Friday, June 5, 2015

Post-Travel Follow-up, Part 3: Disappointments

5/23/15 Caran d'Ache Museum colored pencils, Canson XL 140 lb. paper
(detail of rooftop tiles in Arles)
First off, I have to begin by saying that I have no significant regrets or disappointments about our fabulous trip to France. Sketching the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame, floating in a Batobus on the Seine, sketching with the Paris Urban Sketchers, seeing the Eiffel sparkling at night – and sketching it!, eating absolutely, amazingly delicious food in the Dordogne region, my daily pain au chocolat, the immensity of Arles’ Amphitheatre, the view of Villefranche from our hotel balcony – these were all such special experiences that I can’t say the trip was anything less than wonderful.

Still, I always try to have a stretch sketch goal when I travel. For example, in Barcelona and Germany, my goal was to be fearless about sketching significant architecture, and I managed to take on both the Sagrada Familia and the Köln Cathedral. In Brazil I told myself I wanted to do wider landscapes than I usually attempt, and I did manage a couple of them in Rio.

My stretch sketch goal for France was to capture not only the usual urban sketches I am familiar with sketching – the ones that tell the contextual “stories” of the location or moment – but to also focus on small details (motifs and patterns, door knobs, a salt shaker) without necessarily attempting to put them into a contextual scene. This goal was inspired by Lapin’s book, Lapin au Japon, in which he collected delightful images of small objects and other details he observed in Japan as well as the more typical urban sketches. I knew that capturing details with my sketchbook would take a different kind of attention and observation, so I wanted to try it.

5/22/15 Diamine Chocolate Brown ink, Rhodia notebook
(train station detail)
Sadly, I didn’t make nearly as many of these detail sketches as I had hoped to. Our hotel room in Arles had no view to speak of – I could see only the tile rooftops of the building next door – so during a few minutes while I waited for Greg to finish showering, I sketched the texture of some tiles. Thumbing through my pocket-size travel journal, which fit into my passport case so I tended to use it during idle moments in transit, I found a tiny sketch of a broken meter of some kind that I saw at a train station, and another tiny sketch of the shapes of various birds in flight. That was about it. I guess I always look for the “story” in a sketch, and without it, I’m less likely to observe it.

5/25/15 Iroshizuku Asa-gao ink, Rhodia notebook
(birds above our Arles hotel room)
A secondary minor disappointment did not result from a firm goal I had committed to; it came more from a good idea that I’d hoped I’d have time for. At the Paraty symposium last year, one of the most fun and inspiring activities I participated in was Richard Alomar’s “Unfolding a Sketch Story.” Specifically related to travel sketching, the activity involved walking along a Paraty street and making what I would call a sketch map: an idiosyncratic visual and verbal guide for oneself to get oriented to a new place. The result is a personal map that is far more memorable than one handed to me by the tourist information center. I enjoyed the process so much and found so much value in the sketch map I had made that I vowed to try this again the next time I traveled.

I knew the streets of Paris would be too crowded and hustle-bustley to attempt this, so I didn’t even try. But in each town we went to after Paris, I kept thinking, “OK, maybe here I’ll do some sketch mapping.” Somehow, though, it never happened. I always felt too eager to move on to the next museum or monument or meal to take the time to examine my surroundings in a way that a map would result.

The closest I came was the map I drew below from the 56th floor of Montparnasse Tower in Paris. With help from the tower’s own maps and interpretive information, I placed the Eiffel Tower in the center, and then marked our flat and a few landmarks we had either visited or could easily see from Montparnasse. In retrospect, I see that it was made in exactly the spirit of Richard’s sketch mapping process: It gives me an idiosyncratic visual guide to the small part of Paris I visited. Still, I wish I had made a map in Villefranche, which was easily quiet and small enough that sketch mapping would have been fun.

5/18/15 Sailor Doyou ink, Museum pencils (personal map of Paris)

Well, there’s always the next journey to try both goals!

Incidentally, I mentioned my pocket-size travel journal above. Because the Rhodia Rhodiarama notebook I used in Brazil had worked so well, I got another one just like it for France, and I was equally pleased with it. The paper is a delight to use with any writing instrument, especially fountain pens. My first notation in it was in January when I began logging all of our reservations and other itinerary-related plans made long before the trip actually began. It includes personal observations, business cards, receipts, commentary on new foods and beverages we tried, ticket stubs, a vocabulary list (OK, so I have only seven terms, including vin blanc), subway and train notes and, of course, sketches of fellow passengers. I nearly filled the 96-page book, and when I thumb through it now, it’s almost as precious to me as my sketchbook.

My pocket-size Rhodia travel journal -- almost as precious to me as my sketchbook.


  1. I like the map idea but I get too caught up in my surroundings to do something like that. I love the idea of your little pocket-size Rhodia. That must be such a treasure now.

  2. I think the birds are likely Common Swifts the top bird ctaches their shape

  3. .. They are urban Nestern and swallows continued to Farms. Also They scream around in the evenings. quite unlikely Chiemsee Swifts in the US


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