Pastels and Planes

20-travel-bag.jpgTraveling by air with precious pastels can be a problem. Even the strongest pastel case in the hands of someone unfamiliar with their fragile 
nature can lead to a disaster. Well before 9/11, I gave up checking my pastel case. Even when buried inside a large suitcase, surrounded with clothing as padding, the pastel case could still not always hold up to rough handling.

So I carry it on the plane now, keeping it in my possession at all times. And, having frequently traveled by air with pastels, I have a few tips that might make your experience less stressful:

Most airlines allow a carry-on bag and one personal item (similar to a woman’s purse). Consider the size and weight when choosing these. Remember, you will be carrying them at all times. What seems a manageable weight to carry from your studio to the car can become unbearable when you’re racing from one end of the airport to the other. Your carry-ons will also have to fit in the overhead bin or under your seat and, depending on the airplane, this can be a problem. The largest pastel case I use fits into a 17-inch laptop computer bag. The smallest case fits a 12-inch laptop bag. (My backpack-size Heilman pastel box is shown in the photo, along with my laptop shoulder bag.)

We often believe we need more pastels than we really do, so try to downsize: If you have a short flight, opt for the larger bag. If the flight is long, with connections, utilize the smaller bag. An added benefit of the computer shoulder bag is the ability to pack additional items in it, such as a few sheets of pastel paper. That way, if your checked luggage is lost or delayed, you’ll still have the bare essentials needed to paint for a few days. The laptop bag also protects the pastel case and makes it easier to handle.

Be prepared to have your pastel case inspected when going through security. This is a good reason to arrive early to the airport. When X-rayed, the contents of the case look very suspicious. The more we travel with our pastels, the more they become recognizable. It’s always a pleasant surprise when the officer just smiles and says, “must be an artist,” and waves me through. Even though this is happening more frequently, it’s still best to be prepared for inspection. Since we’re not allowed to open the “suspicious” case, make it as accessible as possible. Inform them that it is “art supplies” and use the word “chalk” along with “pastel” when describing the contents. We all hate to refer to our pigment pastels as chalks but the general public knows what a “chalk” stick is, and is not always familiar with the term “pastel.” Make sure to mention that they’re very fragile, quite messy, and that the case must be opened flat. Since I expect them to open the case, I make sure it is clean; there’s nothing more irritating to the official than a mess of pastel fragments and dust contaminating the inspection area.

Traveling with a lightweight portable pastel case and being prepared to have it inspected will make for a far more pleasant experience when next you venture out, pastels in hand.

Richard McKinley is an artist, workshop instructor and regular columnist for The Pastel Journal. To send him your pastel questions, email the magazine at with “Pastel Pointers” in the subject line of your email.

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7 thoughts on “Pastels and Planes

  1. Cindy

    I have taken the time to mount wallis paper to acid free mat board cut in sizes from 5 x 7 up to 8 x 10. Use "Yes" glue, a brush, a brayer and heavy books. After glueing down the precut mat board, let dry under weight and trim paper edges with xacto knife. Packs easily in ziplocks and won’t dent like foam core does.

  2. BlueBerry Pick'n

    don’t forget to bring along *a brochure on what pastels are*.

    Our flight was seriously detained in Cuba because the piece-by-piece scanning of every package detected that my pastels… were tidily packed sticks of explosives.

    It became a Big Deal.

    now, you can’t blame them, I mean, they’re still looking for the Americans who bombed the *full* Cuban resort hotel a couple of years ago, maiming a number of guests & killing an Italian businessman.

    can you blame them for being jumpy?
    Just saying, those nations who take abuse from WHINSEC/SotA are extra special concerned about foreign-influenced terrorism.

  3. Katherine Tyrrell

    I don’t think I’ve ever managed to get through airport security without having my pastels checked. I asked once and found out why – apparently it’s because their size and shape bears a close resemblance to cartridges! I also always make a point of telling them quickly what they are going to find and that they need to unpack carefully if they won’t let me do it. Stressing they’ll get their hands very messy always seems to work for me!

  4. Robin Maria Pedrero

    I have also traveled with my pastels. I found that the pastels were ok to travel with as you said, with me on the plane stored above in overhead, packed for easy access for security and no space for the pastels to roam within the case. In Cabo security took out every tray on the way in. On the way to Maui I had a lot of walking to do and was glad I had downsized.

    My paper was subject to dampness and I haven’t a system for that yet. Do you?

  5. Ron

    Is there a way to mount Wallis paper other than dry mounting? I have had it dry mounted on acid free foam core and this can be rather pricey. Is there an acid free glue or another method that can be used?

    The second question is: Is there a way to prevent the paper from buckling when using a wet underpainting if the paper is not dry mounted? Thank You.