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

Great Western Road Trip- Part 1

Big skies, vast landscapes, towering rocks carved by water, wind and time. The American West is a place like no other on the continent. Under the guise of driving our son from a summer internship in Boulder, Colorado, to his senior year of college in Pasadena, California, my family took to the open road last week for a Great Western Road Trip. Along the way, we hiked the western slopes of the Rocky Mountains and explored Arches, Canyonlands and Bryce Canyon National Parks in Utah. And then we drove out of those untamed spaces and into the sprawl of freeways in southern California before flying back east.

In the words of John James Audubon, “I wish I could draw it all.” Alas, with so much hiking and driving, it was hard to find the time; I still have several pages to finish. So here is part one. Stay tuned for the next installment with my top tips for travel sketching.

 

Switching it up

My go-to artist materials are watercolor and ink, so I enjoyed switching it up this week by using colored pencils. I started with pears during an artist’s “Sip & Draw” with master botanical illustrator Wendy Hollender. Wendy often starts with a single colored pencil to develop the basic form and values and then applies layers of watercolor and colored pencil to further develop her subjects. You can see some of this process below, where I left some leaves and pears unfinished (click to view larger).

In this second piece, I used a single burnt sienna colored pencil for the entire nest. I started with the inner part of the nest to develop the darkest values and worked my way outward to build the form. I like the ghostly quality that came from blowing out some of the lightest tones.

Tips and Techniques– If you are feeling stuck or looking to expand your repertoire of techniques, try a new artist medium. It may broaden your thinking and your skill set or give you new ideas to incorporate into your artwork.

Leave the Light On

While its customary to leave an outside light on at night for family or guests who are arriving late, I have taken to leaving a light on for an entirely different sort of guest. Each morning I am eager to discover who has come in the night to hang out on our back porch. We have had some exceptional visitors this week and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting to know who else lives in my neck of the woods.

Tips and Techniques– One of my goals with these moths was not to fuss too much, which is easy to do when faced with such detailed markings. I try to capture each moth with about three passes:

  1. I lay in the shape and “ground” color first with a wet wash, typically using two colors to get some variation. I begin directly with paint, rather than drawing first. I find that I can capture the basic shape this way with much greater speed. While one moth is drying, I start another and rotate among them.
  2. Next, I start to delineate the wings from the body and add the primary pattern of markings. The paint is less wet on this pass.
  3. On the third go around, I use a very dry brush to add remaining details. The antennae are last, as is identifying and labeling each one. This technique worked for all but the Polyphemus moth, which is ridiculously complex and took far more time than the others.

Sound Advice

A pop of red amidst a tangle of greens, scarlet runner beans wind their way to the top of the garden trellis, sending flowers to the sun and beans drooping toward the ground. Just a few months ago, they were a mere handful of purple and black streaked seeds. Now, they dare you to imagine that they were ever anything other than extraordinary. And so, I think that writer Robert Brault is onto something: If you’ve never experienced the joy of accomplishing more than you can imagine, plant a garden.
(Click to view larger.)
Scarlet Runner Beans

Tips and Techniques: Sometimes, the composition of a piece is sitting right in front of you, and sometimes you have do a bit of rearranging to make it work. I saw the central elements of this piece—the three main dangling beans and the diagonal vine with red flowers on the left side of the page—right on the trellis. But I needed to add flowers, leaves, beans and tendrils from several different runner beans to complete the composition. As an artist, don’t feel that you need to draw exactly (or only) what is in front of you. Give yourself creative latitude to move things around or eliminate something to create a stronger composition.

Traveling Light

Last weekend, I competed a 100-mile cycling trip along the Erie Canal in Western New York. My husband and I, and three other couples, began in Tonawanda near Buffalo and headed east, ending a bit past Rochester. The off-road Canalway Trail follows alongside the canal, and there are quaint villages and impressive locks, bridges, and other canal structures to see along the way.

I made a small accordion-fold journal (4.5″ x 4″) that tucked into my bike bag so that I could record highlights of the journey. The long, horizontal format of the journal lends itself well to capturing a sense of the linear trail. Unfortunately, that format is not so good for showing here, so I separated the pages to give you a better view. (Click to view larger.)



Tips and Techniques– Truth be told, I find it very difficult to make time for sketching with a lot of miles to cover. I tend to make a few notes as I go, and sketch at the end of each day, using photos to fill in the gaps. The end result is a bit of a jumble, but it’s fun to look back later and see some of the small things that photos can’t capture. If you are traveling, try not to worry about making perfectly beautiful pages or filling a big sketchbook. A few small sketches and notes might be just enough to bring back your most memorable experiences.

Glory Days

These are the days we long for in the dead of winter: light-filled, warm, colorful, vibrant. Glorious.

This painting began last fall when I had the idea to build an Art Garden in our yard. I didn’t want a garden that I would spent a lot of time working in, as much as a place I would enjoy being in. My chief criteria for what goes in the ground is that it must be something I want to paint. This has turned out to be an eclectic mix of vegetables and flowers—beets, radishes, and tomatoes are at home with sweet peas, poppies, scarlet runner beans, and sunflowers. Something new unfolds each week. And as you can see, it’s a pretty colorful place right now.

Tips and Techniques– I started by drawing zinnias and a few sweet peas but, after adding color, I quickly decided that the page was much too sparse. After all, August is all about abundance. So I went back and added more and more until the page was crowded with flowers. The lesson here is not to be afraid to pause when sketching to consider what drew you in and whether you have captured it. It may be a something particular about your subject or it could be a mood or feeling. Once you’ve got that in mind, finishing the drawing, or adding color or text often flows with ease.