How to Pack Your Painting Supplies and Artwork for an Airplane Flight

Published Nov. 26th 2007

The holiday travel season is already in full swing, and if you’re planning on hitting the airports with your paint supplies and/or artwork in tow—well, I’ve got a few tips which just might make your traveling easier.

Sure, it’s easy enough to throw everything in a suitcase, but in my experience paint tubes and other art paraphernalia are sometimes regarded with suspicion by airport x-ray machines. . . and that means your bags will probably be physically searched to make sure your luggage isn’t dangerous.

So let’s make life easier on everyone (you and airport security) shall we?

Tips for packing art supplies:

1. Don’t make your art supplies your carry-on items. Paint tubes wouldn’t even be allowed as carry-ons anyway, unless they’re smaller than 3 ounces and can fit inside a quart-sized zip-top plastic bag. (Most of my tubes are too large.) And although I don’t know the rules for palette knives or brushes, it’s just a lot simpler to put all your art supplies inside your checked luggage.

2. Put paint tubes and other art supplies by themselves in a separate suitcase or bag if possible—that way airline security only has to really rummage through one bag if they think your art supplies look suspicious.

3. If you must put art supplies in with your other things, pack it into your suitcase last, so it’s right on top for easy access.

4. Enclose all art supplies in clear plastic zip-top bags. This lets airport security quickly see what your items are and spend less time handling your paints. Also, in some rare cases the pressure change in an airplane’s cargo hold can cause paint tubes to leak or burst. Plastic bags keep any messes contained. (I actually had a tube of cad red leak all over the inside of my bag once. Lesson learned!)

5. Of course, make sure your luggage is unlocked since airport security will break the locks to get in if they need to.

6. And another obvious yet often ignored tip—don’t overstuff your bags!

7. Most importantly, leave the paint thinners or other solvents (like turpentine, mineral spirits, etc) at home. You’ll just have to buy those at your destination instead, since airlines don’t allow any flammable liquids in their cargo holds.

Flying with finished paintings:

While I’d recommend NOT flying with artwork, I’ve done it before myself and as long as you’re cautious it’ll usually work out all right.

It’s best to fly with DRY paintings—obviously—and if your artwork is small enough, take it with you as a carry-on in a portfolio. That’s the safest way. If you have to send your artwork with the checked luggage, cushion each painting individually with soft towels, or better yet, package them as though they were being mailed.

If you’re in the unfortunate position of having to fly with a large, still-wet painting you might consider doing what I did once—building a wooden “crate” around the painting.

It was a very basic affair, just four 2x4s around the edges of the painting and two sheets of plywood on the front and back. The trick was putting enough pressure from the wood onto the sides of the painting so that it securely gripped and held the entire canvas without anything touching the (still wet) front of it.

You can find a more elegant solution for crate-building at David R. Darrow’s website right here—essentially the same idea, but with a good deal more finesse. Oh, and if you plan on building a crate: keep the sawdust away from your wet painting!

For more rules on flying, check out the TSA permitted and prohibited items list.

Have a happy holidays, and fly safe!

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