Travel Sketching: My thoughts and a few questions!

October 2, 2015 | 14 Comments


This week I am finalising the content for a three day workshop on Travel Sketching in Launceston Tasmania. I am very excited as it is the first time I have taught this material over three days and in the context of travelling – on previous occasions it has been only a one day workshop with at least half occurring inside from photos. This time it is all on-location and with the goal of recording a sense of place as well as cover ingdifferent types of sketching locations common when travelling – museums, streetscapes, city views, grand architecture, landscapes etc.


It has been really fun to put the content together for my workshop – to come straight off one course and shift gear significantly – to focus on the special requirements of travel sketching. For me, the big two factors of travel sketching is limited time and taking risks. When we travel it is often a once in a lifetime opportunity, we are incredibly inspired and more attuned to our surroundings. But we often have huge time constraints especially when travelling with others, so it is important to have some techniques that give us the confidence to go for it. I certainly find that every time I travel, I make significant progress in my work – something special happens – and I think it’s the result of this combination of inspiration and risk taking.


Most of you know that I love using watercolour pencils – not so much by themselves but in combination with ink and (especially) watercolour. I think they particularly come into their own when you travel as they make it so easy to record line AND colour ‘dry’ – you can then activate when you have time or leave as is. So for this workshop we are providing all the participants with a kit containing my selection of 10 colours – it was last night’s activity to pack the kits. You can read more about my approach to watercolour pencils here.


I have done a lot of travel sketching in the past 8 years. In 2010 I spent my 11 week ‘long service leave’ sketching in USA, UK and Italy, filling 8 sketchbooks in that period. This photos shows some of my early travel sketchbooks (up to 2011).


This is a photo from 2013 showing my travel sketchbook collection at the time… add over 15 to that for an idea of the latest number!

Apart from my style changing a lot over this period, my approach to filling a travel sketchbook has changed as well. I am much more serious about painting and use a larger book (A4 size moleskine). I have mentioned this previously, but the larger book has meant that I’ve been less likely to attempt a quick sketch, so my sketchbooks have become less journal-like. Another thing that has changed is that I rarely travel solo these days. During my first few trips I was travelling on my own a lot, occasionally meeting up with a friend along the way, but spending most evenings alone in my hotel room, providing valuable time to add notes and maps and finish my pages. This finishing takes a lot of time and is a big commitment whether you try to do it en-route or leave it till you get home!


I had a delightful time reading through my 2009 travel sketchbooks in preparation for this workshop. I loved all the notes and maps, and particularly my crazy list of the day’s moments. This trivia is SO much fun to read later. I would love to be able to do this again but need to carve out some solo time to do that – these days my trips are full of sketching meetups everywhere I go. I also blogged this trip extensively – see more here. It was a significant trip for me as I spent 4 weeks driving through the UK on my own, and I certainly felt like my sketchbook was my best friend travelling with me. So it seems if I want to revive this type of sketchbook I have to become a little more anti-social when I travel!


I know a lot of my readers will have already signed up for Marc Holmes’ new Craftsy course on Travel Sketching. I am saving it for a special treat when I get back from my trip and will be curious to see how many of our approaches are similar. I feel so grateful to have travelled with Marc and Laurel Holmes over the last five years before or after the USK symposiums and although we work differently, our styles, interests and time for sketching (or photography in Laurel’s case) work together so well – they are the best travel sketching companions! I know that the course is excellent – if you haven’t signed up find out more and get a discount here. I recently spent numerous days travel sketching with Marc and Laurel in Singapore before the symposium here and here. And in Cambodia here and here – there was a big group of sketchers but we were the last ones there and had a few days sketching together at the end… it is truly inspirational to sketch alongside Marc!


Anyway this week has made me focus more on the recording aspect of travel sketching – how to best record your experience of a place in quick sketches, notes and maps. I love maps – they do take extra time but every time I do one it seems that the parts fall into place and I get a much clearer understanding of place. Here is a map I did at the end of an afternoon prepping for a Travel Sketching Workshop last year in Lambton – more here.


Maps are also a great way to record the events of the day in a visual way, because as much as I try, there is really NO way that I can sketch every single moment of my particular travel day! Here is a map from a crazy day in Barcelona (after the USK Symposium in July 2013).


And here is one of my craziest days of sketching! This is a lot of sketching but so much more happened (including hours of driving) you can see some pictures here.


I have also loved basing the content for this workshop on my Foundations concepts and seeing how my three ways of seeing (Feeling Edges, Abstracting Shapes and Constructing Volumes) relate to different ways of working when travel sketching. I have also got new approaches that I haven’t taught before, bringing together what I have been doing over 8 years of travel sketching into a single concept and exercise.


It is very exciting to codify what I have developed over a period of time and now do instinctively. I don’t want to steal my own thunder for the sake of the Launceston workshop participants, but the concept of the VIP (Very Important Perpendicular) is becoming more important, especially as I am increasingly tackling complex streets in limited time frames! Actually, this was part of Edges, but I will be applying it in a new way to travel sketching.

The biggest tip I have for travel sketching is to start with your focus – another Foundations idea! The more I sketch, the more I realise how powerful this approach is!


And finally,  although I often travel alone or for the specific reason to sketch (ie. I am not hoping to sketch while traveling, I am travelling to sketch), I am often with friends and have very small windows of opportunities (5-10 minutes) in which to get something down on the page. Having strategies for making the most of these opportunities is what travel sketching is all about.

Ok.. this has turned into a long blog post… but I would LOVE to hear from you

– What you do want  your travel sketchbooks to be like?
– Are you happy to just do one or two sketches from one part of the day or do you want to record the whole trip in some way (some sketches, some notes, some maps, some collage?
– What are the biggest challenges you face when you try to sketch while you are travelling?

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14 Comments

  • Kerry Nowak - October 2, 2015 reply

    Great travel sketchbooks! My travel sketchbooks are scrapbooks, with sketches, boarding cards, maps, entrance tickets and restaurant bills. As I have always loved geographical coordinates, I add them too and the coat of arms or flag of the place I'm visiting!

  • Liz Steel - October 2, 2015 reply

    Hi Kerry- those are fantastic ideas - coat of arms and flags and the coordinates... ah!! so many different thing to record!

  • Randall Laue - October 2, 2015 reply

    I always keep signing up... I don't want to miss ANYTHING!!!

  • Carmela - October 2, 2015 reply

    Hi Liz--this was a nice summary of benefits and constraints to travel sketching. I, too, find that my sketches are a prized part of a trip. I almost always bring basic sketching gear, but often find that fatigue and weather can be problematic. I try to capture one scene on a trip, sometimes two. Usually I take a day off from walking/hiking and find something special to record. Traveling solo, or with a like minded sketching group, gives one more flexibility, I think. I just started a local sketching group, so maybe I'll find a sketching companion!

  • Kirk Whiteside - October 2, 2015 reply

    Enjoyed this post very much; much "scrap booking" in my travel journals with occasional sketches. Would like to see you offer an online "travel sketching" courses. Enjoyed both Foundations and Edges.

  • Cathy Dwyer - October 3, 2015 reply

    Hi Liz. I'm so happy to hear you plan to offer an online Travel Sketching course!

  • Cathy Dwyer - October 3, 2015 reply

    Hi Liz. I'm so happy to hear you plan to offer an online Travel Sketching course!

  • Liz Steel - October 3, 2015 reply

    And oh! I love the way you put your book together! I used to spend up to a year putting a photo album together after a big trip...
    A second book is a good idea as well....

  • Liz Steel - October 3, 2015 reply

    HI Tina, always great to get your comments. Photographers make the best non-sketching travel companions!
    As for experiencing vs sketching... I feel that I haven't fully experienced a place unless I sketch it. My sketch is recording my response to the place and connects me to it far more that just walking through it, or sitting observing. This feeling is part of my obsession with sketching every place... I wonder how to lessen this addiction!?!

  • Liz Steel - October 3, 2015 reply

    Thanks Kirk. I wish I was able to include more scrapbooking in my travel sketchbooks.
    As for an online course, well I plan to do it down the track and have the ideas formed now!

  • Liz Steel - October 3, 2015 reply

    great to hear your experiences Carmela... a travel sketching companion makes a HUGE difference - hope you can find one! All the best for your local sketching group

  • Liz Steel - October 3, 2015 reply

    thanks!

  • MiataGrrl - October 3, 2015 reply

    I really enjoy seeing your travel sketching process because it's obvious that it's important to you and you've given it a lot of thought. I'm lucky because Greg, as a photographer, is happy to leave me to sketch, and we meet up later, so having time is not really a problem. My conflict is that a part of me wants to document everything with a sketch, but I also think it's important to just experience things when traveling. So I try to balance sketching with simply experiencing. I write in a separate notebook, and that's also where I paste in ephemera -- I cherish that part, too. Finally the end of my process is when I bind the whole sketchbook together back at home. I cherish the whole process as part of traveling!

    Tina

  • Christine Kopet - October 15, 2015 reply

    Wow! so much great content in your blog..I would like my travel sketches to be part of the continuity of my other sketching so definitely using ink, some color pencil and watercolor, and words. The map idea sounds like such a great way to capture many memories of a place and experiences. And I really liked the use of the perpendicular in the Edges class so knowing more about that sounds exciting.

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