Sketching Your Travels

“A travel sketchbook lets you keep memories,” says artist Betty Lynch. “You remember more?the smell of a flower market, the taste of a cafe dinner?when you sketch your memories than you ever can by merely photographing the scene.” Lynch should know. The Midland, Texas, artist has been sketching her travel experiences for 30 years, and has filled more than 30 journals with her artwork.

I’ve found that this type of memory book can provide you with a place to observe, record and think. And when you take the time to look at something in order to sketch it, you “own” it in a far deeper way, and thus remember it in more detail, than you ever can by photographing it. The human eye sees in a different way than the camera does.

Of course, I’m not here to advocate that you shouldn’t take photos on your vacation. (I’m a complete photo fiend, and my friends and family members long ago adjusted to the fact that while on a trip, I’m going to make them pose in front of or on some unusual spot or monument.) In fact, leaving space to later add your photos into a sketchbook can immeasurably add to its memory power.

Overcoming Your Fear of Drawing
As the editor of an art magazine, I know that drawing is intimidating for many successful artists, let alone all the rest of us who didn’t go to art school. But even if you’re a person who’s fond of saying that you can’t draw a straight line, you can sketch your travel memories.

Artist Linda Gunn of Long Beach, California, has helped hundreds of students in her painting and sketching classes get over their fear of drawing. “In your travels, start by collecting brochures, photos and postcards of scenes you like in the area you’re visiting. Bring them back to your hotel room, then choose one to begin with. Hold the picture up to a light-filled window, then place a sheet of tracing paper on top of it. Next use a pencil to trace the basic outline of the scene onto the paper,” says Gunn.

You can now sketch a copy of this drawing directly into your sketchbook. Or, if you’re still not feeling secure in your sketching skills, cover the back side of your tracing with a solid layer of pencil. Then place the tracing paper graphite-side-down in your journal, going over the basic lines of your design. Lift up your tracing, and voilà you’ll find a copy of your scene. You can then darken the pencil lines of your drawing, and even add a bit of color using colored pencils or watercolors.

In addition to making it easier for you to capture your visual memories with a pencil or pen, beginning to sketch via tracing has other benefits. “Tracing will help improve your hand-eye coordination,” says Gunn. “If you practice before you leave on a trip, for instance, tracing one scene a day, you’ll reach a time when you don’t need to trace anymore. You’ll be able to sketch the scene on your own. A sketch is like a play rehearsal. The more you practice, the better the performance.”

Overall, this method allows you to record your perceptions of a place in words while you’re still there, leaving room for the sketches you’ll add later. And you can also glue in other memory triggers, including ticket stubs, restaurant menus, train tickets and more.

Sketching Pointers
If you feel ready to try sketching on location, Gunn recommends that you spend one hour writing about the scene in front of you. Describe what you see in a harbor, for instance, from the seagulls to the boats to the docks to the ropes. Typically, Gunn says that writing about a scene helps you begin to home in on what specifically attracts you to it. Then take a few photos of that aspect and, last, draw it. Use your sketches to “capture the moment, the mood, the memories.”

Lynch also advocates writing before sketching. When she first began journaling about her travel adventures, Lynch filled her pages with writing. As she traveled more, she found that once she’d written about a place, it became easier to sketch it. “My beginning sketchbooks looked like a kindergarten primer,” says Lynch. But the drawing got better. She likes to tell the students who take her sketching and watercolor workshops: “As you work, you learn. As you learn, you improve. As you improve, you’ll like it more.”

Another option that Gunn recommends is to jot down notes about where the light is hitting your subject while you’re taking notes about the scene. Describe what direction the sun is coming from or what colors form the sunset. You can use your notes to later add the sunlight and shadow colors to the sketch, thus enhancing its realism.

If you’re still having trouble deciding what to draw, sit back and watch the scene around you for a while, recommends Lynch. Let just a piece of something attract you—a hat on a person, or the color of the ocean. Then make a sketch of that simple aspect. “Keep in mind that it’s hard to reproduce a three-dimensional scene on two-dimensional paper,” says Lynch. “Just do your own thing with reality. It will get easier.”

Tools of the Sketching Trade
Both Lynch and Gunn use a hardcover, side-bound sketchbook for their travel journals. When you’re beginning, however, you may find that a spiral-bound hardcover style is easier to work with since you can turn back the pages. Gunn works on a 140-lb. pad so she can use watercolor paints without fearing that her paper will warp. “But ultimately, you can use rough, smooth or handmade paper, whatever best suits you,” says Gunn. For sketching, she uses a Uniball fine-ball pen. “The fine is better for getting details, but you may also want to experiment with some other sizes to get different effects in your drawings.”

For beginners, Gunn recommends using a No. 2 pencil. “If you use a pencil that’s too soft in your journal, it smears,” she says. “If you use a pencil that’s too hard, you won’t be able to see it.” You can get a pocket set of travel watercolors if you want to add color to your drawings. These sets typically come with a small, extendable paintbrush as well as a palette for mixing your colors on. If you prefer a drier drawing medium to work with, try colored pencils. If you would like the best of both worlds, experiment with some of the watercolor pencils. You can use these “dry” like colored pencil. Or, you can dip the tip in water and the pencil behaves more like watercolor.

Adding Pictures to Your Stories
Any way you do it, sketching your vacation memories will provide you with an insightful and inspiring way to remember your trip. “I can look and read through all my journals and immediately be transported back through my life,” says Gunn. “They’re a part of you that you can share with friends and family, and even future generations.

“On top of this, each of us in our daily journey has noticed the magic of life,” says Gunn. “A sketchbook will help you capture that special moment; thus adding magic to your own life.”

See also:

Travel Journaling Supplies

Raised on the prairies of eastern Colorado, Michael Ome Untiedt says he comes from an Old Western family of carpenters, ranchers, farmers, truck drivers, rounders, churchgoers and ne’er-do-wells. Though now working in oils, he studied watermedia at the University of Denver and at Denver Art Students League with Buffalo Kaplinski. He lives in Denver and travels extensively for landscape inspiration. His work is represented in Denver by Third Canyon Gallery; in New Mexico by Ray Tracey Gallery (Santa Fe) and Act I Gallery (Taos); in Arizona by Heritage Gallery (Scottsdale) and El Presidio Gallery (Tucson); and by Howard Portnoy Gallerie in Carmel, California. He’s scheduled to teach eight-day workshops on the Beara Peninsula in County Cork, Ireland, in September/October 2002.

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