Wednesday, July 24, 2013

What I Learned About Travel Sketching

My swag bag from the USK Symposium included eight sketchbooks
of various types and sizes, a Van Gogh watercolor set and several pens,
pencils and markers.
I’m back in town after 16 days of traveling in Barcelona, Spain, and the Rhine River region of Germany. It was an amazing adventure of sketching, feeling, seeing, smelling, sketching, sweating, listening, walking, sketching, eating, sleeping, not sleeping, sketching, learning, meeting people, sketching and experiencing. Although I’ve done a little international travel before (Italy in 2006 and Japan in 2001, 2007 and 2010) and certainly hope to do more in the future, this trip will always be special in my mind because it was my first “real” travel since I began sketching. Of course, it’s also special because the trip included attending the 4th International Urban Sketching Symposium in Barcelona. I could probably write a month of blog posts about everything I experienced, but I’ve decided to organize my thoughts and sketches this way:

1. What I learned about travel sketching (today’s post), including things I wish I had brought as well as those I wish I had left at home.
2. Most memorable sketches of Barcelona.
3. Most memorable sketches of Germany.
4. What I learned at the 4th International Urban Sketching Symposium.
5. Last Thoughts: Prepping for a Symposium.

To view the full collection of sketches (except most workshop exercises) and some photos, please see my Flickr set. If you saw some sketches I posted in Flickr while traveling, I’ve swapped out the poorly photographed ones for higher-quality scans, so they might be worth a second look.

And now – here are a few key things I learned about travel sketching that will improve my experience next time:

1. If you read my post Barcelona Symposium Prep, Part 2: Everything Else, you know that I packed a carefully selected supply of art materials that would meet my anticipated needs without weighing me down. As it turned out, I used everything I brought almost daily, with the following exceptions: The spare Platinum Preppy pen that I intended to fill with Platinum Carbon cartridges when my Lamy ran out (my three filled fountain pens lasted two weeks of daily sketching, so none of the cartridges were used); the charcoal pencil (recommended by one instructor); the eraser (recommended by one instructor). Since those unused items took up very little space in my bag, I’m pleased that I gauged my needs mostly accurately.

2. I was disappointed that I didn’t make better use of the second watercolor palette I had brought (as discussed in Barcelona Symposium Prep, Part 1: Watercolors). Although most of the paints in it were specifically recommended by one of my instructors, she hardly discussed the use of those colors, and I could have done all of the exercises with my usual palette. I suspected that that might happen; next time, I’m bringing only my favorite palette and calling it good.

3. My Stefano” sketchbook system worked out beautifully! (My thanks again to Mary Ann Moss, whose blog post initially prompted me to start thinking about such a system, and to Stefano Bramato for custom-making the sketchbook cover to my specifications.) Whether I was standing on the streets of Barcelona or sitting on the park benches of Köln, and carried with me all day, every day, for more than two weeks, its size and weight never hindered me. The sturdy leather cover held up well to typical urban sketching abuse (I once set it down on the ground in something nasty that took some scrubbing to clean off, and I dropped it several times), supported my clip-on watercolor palette and protected my sketches.

Each day I went out with the current signature in the cover, plus one or two spares in the side pockets. Whenever I filled a signature, I pulled it out and left it safely in my hotel room. After reading about the high risk of pickpocketing in Barcelona (at least three urban sketchers at the symposium fell victim to theft, including one who lost a bag containing his working sketchbook), being able to take sketches out of my daily bag turned out to be a significant benefit of the signature system that wouldn’t be an issue at home.

I had packed a total of 13 eight-sheet (16 pages each) signatures, which were all I could fit of the 16 I had stitched up. Even 13 seemed like overkill, but I brought them anyway. I ended up filling almost nine, so my excessiveness wasn’t extreme. Symposium participants received a generous swag bag (see photo above) filled with no less than eight sketchbooks of varying sizes and types (including three embossed or printed with the symposium logo and one with a cover designed by famed sketcher Lapin!). But other than the one Stillman & Birn and possibly the Moleskine filled with watercolor paper, I don’t care for the papers in the rest. It also didn’t appeal to me to put all my travel and workshop sketches randomly into numerous sketchbooks.

One other aspect of the signature system highly appeals to the A.R. side of me: I counted up the number of pages I filled, and they would have exceeded the number of pages in one Stillman & Birn (which would have been the alternative if I hadn’t committed to the Stefano). That means I would have had to start a second volume but not fill it, and then I’m left with a half-used sketchbook that I wouldn’t have wanted to continue filling with sketches unrelated to my travels, so the remaining pages would get wasted. With the signatures, I can now bind only the travel-related sketches into a single, complete volume (a few blank pages at the end of the last signature are available to hold memorabilia and other ephemera). That makes me dizzy with happiness!

My only ambivalence related to my sketchbook is that I used the signatures for workshop exercises as well as all my travel sketches. In a few cases, sketches I made during class felt spontaneous enough that they seem to belong with the rest of my travel sketches. But you know how workshop exercises go. Most are simply just that – exercises that follow the instructor’s directions and lack spontaneity, expression or even completion. A couple of the signatures are almost all workshop exercises, so I could leave them out of the final bound volume. On the other hand, the symposium was what prompted the travels in the first place; aren’t the workshop exercises part of the experience? (Hmmm. I’ll have to think about that a little longer.)
Edited 8/11/13: See "Sketchbook Binding Finally Done" to learn the outcome.

4. I occasionally regretted not having a stool. Early in my planning process, I had eliminated my portable camp stool from consideration because I was committed to using carry-on luggage only, and the stool would have taken up too much space. This decision wasn’t too hard to make, since I often prefer standing while sketching anyway. But during three-hour workshops, the streets of Barcelona can get pretty hard, both for standing and sitting. Maybe an inflatable cushion would have been a good compromise. (I’m putting that on my list for next time.)

5. My biggest equipment failure and regret took me by complete surprise: My Nomadic Wise Walker messenger bag. I had used this bag as my combination carry-on/daily sketch bag on several previous domestic trips, and it had worked out fine. But on the crowded sidewalks of Barcelona, I kept bumping into people with its bulk. All of its many compartments and pockets, while seemingly useful for organizing supplies, ended up being a confusing chaos of zippers when trying to do a quick sketch. And one of the primary recommendations for avoiding pickpockets is to blend in with the crowd and not stand out as a tourist. While this type of urban bag is popular in the U.S., I looked around me in Barcelona and didn’t see any. TOURIST was written across my forehead.

The Wise Walker lasted one day. The second day, I left it in my hotel room, where it remained unused for the full two weeks. I replaced it with a flimsy-looking nylon tote bag that scrunches up into its own case, which I keep in a corner of my travel roller bag as a shopping bag. On the opposite extreme as the Wise Walker, the tote has no pockets or structure at all, which drove me crazy, as all of my supplies ended up in a heap at the bottom (later sorted with a variety of plastic bags and such). But strangely enough, that bag blended in nicely with locals and other tourists, who seemed to favor such unstructured bags. Later in Germany, I replaced it with a smaller cotton shopping bag that we got free from a Koblenz train station sandwich shop.

Lesson learned! I’m now working on a replacement solution for a carry-on/daily bag combo that’s more structured than a dump-all tote but less bulky than the Wise Walker. Stay tuned.

Edited 8/21/13: The solution is a big sister to my everyday Rickshaw bag.


  1. Great post, Tina! I read it with awe! :) Do you know Tom Bihn? They are a Seattle company. I have the Medium Café Bag. I've had mine for about 10 years and it's still going strong. It's plenty big for carrying a ton of stuff but not bulky at all. Also, machine washable, made in the US and has a lifetime guarantee.

    I plan to just put a 4x6 sketchbook, a few pencils, an eraser, and a small sharpener in it along with all the usual purse stuff for our trip this weekend. That's what I've been carrying every day. If that works out as I hope, I will do the same for Europe in September.

    I have carried a 5x8 sketchbook in this bag with no problem. It's a bit heavy due to the weight of the book but not at all bulky re: the size/design of the bag, if that makes sense.

    1. Thanks for your suggestion, Janine -- I'll check it out!

  2. Welcome home! This is a great post. I enjoyed reading your thoughts about your kit. Glad the Stefano worked out so well.

    1. Thanks, Kate! It's great to travel, but it's always great to come home again. And I feel better prepped now for my next travel/sketching adventure!

  3. Great post, Tina. It must be amazing to be at the symposium. The Stephano approach is interesting and could easily accommodate toned paper signatures, etc. I might have to look into it, though it doesn't look as 'stiff' as a true hardcover sketchbook. Thanks for putting together this post.

    Cheers --- Larry

    1. Thanks, Larry! The leather cover has a little more give than a hardcover sketchbook, but it is still plenty stiff enough to firmly support the pages I'm sketching on (as well as my attached watercolor palette).

      - Tina

    2. That's true Tina.
      Altough it's not as stiff as an hardcover notebook it still retains plenty stiffness for sketching plen air.
      And when it will become softer, in the next decades, it will always save your precious drawings and signatures.
      It worth to be used for a lifetime and more.
      That's my intention!


  4. It is great to read your analysis of your materials and how things worked or didn't work. I really liked your idea of the separate signatures that you can bind together now that you are home. I usually take a folding stool with me, because I find it too uncomfortable to stand and sketch for any length of time or sit on the ground (then I have to get this old body up off the ground). Luckily my stool just fits inside my backpack so I can still do it as carryon luggage. Thanks for all your information. I can't wait to read your post about the workshops.

    1. Thanks for reading, Joan! This trip was a great learning process for me in many ways.

  5. Tina,
    I see from your blog you had a great experience.
    This time I was not able to reach the Urban Sketcher Symposium near to me... Let's see next year.

    Also I love to see the huge quantity of sketches, drawings, notes you made in Barcelona and Germany. What a wonderful experience.Deep and rich.

    Just let me say thanks a lot for your field experience all over Europe!
    Our project is one of the most effective I ever made, because allows complete modularity.
    You can use any combination of signatures, notebook, sketchbook or everything you need.
    Still is strong! Made to last at least some decades with minimum care.

    I'm planning to make also one smaller size, pocketable, for people like me that likes to go around with smaller bags. And to draw more often.


  6. Sounds wonderful! Keep the workshop exercises in the travel journal, since the workshop was a feature. If I was reading through it I'd want to see them and know about the workshop itself since you're describing going to one - that's where I might look at yours and try the exercises! It's very cool content even if it's just completed homework and not original to you. All of my journals have class or workshop exercises in them because I'll do them in whatever I'm using at the time. (Usualy the Current Stillman & Birn Journal but not always.)


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