Watercolors: Worth the Weight

By Isabella Pardales

Jun 29, 2022

My interest in the outdoors, as well as art, developed at a young age. I cultivated my outdoor leadership skills through serving as an outing club guide in both high school and college. I chose to double major in Studio Art and Environmental Studies. This past summer I completed the NOLS Pacific Northwest Outdoor Educator Mountaineering course. Watercolor painting of Camp 1 with Glacier Peak in the background. A red tent is visible in the foreground with some trees.

Artwork by Isabella Pardales


Completing a NOLS course was a longtime goal of mine. I wanted to challenge myself, learn new skills, and it felt like the proper time in my life as I transitioned out of college and into law school.

For years I have regularly packed a watercolor field kit on adventures of all sorts: day hikes, backpacking trips, travels abroad, and more. This has resulted in dozens of sketchbooks that serve as a visual record of my life, filled with colorful images painted en plein air on summits, city streets, and nearly everywhere in between.

Watercolor painting of a red backpack and a scene of green trees in a mountain setting

Artwork by Isabella Pardales


In preparation for my course, I paired down my watercolor kit to its most essential items: two small palettes, two brushes, one mechanical pencil, one waterproof ink pen, and a small notebook that I bound. The night before departing for the mountaineering section of our course, with the burdensome weight of my pack on my back, I asked myself: is my watercolor kit worth the weight? I ultimately decided it was. And I am so happy I did.

I painted at the end of our first day hiking, while gathered with my cook group making dinner. The act of drawing and painting was always welcome at the end of a long day hiking or climbing. It allowed me to slow down and take a moment to truly appreciate the beauty and scale of the places we were in. I now have a small sketchbook that serves as a visual record of my NOLS course and experience. One of my trip leaders and another student also brought watercolor materials on the course. It was even more enjoyable to paint together at camp, talking about technique and seeing how we each captured the scenery around us.
Some days I had time to paint for an hour and others only five-minutes to sketch. Any amount of time I spent drawing or painting was always worth it. I can now confidently say a compact field watercolor kit was worth the weight on my NOLS course.

Watercolor painting of White Pass in the Mt. Baker National Forest with green grass and red flowers mixed with snowfields and trees in the distance.

Artwork by Isabella Pardales


It has taken me years to figure out what combination of materials works best for me. Painting en plein air can be a challenge: it takes trial, error, and practice. The best suggestion I can give is to paint anywhere and everywhere. Whether that be on a NOLS course, on your favorite day hike, or at your local crag.

Below is a list that I put together of suggested materials that you can use to build a field kit that works for you. I recommend starting out with basic materials you already own, nothing special is required.

Supplies Suggestions:

  • Watercolor palette (palette with pre-filled pans or even DIY an Altoids tin palette using some magnetic tape)
  • A watercolor sketchbook or piece of watercolor paper (you can even experiment with binding your own sketchbook)
  • A water brush or brushes and small container for water (remember to follow Leave No Trace principles!)
  • A waterproof pen (my favorite is a Micron)
  • A pencil with eraser


  • A small reusable bag to keep your materials in to ensure they don’t get wet
  • Watercolor postcard pad, they make great gifts to send home to family and friends

Written By

Isabella Pardales

Isabella is a 22-year-old NOLS alumni from Maine. She has a B.A. in Environmental Studies and Studio Art and is currently enrolled in law school in Vermont, working towards her dream of becoming an environmental lawyer. When not reading you can find her skiing, climbing, hiking, sewing, painting, and drinking copious amounts of coffee. You can follow her on Instagram @isabellapardales

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