4 Colors + eyeshadow compact: A Step-by-Step Guide to Making a Tiny Travel Watercolor Kit

Kate Rutter
Jul 4, 2019 · 7 min read

For years I’ve carried a full set of Prang watercolors for field sketching…but now it feels cumbersome.

Prang, I love you, but you are so big to carry!

So in keeping with the idea of Lean Startup, I set out to make a Minimum Viable Watercolor Field Kit. I asked “What’s the smallest, simplest watercolor set I need to create basic field sketches?”

Spoiler alert: There are tons of folks making compact watercolor sets for fun and profit. This is the approach I used and it worked for me. If you’re interested in other ideas, the Googles has gobs of inspiration for you.

I set aside a few days to figure out how to get the biggest bang out of the smallest kit.

Step 1: Set the criteria & contents.

How small is small? Turns out it’s 5" x 3.5" x 1.75". I found an old neoprene zipper pouch that was a great size for a tiny kit. This became the criteria: Make the entire kit fit in the pouch. (Having the pouch as a design constraint reminded me of the Jeff-Hawkins-block-of-wood-into-Palm story.)

Zippered mouse pouch made of neoprene…nicely water resistant and feels nifty! All kinds of small packages could work. I considered an Altoids tin, but wanted something a little flatter.

So what’s the most basic kit? The only items I really need in the field: watercolor paints, waterbrush, and an old sock to use as a wrist-rag*. (Note: paper, pencils, pens are also needed, but those are consumables that don’t need to fit in the kit.) I was eager to try an extremely limited palette: 3 primaries and maybe a neutral. So the paint container could be quite small. Once I had the goal size and contents, I was ready to seek out the optimal container for the paints.

Step 2: Transforming an eyeshadow compact.

A fellow nature-journaler posted on the Nature Journal Club Facebook group about her tiny sketch kit (Check out Fay’s post…it’ super cool!) She mentioned using a small mirror compact, so with that in mind, I headed to the makeup section at Target to see what I could find.

Viola! The Wet & Wild 4-color eyeshadow kit was perfect! A great size, nice handfeel, and only $2.99. Win!

I would have been okay with only 3 colors, but having the 4th section meant I could add a neutral which would increase the range of hues possible.

Wet n Wild 4-color eyeshadow compact. Nice snappy feel to it! I colored over the branding with a sharpie for a sleeker look.
This one opens longways, which works just fine.

[1] Dig out the eyeshadow with a toothpick.

Do not do this on your favorite tablecloth. #lessonslearned
The eyeshadow comes out quite easily.

[2] Clean the pans completely.

See all the little bits of eyeshadow? Yeah, you’ll want to get them all out. The pans must be completely make-up-free. I found that wiping out the pans with a makeup removal wipe and finishing up with a cotton swab worked very well.
With the container completely clean and dry, I was ready to move on.

[3] Pick paints

I went with 3 primaries & a neutral.

The paints are the only expensive part of this kit. But the investment was worth it because I can refill the palette multiple times from the tubes.

For a limited palette, 3 primaries is really all you need. Adding a neutral is a bonus.

[4] Make a palette sample card.

I find it really helpful to have a sample card on the palette that shows the colors and basic mixes.

I cut a sheet of thin watercolor paper the size of the top of the palette to make a sample color card. This has the added benefit of providing a white background to the mixing area so I can see what the color mix looks like.
The simplest layout for a sample color card, showing the color combos. Each square gets a sample of the pigment or mix.

[5] Fill the pans & fill in the sample color card

Squeezing the paint into the pan. Best to be conservative at first. It’s easy to add more more paint, but overfill gets real messy.
Spooging the paint into the pan with a toothpick and working it into the corners to completely fill the pan. This avoids excess water pooling in the pan when I’m painting.
While filling in the colors, I took a bit of each pigment to paint in the squares on the sample color card. The top of the compact is the mixing area.
Adding pigments and mixing the secondary colors for the sample color card.
Almost done.
On the sample color card: I added a wash sample for the neutral shadow violet, then wrote in all the names of the pigments.
Letting it all get completely dry.

[6] Stick on the sample color card and add a loop

I used packing tape to stick the sample color card to the top of the palette.

To aid holdability, it’s handy to have a ring or loop on the back of a palette. These smartphone loops are perfect! And inexpensive.

Loops come in rectangles or circles, and you just peel of the backing and stick it on. They are removable and reusable if the palette ever breaks.
Ta dah!
Look, Ma! No hands!

Step 4: Complete the kit

Collecting the other elements and checking to make sure they fit in the pouch.

For the brush, I used a Sakura Koi mini waterbrush. This model has a plug for the water container, so it can be carried disassembled in 2 parts. #Win.

Last of all the wrist-rag*. It’s an old sock with the foot cut off. Best if it’s mostly cotton and a light color (white or grey) so you can see if your waterbrush is clean.

Step 5: Test-drive it

The kit is ready to test-drive!

All the parts fit neatly in the pouch. It even zips!

First use: make a watercolor mixing chart. Making a mixing chart was new to me, so thankfully there are lots of awesome people out there who show the step-by-step. My goal was to practice mixing with the limited palette, and also to see how much I could vary the saturation to go from a very light wash to an intense pigmented wash.

It’s amazing how much range there is with only the three primaries and a neutral.

I chose a wheel layout with the primaries in a “peace” sign layout and browns and greys in the middle. The strongest pigment is on the outside ring, then 5 levels of successively light washes towards the center.

Since I had a neutral, I could see how the neutral wash interacted with the colors and washed from mixing (put the neutral wash in when all the colors were dry.) The shadow violet wash is the darker stripe in each hue strip.

I also played around with coaxing out some greens. Nature has a lot of greens.

Then I made a sample painting.

Line drawing of an imaginary landscape for practice. (3" x 5" on watercolor postcard paper.)
I was happy with the range of colors from just the 3 primaries and the neutral.

Step 6: Take it on the road!

The full tiny kit, mixing chart and sample painting.

All set and ready for action!

Finding the container and ordering the cellphone loops took a couple of days. Making the kit took a good part of a day. Most of the time was spent waiting for the paint to dry. The mixing chart took about 90 minutes. It was a simple and fun process, and now it’s easy to toss the kit in my bag any time I leave the house.


* The magic of the wrist-rag. OMG the wrist-rag is a game-changer. When used with a waterbrush, you don’t need to take lots of extra water, brushes or rags into the field. This tip comes from the amazing and generous John Muir Laws (You should follow him.)

Scratchmade Journal is a fantastic resource for selecting limited palette colors. Tonya is amazing and shares her journey and explorations on her blog.

Total cost was about $17, plus the $30 for paint.

  • Eyeshadow compact, Wet n Wild Quad: $2.99 @ Target
  • Cell phone ring holder stand (set of 4): $6.99 @ Amazon
  • Koi Mini Waterbrush: $6.88 @ Amazon
  • Sock: $1.00 (use an old one or get ’em at Goodwill)
  • Paint, 4 tubes: $28.64 ← by far the biggest expense.
    * Q pink: $7.16; Cad yellow: $8.19; Phalo blue: $6.13; Shadow violet: $7.16. I buy my paints at DickBlick.com.

Kate Rutter

Written by

Strategic Sketcher :: sketchnoter :: graphic recorder :: lean entrepreneur :: recovering UX designer :: always carries stickynotes :: http://intelleto.com

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