8 Tips for Travel Sketching

I’ve been wrapping up the sketches that I started while on my Great Western Road Trip— a 10 day drive from Boulder, Colorado, to Pasadena, California, via Arches, Canyonlands, and Bryce Canyon National Parks in Utah. This trip had a much tighter itinerary than previous vacations and it put me to the test in terms of sketching on the go. I thought I’d share a few tips gleaned from my experience in hopes that they help you on your next trip.

  1. Pare down to a few basic supplies. The more stuff you have the harder it will be to carry, set up, and break down quickly. I put my journal, pencil, pen, and paints into a large Ziploc bag that fits in my handbag or backpack.
  2. Seize the moment. Travel sketching requires a combination of seizing opportunities and making opportunities to fit art into your trip. It isn’t easy. This is especially true if you have a hectic itinerary or if you are traveling with non-sketchers, or both. Make the most of the time you have, whether five minutes while waiting for your traveling companions, a 30-minute airport layover, or an hour in your hotel at the end of the day.
  3. Create the moment. If you know in advance that you will be going somewhere you’d like to sketch, tell your traveling companions and let them know approximately how much time you need. This enables everyone to plan their time and spares you from feeling as if you are slowing the group.
  4. Start, even if you can’t finish. If you see something that strikes you, put down a line and take a photo for reference. Draw what you can in the time you have. You can always come back and finish later, but if you don’t start, you’ll lose the moment and the freshness of sketching live.
  5. Adjust your expectations and the size of your artwork. You’re not out to make a masterpiece; you’re out to record fun, interesting, and memorable parts of your trip. Work smaller if it helps.
  6. Mix it up. Sketch a variety of subjects, from landscapes to single objects to food. The more varied your pages, the more you will capture the essence of your trip.
  7. Incorporate artistic elements from the place. This may include colors, fonts, or designs drawn from the art or culture of the place you are visiting.
  8. Let enthusiasm fuel you. More than likely, there will be no ideal conditions for drawing or painting while traveling. You may not have great seating, weather, light, or time. Expect to be challenged and let your enthusiasm drive you. Your sketches may not be perfect, but they’ll convey a sense of fun, discovery, and excitement from your trip.


Workshop Opportunity: Travel Sketching in Watercolor
Saturday, November 9, 2019; 9am – 1pm, Art School of Columbia County, Ghent, NY
Sure to be worth the trip, this workshop will focus on techniques and layout ideas for sketching on the go and capturing your travel experiences in watercolor. Register by emailing: artschoolcolco@gmail.com

34 Comments on “8 Tips for Travel Sketching

  1. as usual, inspiring, esp the long hikes and lovely sketches and GETTING SUPPLIES DOWN TO ONE ZIPLOCK!!!….pretty much impossible for me, just getting things to take to lifedrawing is huge, will you share what you actually got it down to?.. what splendid parents you are…lucky lad…thanks for all the tips..sandra

    • Sure- My 5.5×8.5 sketchbook, 2 Micron pens, one pencil, kneaded eraser, small set of paints, three Escota travel brushes (2,6,10; they fold into the handle), water brush, 2 paper towels, film-size container of water. And yes, we are all very lucky!

  2. Thank you for your inspiring sketches and how you do them whilst traveling. I have similar experiences when I do my sketching. Very often I think my sketches are awful when looking at them on the spot. (You know, the 5minute ones when you partner is impatiently waiting). But later on (maybe a couple of weeks) they express a strange charme to me that a random digital photo can not. Sometimes I sketch whilst rock climbing (on a belay) or at a rest whilst mountain biking. Then I do mostly the outlines. So the lines are very shaky and very sketchy. Then I take a photo for reference and finish the sketch at home (mostly the coloring). I am glad that you also mention that. I used to think it as cheating, but have decided that I am doing this for my own pleasure and do not have to justify my method to anybody. I am keen follower of you blog and like your artwork a lot!

    James G. Skone
    Vienna, Austria

    • James- Sketching on belay takes it to a whole new level! You would be amazed at how wonky my initial pen sketches are. But, as you say, they are sort of charming and I can tighten up as I progress with color. As for cheating– I think of it this way: you’ve got a variety of tools in your toolbox, use them to your advantage. There’s no right and wrong way to do things. Make your own rules! Best, Jean

  3. thanks for the item inventory, if you can get such magic out of so little, I’m there…

  4. Sounds like a wonderful trip! Wondering the logistics — did you rent a vehicle to drive out, then fly home? Thank you so much for sharing your wonderful art!

    Greer Deneen 608.333.2101


  5. Beautiful sketches! I love how you chronicle your adventures. I especially like your choice of script. The style fits. That’s something that leaves me in a quandary when I’m done with a sketch. Love the numbers page. But I love them all, really.

    • I seem to have a couple of “go to” font styles and then I look for something to add from the place. There were a number of “Western” fonts on signs/billboards so I chose one for the map.

  6. Stunning work and thank you for sharing! Could you write a post on materials you use? I love the pairing down idea. Thank you, Michele Quigley


  7. Great tips Jean. The ziploc idea is genius. I always carry a separate sketch bag but this made me realize I need to get things down to an even smaller kit.

    • I sometimes carry a separate sketch bag, but the Ziploc ensures that my journal will stay dry in case of a water spill or rain. You can also just pull out the Ziploc and carry fewer supplies when heading into a museum or on a hike or whenever you have to lighten up even more.

  8. Thank you very much. I read this from the viewpoint of a photographer and I found that, other than the equipment involved, everything else seems to apply. I love all of the sketches, but the spread on the page that begins with Bryce to Barstow especially speaks to me.

  9. Excellent tips for those of us who travel a lot. I always seem to take more stuff than I think I need or want on my trips. Or even weekend local urban sketchers meetups tend to be overkill on the equipment that I take with me. I have a fear of leaving an important item behind. Again thank you for your timely tips, I appreciate them.

    • You’re welcome Rene. I left bigger brushes at home on this trip and really missed them. It was hard to get a decent large wash with paint that dried as soon as I put it down. Still, I’d rather travel light and be nimble.

  10. Jean, I always look forward to your posts and all that I am learning from you. Finding the time to sketch during a holiday is a huge challenge. Thanks so much for the tips. I will continue to try…I’m making progress.

  11. Excellent tips (Michael’s right, of course)! I love that you quoted Terry Tempest Williams. And you saw a Dipper – cool! Your desert night sky is magical…it’s all making me long for the desert. I spent time around Torrey, which you almost went through (it’s south of Loa) about 17 years ago and I still long to return. Thanks for reminding me of the beauty.

    • Oh…you’ve got to go back. It had been MANY years for me and returning to that landscape was just so great. Yes on Terry Tempest Williams– a perfect choice for Utah, and Yes- the dipper was cool. Hadn’t seen one before.

      • My partner found a dipper on a trip some years ago and I gave him a very hard time about it – he’s not a long-time birder like I am, so it killed me that I’d wanted to see this bird for years that he hardly knew about. He tried to get my attention but I was busy taking pictures. So funny!) Seriously though, thanks for the encouragement to return. That would be good. 🙂

  12. Pingback: Two days in New York: tips for quick travel sketches | The Sketchbook

    • Hi Pam- I’ve been drawing since I was a child. I find that keeping an artist journal is a way for me to not only practice and grow my skills, but record my experiences, connections, and learning. I love having everything in one place in a book format, and I love having a format that is entirely portable.

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