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Illustrated Travel Journals: Your Next Creative Adventure

An illustrated travel journal is a wonderful way to capture the story of your adventures in both words and pictures.

By Brenda Swenson

Vernazza, Italy (8 1⁄2×11): This page captures a wonderful memory of the week I spent in Cinque Terre, hiking from one village to the next and sketching along the way. I learned that a terrible flood swept through this village a few months later.

A travel journal is a book of writings about your adventures out and about. Here, artist Brenda Swenson  proposes you take your travel journal up a notch by adding illustrations and sketches of your experiences abroad. She shares her approach, her sketching supplies, a handful of examples from her adventures, and more. Bon voyage!

A Memory of Place

There’s an excitement to sketching on location that’s different than working from photos in my studio. I enjoy being surrounded by the history, culture, and sounds of a place. And, when I take the time to record a scene within the pages of my sketchbook, something happens that touches my heart. The moment becomes a part of me — a memory of a place and time that I’ll carry all of my days.

By merging both images and words on a page, an illustrated travel journal allows me to tell an even bigger story. The pages contain the ups and downs of travel. I feel free to express myself. And, by commit- ting to the practice, my illustrated journals allow me to see tangible growth within the pages.

Whether my travel adventure consists of a short weekend up the coast or several weeks in a distant land, I travel to see, to experience and to explore the world — one sketch at a time. My travel journals are precious reminders of places I’ve been and my experiences along the way.

Costa Brava (10×16): This page conjures tasty memories of my time in Catalonia in northeastern Spain where we enjoyed tapas—the name for the snacks, canapés or small plates, which originated in Spain.

Sketching on the Go

As a workshop instructor, I travel frequently throughout the United States, and once a year I take a group of workshop students to Europe. Before I’m scheduled to teach, I like to spend a few days exploring and sketching the location on my own. I love the experience of seeing a place for the first time; the feeling of excitement is tangible. I’ll sketch anything that catches my eye: street scenes, people, open markets, cathedrals, my lunch at a café, the interior of a church. I might walk eight or more miles in a day and make multiple sketches.

I’ve learned that before I start a sketch, I need to consider how much time is available. That way I can keep my expectations realistic as to what’s possible to start and finish. If I don’t, I know that I’ll become frustrated and feel my skills are lacking, when, in fact, I simply didn’t allow myself enough time.

Oppede, France (11×10): This sketch is a montage of images drawn on a page to tell a bigger story. The words become part of the design of the page.

Look Longer

So, my first step when arriving at a location is to walk around for a few minutes to get a sense of the place. When I find a subject that really excites me — maybe the light or the shadows, or a particularly impressive view — I begin to sketch.

Most of the time I sketch in ink; I love the look of a solid, committed line. When I’m using ink, I tend to look longer and draw with a greater sense of understanding. I sometimes use pencil, but a pen drawing feels more like a complete thought to me.

I’m not against photography, and I still take photos when I’m traveling. It’s important to have reference photos for painting architectural details, light, shadows, and signage. Also, when I’m working on-site, I never know when something might block my view, or whether I’ll be chased off or rained out. But when I’m able to make a sketch, I know I’ll never forget what I saw. The image will be forever ingrained in my mind.

Poble Espanyol, Barcelona (8 1⁄2×11): This Spanish Village Museum featured architectural influences of Barcelona.

Make a Note of It

You may not consider yourself a “writer,” but you don’t have to be a wordsmith. We all have something to say, and there are easy ways to jumpstart journaling. Because our senses are great for awakening a memory, for example, I’ll often make a note of a certain smell or sound, or other sensation. It might be the smell of bread baking or cut grass, the feel of the warm sun or a cold wind, the noise of leaf blowers or the sound of church bells ringing. When I re-read my notes, it engages my senses as if I’m right there in the moment.

Keep in mind that the words you put down on the sketchbook page can act as both an informative element and a creative one. I may use them as a design element — to tie multiple images together, to balance a page, to serve as a page heading, and even to cover a mistake!

Write at Night

When I’m traveling, I do my sketching and painting during the day, and leave my writing for the evening, when sketching is less practical. I keep an envelope in the back of my sketchbook for ticket stubs and receipts I collect during the day. I’ve learned that these items provide helpful details later, when I sit down to write.

Yes, you’ll find that these two practices — painting and writing — require different parts of the brain. I’m notorious for spelling things wrong, for instance, but I like to recall what a friend once said: “Only a boring mind can think of only one way to spell a word.”

Travel Journal: Inspiration Now, Inspiration Later

Prague Journal (8 1⁄2×11): I spent a week in Prague, the capital city of the Czech Republic, before meeting up with artist friends and traveling on to Germany. I did 58 sketches during the three weeks I was in Prague and Germany.
A photograph of Prague with the Church of St. Nicholas in the center.
Prague (watercolor on paper, 15×11): My sketchbooks are an endless source of inspiration. This is an example of one of many paintings inspired by sketches from my journals. The photos I take during my travels supply additional information about lighting and architectural details.

Travel Journal: On a Sketching Mission

Of the 21 historic missions in California, built between 1769 and 1823, I’ve sketched 17. One of my favorites is the historic Santa Barbara Mission, founded in 1786. The white stucco buildings with red-tile roofs reflect the Spanish colonial heritage of this small coastal city. The beautiful facade, a blend of Roman and mission architectural styles, has earned it the name, “Queen of the Missions.” I made the sketch below from a large park directly across the street from the mission. Instead of having the building dominate the sketch, I placed roses high in the foreground, pushing the building into the distance. I also wanted the sketch to look softer, to reflect the beautiful soft light of the day. To get the effect, I used Pilot Iroshizuku Fuyu-syogun, a light gray bottled ink.
I sketched Santa Barbara Mission in a Stillman & Birn 8 1⁄2×11-inch Beta Series sketchbook.


Create Something for Yourself

My travel journals are stitch-bound, which makes it impossible to remove a page without destroying the book. Someone once told me it was a shame that I couldn’t sell my journal. I was surprised. To this person, the artwork needed to be for sale to be of value. But my sketchbooks and illustrated journals are of value to me for so many reasons. Whereas my paintings are me all dressed up and on my best behavior, my sketches are me when I’m alone or with a trusted friend — relaxed, playful, and vulnerable.

Although it’s not possible to relive that initial moment of discovery when experiencing a new city or country for the first time, I do have an entire bookcase filled with sketchbooks and illustrated journals that can stir my memories. I treasure these books. To me they’re priceless. And truly, what’s the purpose of art if it doesn’t feed the soul of the one who created it?

So, give yourself permission to create, even if the creation is something no one else will see.

Sketch Supplies:

  • SKETCH BAG: I use a canvas rigger bag.
  • PALETTE: A folding palette box with 18 wells works for me.
  • PAINTS: I use the following watercolors (Daniel Smith unless otherwise noted): Hansa yellow medium, raw sienna (Winsor & Newton), quinacridone gold, permanent yellow deep, anthraquinoid scarlet, quinacridone burnt orange, permanent alizarin crimson, quinacridone rose, burnt sienna (Winsor & Newton), imperial purple, French ultramarine, cobalt blue, manganese blue hue, phthalo blue GS, cobalt teal blue, green gold, phthalo turquoise, phthalo green (blue shade) and lunar black
  • BRUSHES: Da Vinci natural and synthetic rounds, sizes 6 to 14; Da Vinci Series 5080 flats, size 20mm; and Miller’s 1.5 bold wash
  • SKETCHBOOK: I like a Stillman & Birn, Beta, stitch-bound, soft cover, in both a 8 1⁄2×5 1⁄2-inch size (which opens to 8 1⁄2 x11) and a 10×8-inch size (which opens to 10×16). Or, I make my own 11×10-inch sketchbook using Bockingford 140-lb. cold-pressed watercolor paper and/or drawing papers.
  • PENS: I like everything from disposable Faber-Castell Pitt pens to pricey fountain pens, for which I use both water-soluble and waterproof ink.
  • MISCELLANEOUS: Collapsible water bottle and bowl; sponge; spray bottle; cotton rag, paper towels rolled up; 2B mechanical pencils; and erasers

Meet the Artist

Artist and workshop teacher Brenda Swenson is the author of Keeping a Watercolor Sketchbook and Steps to Success in Watercolor (Artist’s Library). An active participant in the arts community, Swenson has served on the boards of directors for both National Watercolor Society and Watercolor West.

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