small box of pastels: Here's everything I took with me in my carry-on suitcase.

A Small Box Of Pastels – Perfect For Travelling With Carry-on Only!

Last month I participated in HowToPastel’s 31-paintings-in-31-days Challenge. Somehow I only missed one day despite the fact that I was travelling two of the four weeks. And what’s more, I only travelled with carry-on luggage! So how could I fit everything plus art supplies? The answer was a small box of pastels and small pieces of paper (and a pared down collection of clothes!).

Through the whole Challenge, I decided to use only Unison Colour pastels as a way to acknowledge the honour of being invited to become a Unison Colour Associate Artist. (They are updating their website but soon I’ll be able to direct you to my page there!)

While in the studio, all work was done with pastels from their classic starter set of 36. But on the road, when every gram and square centimetre count, this was too bulky and heavy!

I looked at taking a small Sennelier set but decided to stick with the Unison Colour theme. I had a small box of pastels – I’m talking small!! It has 16 half-sticks and is extremely light. Here’s a picture of the pastels in the box:


small box of pastels: Unison Colour's 16-piece half-stick set of soft pastels
Unison Colour’s 16-piece half-stick set of soft pastels

There are some darks, quite a few lights, and a selection of middle values. But I have to tell you, it was some trick using these pastels and only these pastels! But it sure made travelling easier.

The thing about using a small selection of pastels successfully is to focus on getting the values right. There’s no way, with the limitations of the small box of pastels, that you will match the colour you see accurately. So painting with a small box of pastels is usually an exercise of letting go!

So what else did I take? Let’s have a look:


small box of pastels: Here's everything I took with me in my carry-on suitcase.
Here’s every art-related thing I took with me in my carry-on suitcase.

Here’s what’s included along with the small box of pastels:

  • A foam core board that just fit in the suitcase. (I packed my shoes and clothes underneath to create a shelf on which to lay the board.) This acted as a drawing board and also a rigid surface to lay the glassine and paper, and also to position the finished work.
  • A selection of small pieces of paper. On both trips I took various sizes and grades of UART paper. On my first trip I knew I’d probably have a bit more time so I took trial size pieces of UART and also some Pastel Premier 8 x 10 in trial sheets of different colours. On the second trip, I wondered how I would find the time to do anything! So I only took small off-cuts of UART paper. I also took a pad of Canson Mi-Teintes paper as I knew I’d be attending a life drawing session and would need larger sheets.
  • Sheets of glassine, enough to cover the paper I took (but not enough to wrap Canson sheets – they would stay in the pad).
  • A black styrofoam tray – the kind I always use at home to keep selected pastels in.
  • Small roll of masking tape to attach paper to board while pastelling, and to tape glassine around paintings.
  • Small sketchbook to make thumbnail sketches.
  • 3H pencil to sketch up image on sanded paper. I’ve always used charcoal to do the initial sketch but on my first trip I forgot to take any. I did have a couple pencils so tried those instead. I liked the hard pencil and may now start using that regularly instead of charcoal.
  • Apron – bulky but I felt it was very necessary.
  • Viewfinder – it’s so small and you can’t go wrong having it!
  • I wouldn’t normally take toilet paper with me as I knew it would be readily available (!) but I had forgotten I had a small roll in the apron. I use this for cleaning pastels.
  • I contemplated taking a small package of WetOnes but I knew I would have access to soap and water so in the name of cutting out as much as possible, I left them behind. I think now it would have been great to have had them!

I wrapped everything in a large clear plastic bag to keep them together and also away from my clothes.

So now let me show you all the pieces I did with this small box of pastels during the 31-in-31 Challenge.

The first trip was to Ontario. The occasion was a sad one; Cam’s Mum Janet had passed away. I flew out to spend a week with him and his family and to attend Janet’s memorial gathering. Even so, I wanted to stick with my commitment to a daily painting during October. And I’m happy to say I did. Here are the pieces I did while there. Somehow, they all emerged as work connected to Janet.


small box of pastels: "Janet's Walk," Unison pastels on UART 280 paper, 6 x 9 in. SOLD
“Janet’s Walk,” Unison pastels on UART 280 paper, 6 x 9 in. SOLD

This pastel was a view of the long driveway into Janet’s house. It traverses a wood full of light and wonder and is a joy to walk through. This was the beginning of my understanding of how limited my palette was!



small box of pastels: Gail Sibley, "And Life Goes On," Unison pastels on Pastel Premier paper, 10 x 8 in. SOLD
Gail Sibley, “And Life Goes On,” Unison pastels on Pastel Premier paper, 10 x 8 in. SOLD

You may recognize this from an earlier post I did about working on a series. This was done looking into the backyard at Janet’s house. Despite the change in our lives, there are certain things, like doing the laundry, that remain constant.

These mats were a pale pink but I had no pale pink pastel or anyway to make pale pink so I focused on values and painted what I saw as close to life as I could with the limited colours of a small box of pastels.



small box of pastels: Gail Sibley, "Her Chair," Unison pastels on Pastel Premier terracotta, 8 x 10 in. SOLD
Gail Sibley, “Her Chair,” Unison pastels on Pastel Premier terracotta, 8 x 10 in. SOLD

It was an overcast day but there was some light streaming in through the large windows. It lit up the chair and I knew I wanted to capture it. Luckily it was a red chair (I was working on reddish paper and had a red pastel) and so that part was not too bad. The rest of the piece I had to push and pull with the available colours, always focusing on the three main values and choosing pastel colours that fit those values.



small box of pastels: Gail Sibley, "She Loved Lemons," Unison pastels on Pastel Premier paper (white), 8 x 8 in. SOLD
Gail Sibley, “She Loved Lemons,” Unison pastels on Pastel Premier paper (white), 8 x 8 in. SOLD

I loved doing this simple still life of lemons in a bowl. Yup they are lemons despite being rather red. Again, with such a small box of pastels, I had to make colour decisions based on value rather than colour.  I did attempt to render what I saw as close to reality as possible but I was restricted to so few colours!



small box of pastels: Gail Sibley, "Kitchen View," Unison pastels on UART 320 grade paper, 6 x 11 in. SOLD
Gail Sibley, “Kitchen View,” Unison pastels on UART 320 grade paper, 6 x 11 in. SOLD

Another tough one to do with regard to colour! I was attracted to all the items lined up near the sink with the view of the woods beyond. But colourwise, the lilies were the palest of pinks, the middle glass was an intense cobalt blue, and there were many variations in the outdoor greens. But I had what I had and so needed to let go of painting a true-to-life colour version. Instead, I concentrated on getting the values right and playing with the pastels I had to create this piece.


So those were from my first trip away. My next trip was to two cities – one for a business conference (that basically went from 8am to 6pm then dinner afterwards with participants so there was very little time). The other was to visit friends. I’d never visited their city of San Francisco before so between sightseeing and visiting, I had little time to paint!

But still I managed a few pieces.


small box of pastels: Gail Sibley, "Bedside at Days Inn," Unison pastels on UART 400, 6 x 4 1/2 in. Available
Gail Sibley, “Bedside at Days Inn,” Unison pastels on UART 400, 6 x 4 1/2 in. Available

Soooo the wall was beige-white and the sheets were kinda white. The bedcover was dark as was the headboard. This really pushed my colour choices and I just said, to heck with it – focus on values and then pick a colour that matches!! I was rather pleased with the wild colour of this piece slashed down quickly. I did this at about midnight sitting on the bed.



small nbox of pastels: Gail Sibley, "Midnight Brushing," Unison pastels on UART 400, 6 x 4 1/2 in. Available.
Gail Sibley, “Midnight Brushing,” Unison pastels on UART 400, 6 x 4 1/2 in. Available.

As you can tell from the title, this one was done at midnight as well! I sat on the side of the bathtub and painted this. Again limited colours pushed my creativity with colour. As with all the other paintings, it was about getting the values right despite the limited choice from the small box of pastels.



small box of pastels: Gail Sibley, "Ready," Unison pastels on UART 240, 9 x 6 in. Available.
Gail Sibley, “Ready,” Unison pastels on UART 240, 9 x 6 in. Available.

This was my black leather jacket and pink/red scarf hanging in the open closet against a white wall with only a subtle cast shadow. Well, you can see that I had to improvise! My scarf is now warm red, the wall a crazy yellow colour, and my jacket? well it’s pretty much as is. I was pleased with the way this one turned out!



small box of pastels: Gail Sibley, "Hotel Blocks," Unison pastels on UART 500, 5 x 6 in. Available.
Gail Sibley, “Hotel Blocks,” Unison pastels on UART 500, 5 x 6 in. Available.

I had about 10 minutes before my taxi came to take me to the airport so I looked around for the simplest possible subject and saw these hotel buildings across the way. I liked the way the darks and lights played off each other and that’s what I concentrated on. As you can imagine, the colour is greatly exaggerated!!



small box of pastels: Gail Sibley, "Jason," Unison pastels on Canson Mi-Teintes, 12 x 9 in. Available.
Gail Sibley, “Jason,” Unison pastels on Canson Mi-Teintes, 12 x 9 in. Available.

My first day in San Francisco I was just too darn tired at midnight to paint. So that was the day I missed during the 31-in-31 Challenge. But I did do two 20 minute sketches at the life drawing session 🙂

I used only three pastels and since there was no way I was going to get anywhere near skin colour with the set I had, it was all about value!!!!

Here’s the second one, again with only three pastels from the small box of pastels.

small box of pastels: Gail Sibley, "Jason 2," Unison pastels on Canson Mi-Teintes, 12 x 9 in. Available.
Gail Sibley, “Jason 2,” Unison pastels on Canson Mi-Teintes, 12 x 9 in. Available.

I so enjoyed accompanying Duane Wakeham (a pastel hero of mine!) to draw at Gay Men’s Sketch. It was a small space but the model was on a platform and well lit. And Jason was a superb model, holding poses for 20 minutes that seemed more suited to five! You can see some of Duane’s beautiful work from these sessions in his guest post.


All of the above pastels were done only with colours selected from Unison’s small box of pastels. They are for sale (though some have sold already) and they are at half price during October and November. So grab them at this super deal while you can. Maybe there’s a Christmas present in there somewhere?? Click here to see all the work available and prices.


So yes, you have no excuse not to take your pastels with you even if you are travelling super light!! Grab a few pastels (making sure they cover the value range from light through middle values to dark) and a few scraps of pastel paper and away you go!

Tell me what’s the smallest number of pastels you’ve travelled with and what were your challenges. I’d LOVE to hear from you so please leave a comment.


Until next time (when our next guest blogger appears!),

~ Gail


PS. From my evening at Gay Men’s Sketch!

Some of the members of Gay Men's Sketch - from lower left clockwise - Leif, Mark, Burton, Jason (our model), Dan, Gary, and Duane.
Some of the members of Gay Men’s Sketch – from lower left clockwise – Leif, Mark (founder), Burton, Jason (our model), Dan, Gary, and Duane.

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40 thoughts on “A Small Box Of Pastels – Perfect For Travelling With Carry-on Only!”

    1. Thanks so much Clarence! You are so right about getting the values means anything goes with colour. The more I used this small box of pastels, the more I felt I was proving the point!

    1. I’m delighted to have inspired you to try this. It can be frustrating at times, when you see some beautiful colour and you know there’s no way you can come close to reproducing it. But let that go, focus on values, and you never know what will arrive through your creative hand! And thanks!!

    1. Thanks Jude! Necessity and all that. I think that having such a limited palette opens up possibilities. For instance, I’m not sure I would have created such a yellow wall behind that jacket if I hadn’t been ‘forced’ to do so with the restriction of colour!

  1. Thanks for sharing, Gail. Amazing work with the basic of material. I’m going to try this approach for a week. I got into a slump after the 31 in 31. Thanks for the inspiration

    1. Thanks so much Sharon. I know what you mean about the post 31-in-31 slump. So it’s great to have something spark an idea – like a very limited palette. Run with it and see what happens! Look forward to seeing the results.

  2. Who says you have to paint what you see as far as colors are concerned…I think you have shown that to be true with your paintings using the limited palette. Most newbies to art need to understand this as they begin their
    Journey. You brought home the importance of understanding values and
    Color theory to produce really good pastel paintings and I am so inspired.
    While all were good, I especially liked the bedroom with the light on the
    Pillow. Thanks for sharing your incredible talent.

    1. Thanks so much Sherri! It really is tricky to fully understand values and the part they play. Beginners in art are at the start of their creative journey with much to take in but step by step takes them deeper into that journey where discoveries like the importance of values are made. I’m delighted that my paintings are an example of what understanding values can do for your work!

  3. Gail, these are wonderful! I love your figure drawings. All of them sparkle through. Limited palettes are fun.

    The smallest palette I’ve ever used was five sticks – primaries and black and white. I did a black cat and he came out beautiful. That was some years ago. I love how Unison organizes their half sticks sets, the choices are perfect to combine value and hue in as much variety as possible.

    I prefer the 120 color Unisons half stick set of course. Love having lots and lots of colors, that’s half the fun of pastels. But I also grabbed the eight color Eye Colors box for landscapes, since I looked at it and realized yeah, there’s all the basic landscape colors in one box! 16 colors looks great compared to that.

    And of course every time you turned something from pale pink to rich orange-red your painting looked better than real, that matters!

    1. Robert thanks for you kind words! Five sticks – good for you! Colour and value in those five. Love that you think my orange/reds were better than pale pink. It’s funny how the painting can turn out if one can let go of the need to capture the accurate colour. I loved those pale pinks but loved the whole design and subject better so painted it sans pale pinks! And yes, 120 colours is awesome to have! I need to get one of those!
      My plan is to create a Gail Sibley set. I’m excited about that. I have some colour ideas but far away from final choice (and number).

  4. Hi Gail, congratulations that you will be a member of “The Unison artist Club”. I recommended you to Unison, I think a year ago and maybe others did too. So they listened to us 😀

    1. Hi Susana, Many thanks for recommending me! I know a couple of others who did and I am really pleased to have been invited! I’m glad they listened too 🙂 I do love their pastels!

    1. Hah hah – yes I DO sleep Susan. And I am a consummate napper 🙂 That’s a brilliant system you have. Thanks for sharing. Now that’s pastels on the run (or walk)!

  5. I love these sketches, sometimes having limits forces us to be more creative. I do have one question, how do you deal with the dust when you are traveling? I’m always afraid of leaving pigment on the carpet if I work in a hotel room. Thanks so much for all you share!

    1. Thanks Connie! Yes, limitations do encourage us to be more creative! To your question, one of the things I forgot to include in the photo is a large garbage bag that is cut down one edge and through the bottom so I can open it out flat. If I am say working on the bed, I lay the garbage bag under my board etc. Then I tip the dust into the bathtub and wash it away.

    1. Thanks so much Diane!! And yes to that old saying 🙂 It’s sooooo true. We don’t ‘see’ the value in a painting – we are attracted to the colour usually. But squint and you see the underlying structure (and power) of well thought-out and defined values.

  6. Hi, Gail~!~
    I loved your paintings of Jason~ Especially his hands. In the second one posted, his fingers were a single stroke. Everything was so intentional, but not stiff. There are wonderful artists out there who need to paint every detail…. I love that you are able to tell so much about your subject with relatively few strokes. Awesome job!

  7. A VERY limited palette indeed! I once had an instructor who said to forget colour, focus on value instead. I guess a very limited palette is a good way to apply that mantra. As usual, you pulled it of again. Love the jacket and scarf. Well done.

    1. Aw Cliff thank you! And yes, I agree with that instructor. The more I paint, the more I teach, the deeper my understanding is of this mantra. And yes, limit the palette and free yourself!

  8. Gail,
    Amazing work! I’m going to order the set use it help me learn to see value! After reading your blog I believe it will really help me focus on that.

    When you paint when traveling do you work on your lap and/or table available? Do you try to catch any dust in anything? Going to be with family over the holidays and hate to make a mess.

    1. Thank Stacy! I know you will find using this small set useful AND a challenge. Just keep at it!
      Yes, if I am travelling really light (e.g. only carry-on) I work wherever is available be that my lap (on a board), or on the bed, or on the table. I put down a large cut-open garbage bag underneath me and my board to catch all the dust.Depending on what’s available, I might also put a sheet or two of paper towel or a piece of cloth under the edge of the board. Hope that helps!

  9. I missed a few of these during the 31/31 so thanks for posting them again. ‘Ready’ is still my fav and, yes, I know it’s not available:). I long ago gave up trying to match real-life colors, but still have to learn the values lesson. Thanks for being an inspiration.

    1. Glad you discovered some new pieces here! And who says ‘Ready’ isn’t available? I’m pretty sure it still is 🙂
      Trying to match real-life colours is a losing proposition and can also, surprisingly, lead to a boring painting. So it’s wonderful that you have given that up! Values, values, values – on going learning when it comes to this aspect of colour!

  10. Hi Gail, I must have missed this blog somehow, but I’m so glad I found it. So much information. Thanks! I don’t do plein air much, but with tips from this blog, I will make up a little kit and go for it. By the way, I googled the Unisons, but couldn’t find the half off deal. Do you have a link maybe? Oh, also, your paintings are wonderful. I think you and Tony Allain (sp?) have similar styles. I aspire to paint like that!! Again, many thanks for all you do.

    1. Hi Ruth, I’m glad you found it too!! A small kit just makes it so much easier to travel with your pastels. And thank you for your seriously awesome comparison on my style with Tony Allain’s!
      And my apologies, when I reread my post I see that you mistook the sale to be on the Unison pastels when really the ‘they’ relates to my pastels done during the 31-in-31 Challenge being on sale until the end of November.

  11. OK. Thanks Gail! Love the paintings you posted here. I’m afraid I don’t have a style yet, but your advice really helps. I mentioned on the FB page that I wished there were more teachers in my area, but alas, there are hardly any. I wish I could take more of those workshops, but I’m not a seasoned traveler, so I learn most everything on line and from the one teacher I’ve been seeing here in Greenville, SC (Erin Cronin-Webb). I love her, but I need a refresher from someone else, a new technique, a new style, etc. Looking forward to a future class with you. Thanks bunches!!

    1. Thanks so much Ruth! I’d love to have you as a student in one of my workshops! Maybe one of these days I’ll be invited to teach out in your neck of the woods. In the meantime, I’ll continue to develop online courses. The Beginner’s course is almost done!!!

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Gail Sibley

Artist. Blogger. Teacher.

My love of pastel and the enjoyment I receive from teaching about pastel inspired the creation of this blog. It has tips, reviews, some opinions:), and all manner of information regarding their use through the years – old and new. Please enjoy!

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