Mercury Capsule and my smallest sketch kit

A Concorde, the Lockheed Blackbird, the Space Shuttle Discovery, the Boeing Enola Gay, or a 1903 Wright flyer. How do you choose what to sketch at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum when you only have about 30 minutes? Everything is so big and SO complex. There are aircraft on the ground AND hanging from the rafters in the enormous hangar that houses the museum. It’s a place that I could easily spend a whole day, but with only a bit of time before heading back to the Washington airport I chose something relatively small to draw. Something on a human scale: the Mercury Capsule.

I had a small sketch kit with me for the weekend — a 5 x 8” Hahnemuhle sketchbook, a few ink pens, a pencil, a brush with a water reservoir, and a folding Winsor & Newton palette with a small selection of half pans. This is the kit I often use for travel on airplanes because there’s no need to carry water. I empty the water brush before going through security, and fill it again on the other side. The brush is not ideal for painting big washes but if I’m working with ink and only want to add a few dabs of colour, it’ll do. 

Although the Mercury Capsule is relatively small compared with the massive Space Shuttle Discovery that was behind me, it still has a fair amount of detail on it, including a window that allows you to see inside it. I was only able to draw the basic shape of the capsule, and then add a light wash on top of it before it was time to go. The rest of the drawing and lettering was done while waiting for my (delayed) flight. 

A note about the palette

Although my favourite travel palette is the one where I add my own half pans of artist-quality tube paint, I highly recommend this Winsor & Newton one as well because of the quality of the paint in the half pans. It’s a fairly expensive product that I bought at least five or six years ago, but the pan colours are STILL fresh and soft. That means that they release tons of colour when you re-wet them. The last thing you want when you are using a water brush is to have to empty half the water from your brush into the palette to get good, saturated colour. 

28 Comments on “Mercury Capsule and my smallest sketch kit”

  1. Kate B says:

    Wonderful sketch. I can’t imagine only having 30 minutes! I’ve not been there but I have been to the main Smithsonian castle and surrounding buildings. And I volunteer at Museum of Flight in Seattle with 5 buildings full…and have had years to sketch what’s there! When we visited the Museum of the Air Force, we had to add on an extra day.


  2. karim waked says:

    So cool Shari!! I was there… just couldn’t believe how darn small that flying can, was! Now that took courage. Welcome home xx



    • Karim, that is so true! It’s a flying can!! Yes, truly courageous to get into that and be shot into space. I felt a little woozy just watching people get into the simulators in the museum.


  3. deedster56 says:

    Very neat, in every sense! How beautiful your sketches turn out whether they are awash in brights or swept in muted tones. I just ordered that very same W&N palette a few days ago and was thrilled to see you using it here!


  4. Deborah says:

    Thanks for this Shari. I have that same W & N set and it’s MUCH older than yours (I hate to admit) but using it a bit recently, I found, like you did, that the paints seemed fresh and powerful still. Nice!


  5. Judy Sopher says:

    This is so interesting. Love your sketches. And love to see your set up for travel. I have been following your blogs but it has been difficult to write. We have had workmen in our basement. Lots of noise and confusion and I had the job of holding onto our large boxer.


  6. Northern Traveller says:

    Wow! So interesting…..I’ll bet you wanted to stay there all day!!! Did you visit any of the other museums on the mall – the sculpture museum? xo M


    • Mary, we didn’t have much time because we were there for a family wedding. I am saving all of those other museums for our next trip. It really is an easy plane ride from Montreal, so we have to go back for sure.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. De says:

    Shari, I can’t believe what you can do in such a short time. Tha’ts a great sketch! I grew up in Daytona Beach, FL and remember this flight with Alan Shepherd. I was in the fifth grade and we went outside to look up the sky to see it go up ( and that was a regular event on each lift off whether at school, work or home, everyone went out to watch a lift off). IF you ever get to visit the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, FL ask if you can go to the Air Force side tour so you can see where this was launched from and the control center next to it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • De, how amazing that you would get to see this. Of course we always watched these events on tv but wow, you got to see them live. I have often thought of going to Cape Canaveral but now I really want to make sure I get there. This was fascinating.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Becky Smith says:

    Oh Shari you made my heart sing with this one, as a pilot and loving all things aviation! I’ve spent many hours at this museum on many different trips. You captured the capsule so beautifully and in only 30 min. It’s one thing to paint colorful flowers and landscapes but you put life I to a piece of metal. Thank you for sharing this! Just magnificent.


    • Becky, I was thinking of you and Carol so often during our visit to the museum. We are definitely planning a return trip to spend more time there. I can see why you would go again and again. You really need a full day to read everything, watch the IMAX movie,etc. That will be the plan for next time!!


  9. Great post, very interesting. What a Museum!


  10. That is one elaberate looking tin can! Wow the Mercury Capsule looks so small inside, it must have been very crampt even if it was just for 1 man.


  11. I really like how you added the texture with your pencil lines and just a few simple washes of paint. It looks very good for just a 30 minute sketch.


  12. Wow! You were able to get in a lot of detail without having all your regular supplies. Nice way to travel!


  13. Interesting to see your process on this one, Shari. When I first saw this in Instagram I wondered how you managed so much detail in the museum. It’s fascinating to see you work the big shapes in color and then add the ink detail later…the reverse of what I tend to do. Thanks for sharing.


    • Hi Jean,
      Thanks for having a look. I don’t always work this way but I knew my time was limited so I tried to do a few things that were important first, like the big shape of the capsule and a few details in pen. I knew I would have lots of time in the airport and on the plane, so I left all the repeating details and lines in the drawing for later. It was actually fun to work on this in the airport, and a great distraction because it’s so unpleasant to travel these days.


  14. deedster56 says:

    Shari, now that is one happy accident! Wonderful story and so glad you shared it with us. You really have the magic touch when it comes to (everything) boats. Really lovely scene.


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