Friday, August 23, 2019

Travel Journal and In-Transit Bag

Travel journals I've used during the past couple decades.

A travel journal has been an integral part of each major trip I’ve taken during the past couple of decades. I’ve used a variety of sizes and formats depending on the duration of the trip and other factors. Their contents haven’t changed much over the years: The focus is still primarily on writing supplemented by ephemera, photos and, in recent years, sketches.

For several years I enjoyed using a pocket-size Rhodia notebook. Its sturdy faux leather hardcover is rugged enough for daily abuse (I tend to be rougher on notebooks when I travel compared to daily-carry at home), and its smooth, fountain-pen-friendly paper is a joy to use with any implement. The pocket inside the back cover stores ephemera.

For the Netherlands, I went back to a trusty Rhodia.
Last year when I went to Portugal, I tried a Field Notes Signature notebook instead. Although I questioned whether the paper cover would hold up well (it did, and very well, in fact), the larger page size appealed to me. While I did enjoy having more space for larger ticket stubs and other ephemera, ultimately the Signature was too small in a different way: not enough pages. I ran out the last few days of the trip and had to supplement with the backs of receipts that I taped into the back afterwards. For my trip to the Netherlands this year, I switched back to a Rhodia.

Since I always have my primary A5-size sketchbook with me, I don’t sketch much in the travel journal, but it does serve a few specific sketching needs:

  • While in transit, I don’t like to pull my full daily-carry Rickshaw bag out of my under-seat backpack (which also contains other travel essentials). The travel journal, though, is easily accessible in my small in-transit bag (for lack of a better term; more on that later), along with a few drawing implements. When I’m on the light rail train or waiting at the airport, for example, it’s an easy grab.

    Dude on the light rail train.
  •  I like making quick sketches of our beverages while we wait for our meals. (I rarely sketch my food, however; photos document that.) The pocket-size Rhodia is discreet and handy when I don’t have much space on the table.

  • Sometimes the little notebook is what I happen to have at hand – literally. Walking through the botanical garden in Amsterdam, I suddenly spotted a heron – “Adam,” the symposium mascot – and sketching one had been a personal goal for the trip. Afraid that Adam would fly off if I delayed, I quickly sketched in the journal with the ballpoint I had been writing with. (It turned out that Adam was in no hurry, so I had plenty of time to make a more leisurely sketch later.)

Beverages documented . . .
. . . and Adam sketched at last!

Writing takes up the bulk of the pages. In addition to making observations and reflections while traveling, I start making notes in the travel journal as soon as I’ve committed to take the trip. For example, I note the price of our airfare, addresses and dates of accommodations, currency exchange rate, tips from Rick Steves, and attractions we might want to see. (I also keep the same information in OneNote, so it’s available on my phone, too, but I can’t tell you how many times it has been easier to simply flip open my notebook to find a bit of information instead of tapping on my phone in the middle of a busy sidewalk, hoping for a strong signal. Hooray for analog!) For a complicated itinerary with multiple cities, I also include a small map and calendar.

I also start a glossary of simple phrases I want to be able to say in the language of the country I’m visiting and names of foods I want to try (or avoid). After listening to the words on a language app, I jot pronunciation guides so that I have a chance of being understood. As I learn new words during the trip, I jot them down.

Years later when I thumb through my travel journals, things I’ve glued in are among the most fun to look at again – ticket stubs, Sprocket-printed photos, a bit of a napkin with a cafĂ© logo. Each item evokes a time and place and gives me an opportunity to relive it.

Bus ticket stub

A handy place for a sticker and related note.

In the evenings in our hotel room, I review the photos I've taken
that day and print just a few of the most memorable moments.

 In addition to a travel journal, the second essential element to my overall travel kit is what I call my in-transit bag. For several years I used a mini-size Rickshaw Zero Messenger Bag – a smaller version of my daily-carry Rickshaw – in a classy-looking herringbone fabric. The last time Rickshaw had a sale, I sprang for a second mini bag, this time in a bright red waterproof fabric, that I took to Holland. It doesn’t look much smaller than the daily-carry purple bag from the front, but from the side, you can see that it has a much slimmer profile.
Purple daily-carry in the "small" size; waterproof red in the "mini" size.

The photo below shows everything I typically carry in it (not shown: phone and passport). Note the purple pen case that holds four implements. It’s a Rickshaw Clover Pen Sleeve. Like the Tran Portfolio case I use for colored pencils, the sleeve keeps my few pens and pencils upright and easy to find. This bag is used during transit only; once I reach my destination, its contents go back into my daily-carry. 

Creature comforts and entertainment for the long flight.

Before I buckle up, I grab my Kindle and this bag, and I’m good to go. With these essentials by my side throughout the flight or ride, I rarely need to rummage through my carry-on backpack or roller bag. Accessibility is especially handy if whoever is sitting next to me is asleep or my seat-back tray is down. (Remember that time you were about to start eating dinner, and the infant behind you started howling – but your ear plugs were in your bag tucked away under your seat-back tray? Yeah – me, too.)

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Piano at Phinney Park

8/16/19 Alexander Olsen performing at Phinney Park

A few years ago, I had fun sketching Pianos in the Parks, an annual summertime event in Seattle neighborhoods. Then it fell off my radar, and I forgot about it. A chance glance at a newspaper photo last week reminded me that the program was still going on. In addition to the usual art – local artists paint or otherwise decorate the heavily used, donated pianos – the program now includes scheduled concerts by local pianists.

I decided to check out the concert at Phinney Park last Friday. The noontime concert was lightly attended (OK, I was the only audience member for most of it), but I thoroughly enjoyed Alexander Olsen’s lively mix of jazz, jazzed-up Beatles tunes and other classics. He said that the piano had a few “dead spots,” but he didn’t mind, and I didn’t notice.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Trash Day Musings

8/15/19 Maple Leaf neighborhood

Recently on Facebook, artist and urban sketcher Laurie Wigham posted some paintings she had made in Italy. One of a lovely church included several dumpsters in the foreground. Laurie wrote, “Should I have edited out the dumpsters from the painting of this beautiful 11th Century church in Bellagio? I thought about it, but it seems to me that the dumpsters, messy palm trees and motor scooter are all part of the building’s existence in this time, this place. To present it in a glowing antique mist would be a lie, or at least not the story I’m interested in telling.”

I was reminded of a painting a local sketcher had made of a historic building in downtown Seattle last month. Several of us had sketched the same building that day (you can see mine here), but something was missing from his sketch: a construction crane that was prominently standing behind it. This was no oversight; he and I had even talked about the crane as we sketched side by side. (I had laughed about how it had rotated just as I was trying to draw it.) It was clear that he had made a conscious choice to omit it.

Parts 3 and 4 of the Urban Sketchers Manifesto are the following:

Our drawings are a record of time and place.
We are truthful to the scenes we witness.

As a journalist, the writer of the USk Manifesto, Gabi Campanario, probably places greater emphasis on the “truthfulness” of the scenes he witnesses than most sketchers would. While I don’t regard or follow the Manifesto as laws that must not be broken, perhaps my own journalistic training has made me think more about being truthful to the scenes I witness so that I might make a record of time and place. My personal reasons for sketching also come into play: I appreciate the stories that sketches tell, and it’s important to me that my sketches tell stories that are accurate.

We all bear artistic licenses. Every time we put implement to paper, we make choices about what to put in and what to leave out. Indeed, the act of composing is all about deciding what to include. Omitting a construction crane from a painting of a classic building is certainly a valid artistic choice; many artists would probably make the same choice. But is it a truthful record of a particular time and place? In fact, without the crane, I think the painting becomes timeless (which is perhaps the goal). The painting does tell a story – but not one about what the building looked like on July 12, 2019.

Some of us, of course, choose to include trash bins in a sketch without having much of a story to tell beyond the fact that it was a Thursday in the Maple Leaf neighborhood. But without those bins, it wouldn’t even be Thursday.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Lessons Learned: Sketch Kit Review and Fresh Tizzy

Items used daily: 9 colored pencils, 1 waterproof brush pen, 1 waterbrush

After every major trip, I review my sketch kit to look at what I used most and what I didn’t use at all (for more kit reviews, see my posts after Portugal, Chicago, Italy, United Kingdom, Japan, France, Brazil, Barcelona/Germany). The prep before Holland was easy – everything in my bag was the same as what I carry every day – but I still considered each item carefully before I left it in. (I took out only two items.)

Shown above are the items I used most – every day, in fact. Not surprisingly, except for Verdigris green (Caran d’Ache 182), the colors and tools are all items that I use most at home, too. I often think about what I’d take with me to Gilligan’s Island, and while some of that thinking is mostly hypothetical, the photo above shows the practice instead of the hypothesis. These are my bare essentials, and I’ve proven that I could probably be happy for a long time with nothing but these items.

Never used.
A few things (at right) I never used even once: * the Bic ballpoint pen (I had a feeling I wouldn’t use it, but I admit I brought it mainly to show off), the vermilion/blue bicolor pencil and the white Derwent pencil. (I knew the latter was unnecessary – I didn’t bring along a toned sketchbook or even my usual red Field Notes, so I had nowhere to use it – but my reasoning was that my symposium swag bag could contain toned paper as it did another year, and then I’d want a white pencil.) I thought I might make a bicolor study at some point, but the only time I did, I used yellow and purple instead. In retrospect, I should have known to leave it at home, since I always carry enough colors that I could still make a bicolor study without the vermilion/blue pencil. However, all three items added very little weight or bulk to my bag, so I don’t have deep regrets for having taken them along.

(*Edited after taking the photo at right: I discovered a sketch in my travel journal that I had forgotten about, so I did use the ballpoint pen after all. Sketch will be shown in a future post.) 

Another few items (below) were used infrequently – in fact, the graphite pencil and related eraser and tortillon were used only once – but when I did use them, I was happy I had them, because nothing else I carried would have substituted for them. The brush pen containing water-soluble ink came in handy several times when used in a classic way: shading with a quick swipe of the waterbrush. Though I haven’t used this tried-and-true technique much lately, it’s still handy in a hurry (which I often was in Amsterdam’s heat).
Although these items weren't used often, I would have been unhappy without them.
From left: eraser, graphite pencil, tortillon, water-soluble brush pen.

Although my intention has been to quit the gray marker grisaille habit, I still brought one along as a security blanket. As I happily reported a few days ago, Holland helped me to wean myself off it, so I used it only a couple of times early in the trip. I have removed it from my bag permanently!

More than half the colors I carried were not used often, but when I did use them, they were essential (such as red and blue for the flag of the Netherlands). 

I'm disappointed with Faber-Castell's Dark Red. My current replacement is
Derwent Inktense Red Oxide.
I was continually disappointed with one colored pencil, however, and I’m now looking for a replacement. Caran d’Ache’s Museum Aquarelle palette doesn’t include a brick red, which is essential in most European cities I’ve visited (and often at home). For a while now, I’ve been using Dark Red in the Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer palette, which is acceptable when dry. But as soon as I activate it, the hue changes to nearly magenta, which is too bright for old brick. Sometimes I don’t mind – the sketch I made of Amsterdam’s skyline during the heatwave, for example, seems to express the swelter I was feeling! More often, though, it’s not the red I’m looking for. For now, I’ve replaced it with Derwent Inktense in Red Oxide.

All my sketchbooks served me well -- and taught me the biggest lesson of the trip.
As for sketchbooks, they all served me well in different ways. I filled only three of the six signatures I had stitched from Stillman & Birn Zeta paper (I made fewer sketches on this trip than expected, due to the extreme heat). But I also made four spreads in the landscape-format Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook, so it was well worth taking along. I even made a few postcard sketches and gave them to friends – something I always intend to do but rarely do. A win! (The pocket-size Rhodia journal was also just right; I’m going to cover travel journals in a separate post.)

Lesson Learned: Paper

Overall, I’m happy with my everyday-carry and travel sketch kit. As expected, the items I used most are ones I use most anywhere. If I had followed my hunches about things I probably wouldn’t need, I would have had no regrets, but my bag wouldn’t have been significantly lighter. The net result is that it’s easier to keep materials as much the same as possible, which reduces surprises and annoying results.

My biggest lesson from the trip is related to paper – and what I learned has left me in a new tizzy! After much hemming, hawing, testing and regular use the past several months, I thought I was happy with Stillman & Birn Zeta. While it isn’t perfect, I saw it as the best compromise in meeting all my media needs: smooth enough for graphite, ballpoint and markers and adequately (but not ideally) sized for wet media.

Oh, Zeta. . . I had hoped you could be everything to me.
Shortly before I left for the Netherlands, though, I started having doubts; a sketch in a S&B Beta book reminded me how much I’ve missed using paper with a bit of tooth and, more importantly, sizing that brings out the best in water-soluble colored pencils. Each time I used the Beta landscape book on the trip, I was reminded again. Beta paper is a joy to use with watercolor pencils: The hues look vibrant, and water behaves nicely on its surface.  

I’ve known all along that Zeta’s sizing leaves my watercolor pencil pigments looking a bit flat, and I miss the texture, but I had been resigned to the compromise because I need a smooth surface to use the “Eduardo graphite technique” that I so enjoy.

But guess what? At least on this trip, I used graphite only once! I might have predicted this; graphite used in this slow, methodical way takes more time than I’m usually willing to commit when I’m on familiar territory, let alone while traveling. The 47 other pages I filled on Zeta paper were all done with watercolor pencils and/or brush pen.

What does that tell me? Perhaps a Beta book should be my daily-carry (and Beta paper made into signatures for travel). The medium I use most often, watercolor pencils, would be ideally served. For those occasional graphite (or even rarer ballpoint) sketches, I could carry a thin signature of Zeta paper. The tizzy I’m in, of course, is that I would be back to using multiple books simultaneously, and the sketches would not be bound in chronological sequence as I prefer.

I have only a few pages left in my current Zeta book. When it’s full, I’m going to switch to a Beta book as my daily-carry. If I continue to enjoy the paper after a month or two of consistent use, I’ll tackle the tizzy.

My Holland sketch kit 

Monday, August 19, 2019


8/18/19 Space Needle and sunflowers

UpGarden is aptly named: It’s the highest p-patch in Seattle. Noted as the nation’s first rooftop community garden, it opened on the top level of the Seattle Center parking garage in 2012. Now thriving and filled with flowers, fruits and vegetables, the garden is a welcome spot of green in the shadow of the Space Needle. USk Seattle has been meaning to meet there for quite a while, and it finally landed on our calendar yesterday.

I took a leisurely stroll around the garden and noted several fun potential sketches: the Airstream trailer (filled with gardening tools) in front of a crane; corn stalks with the Queen Anne towers behind them; a vintage Ford Galaxy 500 filled with plants. The hard part was choosing! Although the sunflowers were past their prime, I didn’t mind: I liked the composition of the tall plant’s heart-shaped leaves in front of the Needle.

8/18/19 Views from UpGarden
What’s next? I couldn’t decide, so I pulled out the trick that served me so well in Amsterdam: I made a page of thumbnail-size sketches of the compositions I’d spotted earlier.

The first time I sketch again with USk Seattle after I’ve been traveling, I’m always filled with joy and gratitude for my community here at home. I’m fortunate to be able to travel and sketch with people from around the world, but it’s when I do that I am reminded not to take my homies for granted. Many sketchers don’t belong to a local group, so the symposium is their only opportunity to be with like-minded folks. I’m much luckier than that; I can do it several times a month.

Driving home with the top down on the Express Lanes, it was 73 degrees and clear. This is, unarguably, the best time of year to be here. I don’t want to be anywhere else.

A purple Ford Galaxy 500 filled with plants

Good to be back with my homies!

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Grande Water, No Foam

8/14/19 Wedgwood Starbucks

Waiting for my beverage, I noticed a grande-size cup of ice water on the counter. Outside on the patio, I saw who the drink was for.

As I was walking out, I showed the sketch to the dog’s human, who was delighted. He told me that his dog had been offered the community water bowl reserved for canine customers, but she had sniffed at it and then looked askance. She wanted her own cup like all the other customers.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Simon Benson House

8/11/19 Simon Benson House, Portland
In anticipation of the taiko concert we were to attend, we arrived a little early to the Portland State University campus. Prominently standing on a corner was Simon Benson House, which was built at the turn of the 20th century. “This beautiful, century-old, Queen Anne style home was moved in January 2000 from 11th and Clay to its current location and lovingly restored. It is now the home of the PSU Alumni Association,” according to the university’s website.

I checked the time. I knew I would need at least 90 minutes and a full-page spread to attempt the entire house, so in the time I had (about 45 minutes), I bit off this ornate elevation view to sketch. I’m glad I wasn’t worried about getting the perspective right – all those complicated cornices, eaves and arched windows would have driven me batty! And since I wasn’t worried, I’m quite happy that I captured as much as I did.

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