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.

 

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.

Transition

When I left Hog Island Audubon Camp, I stopped along the winding road that leads away from the coast and back into town. There is a glorious field of lupine along the roadside that I never have time to stop at when I am arriving. Even though the flowers had faded, I didn’t want to let them go. The seedpods and grasses shone in the morning sun. I wasn’t yet ready to leave. This page marks the transition from Maine to New York, from two weeks of immersion on the coast to the longing for it that always comes afterward.

Island Inspiration, Part 3- So Much to Paint

“Who can imagine my dear country’s dark woods, it’s vast Atlantic bays, it’s thousands of streams, lakes, and magnificent rivers? I wish that I could draw it all.”
–John James Audubon

I couldn’t agree more. During my art retreat on Hog Island in Maine I felt like I was hiking in the Cathedral of Nature. I was in awe of the island’s moss-carpeted forests, its milkweed fields alight with monarchs, and its waist-high ferns growing wherever storms had created openings to allow in more light. Osprey circled above the spruce spires, while hermit thrush, northern parula and black-throated green warblers echoed in the shadowy woods. I wished that I could draw it all.

Click any image to view larger.

Tips and Techniques– The greatest challenge to these paintings was undoubtedly mosquitoes. They own the Maine woods and bogs in summer. I stuck to sketching on trails close to the shore and had to skip drawing in the forest interior. The exception I made was to sketch in the bog. There, I worked directly in ink to capture the flowers and a few plants. Then I snapped a couple of photos and retreated to paint later in the comfort of my cabin. Some challenges are worth it.

Artist Weekend

Green Mountains, red barns, bucolic fields, covered bridges. Local crafts, craft beverages, specialty cheeses, abundant orchards. Vermont is close to perfect for artists. In addition to painting, my friends and I did a lot of eating during a recent “art weekend,” and so that is what you see here.
(Click to view larger)

Ireland- Part 4: Odds and Ends

As my days in Ireland transitioned from vacation to work, my time for sketching and painting moved to finishing pages and writing notes and impressions. I added color to unfinished sketches; listed birds we saw; recorded our highlights. Yet what struck me most throughout my travels was how open and unpretentious the people I met were. From cab drivers to businesspeople to the President of Ireland himself (yes, I did get to meet him*), people were kind, friendly, and open to making a personal connection. There’s no way to capture that in a sketchbook. Still, that intangible part of traveling stays with you long after towns and countryside and grand vistas fade.

Thanks for coming along for my Ireland adventures. I’m now back to the home front, where the ordinary and extraordinary happenings of my own backyard will once again fill the pages of my sketchbook.

 

Tips & Techniques- Carving Stone with Watercolor
I loved the artistry of medieval stone cutters and wanted to capture some of it in my sketchbook. I found that using watercolor to carve stone is a fantastic exercise in seeing values. I highly recommend trying it if getting a good range of lights to darks is tricky for you. I used just two colors—ultramarine blue and burnt sienna for the limestone. Picking a simple palette means you won’t get lost in color and will focus only on value to create your sculpture. Here’s what to do: Choose a stone sculpture and render it in pencil. Then put a loose watercolor wash over the entire thing, letting the colors blend on the paper. Let it dry. Next paint medium values using small graded washes. Right away, your painting will start to come to life. Last, add dark areas and shadows. You might need to adjust as you go, making areas darker or putting in a bit of detail, but part of the beauty of this exercise is keeping the relative simplicity of the stone cutter’s original work. (Click to view larger.)

 

*My travels in Ireland preceded my attending the World Canals Conference in Athlone. President Michael D. Higgins gave the closing address and I was invited to a special reception, representing the Erie Canal and New York State.

Ireland- Part 3

I was already tired of driving when we realized that we left our laptop in our first Airbnb, a two and a half hour trip in the opposite direction from our next destination. The detour meant nearly a full day in the car, including lunch (which, at least, had a view of the sea). Fortunately, we arrived in Cashel just in time to tag onto the last tour of the day at the Rock of Cashel. The growing darkness and slashing rain made the medieval castle with its enormous cathedral ruin feel imposing and empty, but it was the haunting call of jackdaws and rooks echoing off the walls that made the experience all the more extraordinary.  

The following day, I managed to sketch Hore Abbey before we set off once again—this time to the small town of Ballaghaderreen in County Roscommon, where my great grandmother was born. Through no trace remains of her house, nor the gravestones of her parents, it was moving to visit the gothic cathedral where her family attended Mass and to see the surrounding town and countryside that she and her siblings left behind forever in the late 1800s.

Tips and Techniques– Sometimes you won’t have time to sketch or paint all of the things you want to while traveling. Take a few photos, but I recommend that you not leave them for long, or you may never get back to painting them. Such was the case for me with the Hall of the Vicars Choral at the Rock of Cashel. I liked the carved angels overlooking the hall, but there was no way to capture them in the dark room and fast moving tour. I snapped a few photos, and began sketching and painting them on the airplane home. I had to give up when I spilled my water during some turbulence, but I was glad I had all the basics in place so I could finish easily at home.

Ireland, Part 2: Embrace the Weather

The weather in Ireland is notoriously changeable– sunny skies turn overcast and give way to misty rain within an hour’s time, and may just as quickly change back to clear blue, only to fill with rain again by day’s end. Unless, of course, it’s steadily raining, in which case, it will likely rain all day. This makes sketching in Ireland a bit of a challenge, but it also adds drama to already dramatic landscapes.

The sketch of Dunmore Head on the Dingle Peninsula is one of my favorites. I had seen this view in travel guides (in sun, of course), and its sheer cliffs, crashing surf, grazing sheep along the trail, and circling gannets made hiking here a grand experience. A break in the soaking fog gave me just enough time to put pen to paper.

We also had a stunningly beautiful morning in which to explore tide pools at White Strand beach just west of Cahersiveen Town on the Ring of Kerry. We saw all of these creatures (and more) but I didn’t paint them until later that day, indoors, when it was raining.

Tips and Techniques– If you are planning to sketch while traveling, jump in when something strikes you. Don’t wait for a better view or clearer skies. Don’t second guess whether the subject is worth it. Everything you put in your journal, no matter how small or seemingly mundane, adds something to the whole. I had a few moments of hesitation and regret the lost opportunities. Conversely, I’m glad I included small wildflowers and cups of tea and coffee, as these details would soon be lost if not recorded.

Ireland- Part 1

Two weeks ago, I flew to Ireland for the first time. I didn’t anticipate how profound it would feel to see the country my great grandmother left behind at age 16 for the promise of a better life in America. But as dawn broke from the airplane window and a patchwork of pastures spread out below, I saw connections stretching across miles and generations. The Irish lace that threaded through my childhood began here. It carried through my grandmother and great aunts; it spun stories, laid down values, forged friendships, and connected a large extended family.

Though I was traveling to Ireland for a conference and a week’s vacation, it felt like going home to a place I’d never been. My husband, son, and I spent our days exploring beaches and ruins, cities and towns, parks and cemeteries. It was an incredible journey. What follows is a first installment of sketches; I’ll post more in the coming days. Hope you enjoy the trip!

Tips and Techniques- The first rule of travel sketching is that there are no rules. Other than being committed to recording parts of your journey, you’re going to need to allow yourself maximum flexibility and a lot of room for sloppy, fast, imperfect sketches. I often drew on location and painted later. There was simply so much going on, so much to see, and so much time moving from place to place that there was rarely enough time for the kind of detailed and careful work that I prefer. I used both a graphic calligraphy pen and a size 03 Micron (both larger than I typically use) to try to restrict my tendency to fuss.