
Pens, pencils, and more, oh yes!

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!

Camp Sketches

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.

A hand holds up a two-page panoramic sketch of desert mountains with the subject in the background.
Moonrise over the mountains at camp.

I felt so lucky to call this beautiful spot home for two weeks!

A collage of watercolor sketches on toned beige paper and photographs of an orange and green mesa.
Casa Grande peak sketches.

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.

A collage of three photos showing different perspectives of a desert sketching scene: sketching supplies, an artist in the shade of a tree, and a sketch of red-brown rock features.
Sketching in the shade of a persimmon at Red Rock Canyon.

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.

Dog Canyon

Taking “shade breaks” is a must when it’s hot — and it’s also the perfect time to sketch!

A collage of six photos showing different perspectives of a desert sketching scene: open sketchbooks, distant rocks, blooming yellow cacti.
A big straw hat, sun shirt, plenty of water and salty snacks and most of all shade breaks are requirements for hiking in the desert!

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.

An artist sites on a rock, dipping a paintbrush in a Pocket Palette.

Art Toolkit Newsletter

Sign up to hear about our latest supplies, tips and techniques for field art, and special offers.

Join now and we’ll send you our free Tools for Observation mini-series. Follow along with Maria as she shares supplies, tips on contour and gesture sketching, and inspiration for composition!