The Art of Keeping a Travel Sketchbook

I could eat a Cinnabon. I could read a James Patterson novel. I could buy a souvenir shot glass. But the most valuable way to use up the hours I spend in airports is to draw what’s around me. Planes being refueled, luggage being loaded, people slumbering—they’re transformed from tedious to fascinating when I have a pen in my hand. Often, when my flight is called, I’m actually disappointed if I still have lines to add to my sketch of the magazine stand or the businessman hunkered over his laptop. Everything around me is fresh and beautiful because I’m drawing it, seeing it truly for the first time.  Keeping an illustrated travel journal enhances your trip and opens your mind. And once you return from your trip, your mind remains full of wonder. A quick flip through your journal’s pages keeps those memories alive.

Below, you will find a collection of tips excerpted from my book An Illustrated Journey, which incorporates travel sketchbooks and insights from a group of travelers. They are a diverse bunch with a common goal: to see the world through their own eyes, whether it be a Burmese temple, a Tuscan palazzo, or the parking lot of the local Costco. They want to stop and drink it in, refresh their eyes and minds, dismiss preconceptions and replace them with wonder. Try these tips the next time you travel anywhere, across the ocean or the county line. Pack a travel sketchbook and a pen and discover for yourself how making art can open your eyes and deepen your experience. 

Travel Sketch by Fabio Consoli

Travel Sketch by Fabio Consoli

1. CAPTURE A MULTISENSORY EXPERIENCE

Fabio Consoli (www.fabioconsoli.com): Drawing facilitates contact with reality and creates a strong bond with places. The stronger the emotion, the deeper it will be remembered in your mind. Because drawing generates intense emotions, the link with places where it was made is even stronger. When I look at an old notebook full of drawings I made in Madagascar, I’m almost able to smell the aroma of Africa. I like to imprint smells in my notebooks; this is why I often use food or fruits like coffee, wine, soy sauce, some fresh herbs, berries or tomatoes for coloring. In this way, even for a short time, I can infuse the smells into my drawings.

2. CATALOG THE UNKNOWN

Cathy Johnson (www.cathyjohnson.info): I believe my travel journal is always a tool for discovery, on the road or at home. Especially when I get nose-to-nose with something, like an unusual mushroom, insect or fossil. When I find an insect nest I don’t recognize, for instance, sketching it fixes it in my mind to compare with a book, online source or to take to an expert in the field.

3. ENLIVEN THE MUNDANE

Lapin (www.lesillustrationsdelapin.com): Since the age of 20, I have never traveled without sketching. For my very first travel sketchbooks, I went alone to Egypt, Mexico and Vietnam. During those travels, I realized something important: That I need nothing more than a sketchbook, watercolor, ink pen and a bottle of water in order to survive. Most of the time, my sketchbook serves to organize my schedule and may provoke some unexpected meetings. Sketching also is a key way to create an easy connection with the people around me. While I sit on the floor sketching, people will spend time talking to me, and when I propose to draw their portrait, they will tell me so many things about their lives, sometimes very personal stuff. I like to write down some of what they’ve shared with me.

4. CREATE A DAILY HABIT

Lisa Cheney-Jorgensen (www.lisacheneyjorgensen.blogspot.com): Buy a sketchbook and begin drawing in it every day, even if the picture is just a little something. Take the book with you everywhere you go, and draw in it instead of flipping through magazines at doctors’ appointments or waiting for your kids to finish up soccer practice or during lunch breaks. Don’t judge the outcome, just put pencil or pen to paper. Make sure you work in your book every day until it becomes a habit that you look forward to. There will come a day when you don’t even have to think about it and your authentic voice will emerge on the page before you.

5. DISCOVER THE UNSEEN DETAILS

Jean-Christophe Defline (www.flinflins.com): Drawing things pushes you to analyze details and understand why life is different here. It tells you a lot of things you wouldn’t even notice at a simple glance or with a snapshot. If you are drawing a rickshaw, you’ll see that under different layers of blue paint an old rusted framework hides. You’ll notice the handcrafted old wooden pedals, the patched hood and the worn towel on the handle bar to wipe sweat. You immediately understand how much love and effort are needed to run this heavy engine on a daily basis. Drawing also is a superior experience because you can get rid of unaesthetic details or restore things as no camera could do, depicting scenes from impossible perspectives.

6. SWITCH IT UP

Hannah Hinchman: When I’m working on a project for publication, I concentrate on one medium, like watercolor, because it takes a while to get up to speed with a particular set of tools. The journal is the opposite. I never know what will be the right tool to grab—colored pencils, pen and ink, pastel pencils, brush-pen—until the moment is at hand and the impulse arrives. I like to push the pages in the journal—overdo it, lay it on, make it work.

7. DRAW FROM LIFE

Lucinda Rogers (www.lucindarogers.co.uk): My principal way of working is to draw from life, taking inspiration from what I see around me. A travel sketchbook taken alongside is a chance to do the most immediate and spontaneous work and is something to refer back to for memories and ideas. In all my more substantial drawings, I try to keep the looseness and spirit of inquiry of a sketchbook journal.

8. BE RESOURCEFUL

Felix Scheinberger (www.felixscheinberger.de): My sketchbooks are always small, and I take the minimal amount of drawing materials with me, just the basics: fine liners and a small palette of watercolors. One also can use things one finds; coloring with coffee, red wine or fruit juice can be a lot of fun, and the result is always unique. I also like to use things I find such as bus tickets or restaurant receipts. And my material is never expensive. I don’t want to worry about making mistakes or being wasteful. I like mistakes. Some can lead you in completely new directions.

Travel Sketch by Pete Scully

Travel Sketch by Pete Scully

9. KEEP YOUR EYES WIDE OPEN

Pete Scully (www.petescully.com): I like to focus on the character of any place I visit, something that represents it more than just the usual sights. I think things can generally look more interesting if they are drawn, because you get the human rather than the digital-camera version of events. The point is to capture the experience of travel itself, but the temptation is to draw the sights. If you have wanted to go to Paris your entire life, do you feel like you’ve cheated yourself if you don’t draw the Eiffel Tower at least once? Or do you focus on that cute little bakery hidden away behind your hotel, or the street signs, or the entrance to the Metro, or the old man sitting outside the café? All of these things say Paris, so you don’t have to leave them out in favor of the sights.

10. DON’T JUDGE YOURSELF

Bryce Wymer (www.brycewymer.com): Working in a sketchbook or writing in a journal is a physical and mental exercise. It’s not necessarily meant to be hung on a wall or handled with white gloves. It’s one of those rare places in this world where on one page you can totally geek out and experiment with abstraction and on the next page you can work through a refined portrait where there will undoubtedly always be something wrong with the nose.


IllusJournDanny Gregory is the author of several successful books on creativity including An Illustrated Life and The Creative License. For more inspiring advice for keeping a travel sketchbook, check out An Illustrated Journey by Danny Gregory. Available now at MyDesignShop.

COMMENT