Sketching Kit in Action: My Support Board

November 24, 2016 | 34 Comments

There are a few challenges when it comes to watercolour sketching out on location. A lot of people stress about being out in public and are afraid of what people will think of them. But once you get over that, the biggest issue is having your tools handy and being able to sketch in a variety of positions (seated or standing) with ease.

Two years ago I started using a board to support my sketchbook, paint tin and water container, and it has been a total game changer. I got this idea from Marc Taro Holmes after sketching alongside him for a few weeks in Brazil (August 2014). Everyday while I struggled to balance my gear (and particularly the large A4 moleskine) I watched Marc sketch in style and ease. You can read about Marc’s board here.

I knew I needed to set one up for myself but wanted mine to be a little smaller, so I did some experimentation. These photos show my first version which was the same size as my A4 moleskine. It was too small, so I added a hinged section and increased the width slightly – this has made a big difference.

It is made from sig board/corflute/coroplast (please tell me if there’s another name for it) and gaffer tape (strong cloth-backed waterproof adhesive tape) for the hinge. Ideally I would prefer the board to be black, but the art store only had white at the time. However, the white makes it easier to see the hinged section, and also gives an idea of much I splash my paint. But, maybe it’s time to clean it!

The width of the board has been designed to accommodate my metal palette and one (or two) water containers (secured with blu-tack) and some area for paper towel or my wristband. It also provides just enough support for the spine of my sketchbook which I clip to the board.

The length was based on an A4 moleskine with a little float, and it also amazingly fits the new 8 x 10 Stillman and Birn softcover book.

Width 240mm (9.5″)
Main board = 287mm long (11.3″)
Hinged piece = 130mm (5.1″)
Total length 385mm (15.1″)

Having the spine of the book supported and my palette, water container and some paper towel all clipped together makes it very easy to use. No more awkward balancing one’s gear. It does take a little time to set up, so on big sketching days I often walk the streets with my book and palette still clipped to the board.

If you want to see the board in action, here is a video of my sketch of Haworth church the day I visited Rosemary & Co Brushes (I have shared this previously but you might want to check out my “standing setup” again). Link for my email subscribers is here.

There are a lot of other very cool solutions by other urban sketchers. I think one of fun things about the Urban Sketchers Symposium is that we get to see how other people manage their gear. So I would love to hear from you if you have any clever solutions for holding your sketchbook and gear when out sketching.

UPDATE: Here is a great talk on Youtube with lots of great ideas: What’s In Your Pocket? A Juried Review of Cool Urban Sketching Gear – Mark Leibowitz

Learn the essential concepts and techniques for sketching on location – check out my 12 lesson course SketchingNow Foundations. The course has been designed specifically for people who want to start urban sketching!


  • Michelle - November 24, 2016 reply

    ahahhhhh the hinge bit!!!! I have been playing with this sort of setup but it was always too unwieldy to fit in my bag etc. I will be trying this :) thank you!

    • Liz Steel - November 24, 2016 reply

      my pleasure- the hinge was a big deal for me too!

  • Glenn Tait - November 24, 2016 reply

    Wonderful to see you in action, not just the skeching but how you work with your materials. Tenplast is another name for the corrugated plastic board, which I use for drawing supports as well. I sling a small tool bag (6x8x3") which has lots of slots and zippered sections to hold pens, brushes, watercolour tin and two sketchbooks. An elasticated pocket on the outside of the bag holds an open water jar. The watercolour box is clamped to the sketchbook itself. This is my most portable set up, it can be expanded to include a lightweight tripod (similar to Marc Taro Holmes but black) with a folding Tenplast pochade board with magnetic holders (inspired by James Gurney).

    • Liz Steel - November 24, 2016 reply

      Thanks Glenn - sounds good. I used to used the other side of my book to support my palette, but having the spine supported has helped a lot.

  • Glenn Tait - November 24, 2016 reply

    In regards to the hinge, you don't have to cut a separate piece and tape it. Coroplast scores and folds easily along it's ribbed grain. I use a small knitting needle to make the score then fold it up against a hard edge like a metal ruler. Works great and doesn't wear out.

    • Liz Steel - November 24, 2016 reply

      Ah! brilliant and much more elegant solution. I actually like the little ledge as it provides a little space for my pen, brush

    • Glenn Tait - November 27, 2016 reply

      To make a board like yours with the step would require a piece of coroplast 613cm long with 2 folds. The first fold would be at the 385cm measure with the second fold 98cm past that to make a fold back support (and the edge of the step) upon which the remaining 130cm panel for the watercolour palette would sit on top of, and then be clamped down. Seen from the side the coroplast would make a "Z" type fold.

  • Marc Taro Holmes - November 24, 2016 reply

    Hah! great to see those photos from Sao Paulo! That was a fun day. You have definitely improved my approach to sketching over they years. Just trying to keep up with you was an education in itself :)

    • Liz Steel - November 24, 2016 reply

      the feeling is mutual!

  • Suzala - November 24, 2016 reply

    Mark lebowitz used several of my hacks inthe urban sketchers presentation he made in Manchester last summer. I use coroplast as a palette, holding my paints ( I attach by imbedded magnets ) as well as water ( i cut a hole ) ( use urine sample containers for water; they never leak!) and a paper towel ( small clip).

    • Liz Steel - November 24, 2016 reply

      Hi Suzala - thanks for your comment/idea and for the reminder to link to Mark's talk on Youtube- just add the link!

  • John HOFFMANN - November 24, 2016 reply

    Ah! That's how it's done. I have tried to make one from your older post, but this post has made it so much clearer. I used black foam core, very light weight. Might try your plastic material. I have learned so much from your web site, blogs, and now vlogs. You are such an inspiration for me to get out and do it!! Thank you Liz! Cheers, John

  • Peter Joscelyne - November 24, 2016 reply

    Hi Liz, I copied your idea some time ago - using the black material. I noticed it was available at the St Leonard's Eckersley"s store recently. If you get a chance to visit the current travel inspired exhibition at ME Artspace, you could check.

    • Liz Steel - November 25, 2016 reply

      thanks Peter!

  • Christine Rae - November 25, 2016 reply

    Hi Liz, thanks so much for this promised follow-up of my question a few weeks ago. Have put most of your previous ideas into action, now to add the all important hinge!

    • Liz Steel - November 25, 2016 reply

      My pleasure Christine!

  • Sharon Nolfi - November 25, 2016 reply

    How do you hold the board? In the video I see it balanced on your right arm, but are you gripping it with your hand? I wonder what holds it steady. Also, does your supporting arm get tired?

    • Liz Steel - November 25, 2016 reply

      Hi Sharon, most of the time I sit down so and prop the board on my bag which is on my nap. If I sketch standing up (as per that video) it will be a really quick sketch- 10 minutes max, so holding the board is bearable. But yes, it can get heavy and my arm can get sore. I was VERY uncomfortable while sketching in Brazil as per the top photo

  • Fiona Campbell - November 25, 2016 reply

    Hi LIz, Interesting to see your set up and thanks for the Urban Sketchers presentation link. I'm a Rural Sketcher so need very light kit as I'm walking though the hills or climbing over rocks ! I made a hinged support from the boards on the back of spiral watercolour pads, by cutting two rectangles slightly smaller than my soft-cover sketch book and glueing them onto plastic coated fabric (a bit like covering a book) leaving an area of fabric between the two boards, to create a hinge. Then glue another rectangle on top so that it's all waterproof and the double thickness in the hinge is strong. Lay the sketchbook on top and slide it down so that about 2 inches projects at the top. Clip the left-hand pages of the sketchbook to the stiff cover underneath. Onto the ledge you've created at the top clip a large oil-painting dipper, sprayed white with appliance enamel, so you can see the water getting dirty ! These dippers come with a built in clip. If you position it at the hinge, it holds the hinge open and flat. Because of the plastic surface of the stiff cover, it doesn't slip around on your supporting hand. For my paint, I have bought a metal Prang paintbox from USA on Etsy (idea from Cathy Johnson) and it's narrow rectangular shape will sit easily on the 'ledge'. If you use a little strip of silicone non-slip mat, it won't move when you're painting. I removed all the old pans from the box and put in my own full and half pans - no need for magnets or blue tac, just glue them in with Copydex (or any rubber solution glue). When it's dry it holds them securely, but if you want to make changes, just pull them out, pull off the old glue (it comes off easily in rubbery strings) and reglue - easy.

    • Liz Steel - November 25, 2016 reply

      Hi Fiona - thanks so much for sharing. Great tips

  • Jan Z - December 6, 2016 reply

    Hi Liz, I have been using a hinged board set up like yours for about a month and I really like it. I have modified one thing. Instead of using a clip to secure my paint tin, I cut a small slit in the plastic sign board to accommodate the thumb ring of my schminke palette. I position the ring so it is perpendicular to the palette and push it through the slit. It stays in place and one less clip to fiddle with.

    • Liz Steel - December 7, 2016 reply

      Hi Jan - that is a brilliant idea about the slit as I find the clips annoying. I might have to test that out for myself. Thanks for sharing

    • Janus G - March 2, 2017 reply

      Hi Jan. Would it be possible for you to post a photo of it (a link to a photo). I have some difficulty to understand your description.

  • Kellie Stapleton - January 29, 2017 reply

    I loved this video. As beginner it was so helpful to see you work in real life! Of course the speed was amazing (and the end product), but how you stood, how equipment was aligned, the use of pen and brush....... I could go on and on. Thanks for this!

    • Liz Steel - January 29, 2017 reply

      thanks Kellie - I am glad you enjoyed it.

  • Tips: Make Your Own Sketchbook Support - Sketchbook Skool Blog - February 22, 2017 reply

    […] watercolors close at hand. It’s easy to make with just a few large clips. For more details, click here to see Liz’s blog post on her amazing Sketchbook Support. On that page, you’ll also see some of her beautiful watercolors and urban sketches. Take a […]

  • Carolanne Fisher - February 23, 2017 reply

    There is a product I bought a while ago for my iPad Pro that works perfectly to hold open a hardback sketchbook with no clips or other inconveniences. Check out The best part is that you don't even have to hold on to anything as the "handle" part just slips over your hand and makes it very easy to control and move the sketchbook around. I slip a piece of coroplasta between the Gripzilla and the sketchbook and it stays in snug enough to hold my water color palette, water, sponge, etc. I attach to The open edges of my SketchBook as opposed to down the spine and it works perfectly, even holding the sketchbook perfectly flat.

    • Liz Steel - February 23, 2017 reply

      Brilliant. Thanks so much for sharing!!!!

    • Carolanne Fisher - March 2, 2017 reply

      OK, so now I've decided that I really like your idea of the 8x10 S&B Alpha soft cover but of course my gripzilla rig won't work with that book. I have a 9 inch grafiti band ( that I use to mark my place in the book and guess what… It also can be used to hold a support board (sticking out the side rather than the top of the book) and it serves as a no-grip handle as well. The band will strap over part of the page but so far I find that's not a problem since it's thin and I can easily move it around depending the type of spread I'm doing (I usually keep it either against the spine or at an edge). Again no clips, etc (I cut a slot in my coroplast to hold my palette by its ring and use a magnet for my water bottle). I think what I like best about both rigs is the no-grip aspect of them -- reduces hand fatigue to almost nothing.

  • Marla K. Brumbaugh - March 26, 2017 reply

    Liz, this was a JOY to watch. You bounced me back into stopping in time! I love your spontaneous technique. Thanks so, so much!

  • My travel sketching kit and workshop stuff : Liz Steel - May 18, 2017 reply

    […] sketchbooks (3x A4 moleksine sketchbooks for a 4 week trip), support board and backjoy seat. No stool or easel – just can’t take anything […]

  • Alan D Barbour - October 13, 2017 reply

    I wondered if the 4mm Coroplast I found would be stiff enough (it is at moderate temperatures at least). Marc said it could become too flexible in hot weather, which we have in abundance around here. So I fastened a 5-cm piece of Coroplast onto the back of the board; the brace has the ribs running at right angles to those on the main piece. Very stiff! It seems many adhesives do not work well on Coroplast; I used "Uglu" tape, which is the very devil to work with until you get the hang of it, but it sure does work. (Hint: get a piece of the slippery paper backing and put it over the sticky tape side before cutting with *sharp* scissors.)

  • Amy Atkinson - November 22, 2017 reply

    Liz, in your video at Haworth you talk about your Rosemary & Co dagger brush and how much you love it. Would you please share why you love it so? It sounds as though you consider it the “do everything” for your on location painting. I’ve never used a dagger so I’d love to know about it. Thanks!

    • Liz Steel - November 22, 2017 reply

      Hi Amy, please go to sketching tools - brushes and you will see an article on swords and daggers

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