Saturday, September 21, 2019

Travel Sketching Tips

6/3/12 Getty Museum, Los Angeles (Made less than a year after I started sketching, this is probably my very first travel sketch.)

Eight years ago today, I began drawing – or more accurately, I began a drawing habit. Each year on this anniversary, I commemorate the day by writing a retrospective post about things I’ve learned or experienced. (If you missed them, here are links to past anniversary posts: 2018, 2017 – part 1, part 2, part 3 [I had so much to say that year that I needed three posts to say it all!], 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012.)

6/30/12 St. Anthony of Padua Church,
New Bedford, Mass. (another early travel sketch)
Becoming a sketcher changed my life in many ways – especially in how I travel. Compared to before I began sketching, I take fewer photos now when I travel and spend more time observing and sketching. It means I see fewer attractions and “must-see” sights – but I experience whatever I see more deeply and fully. Even when I’m not sketching, I am observing like a sketcher, which means I see more. And later at home, the sketches bring back so many more memories and sensory perceptions than photos ever do – the single-most important difference that sketching has made to my travels.

Whenever participants gear up for the Urban Sketchers Symposium, social media groups buzz with discussions about what to bring, how much to bring, what to carry it all in, potential TSA issues with inks and paints, leaky pens on planes, and many other questions related to travel sketching, so I know it’s a topic that is on many sketchers’ minds.

For this year’s retrospective, I thought I’d be more practical than philosophical and write about what I’ve learned specifically about travel sketching. I’ve already mentioned some of this information in posts I wrote immediately following major trips (I learn more each time I travel), so this will serve as a consolidation of thoughts and ideas that continue to serve me well.

Pre-travel prep:

I empty this water spritzer before getting in the
TSA line.
Tools, materials and TSA: Perhaps I’ve become complacent over time, but the only prep I do to my sketch kit before I fly is to empty my water spritzer. I used to empty my waterbrushes, but they have never been questioned, so I haven’t bothered in years. I don’t use watercolor paints anymore, but when I come home from every symposium, my carry-on bag contains numerous tubes of paint (and last year a bottle of ink) that I have received in my swag bag, and I never bother to put them in my plastic bag of “liquids and gels.” Of course, I wouldn’t carry a pencil-sharpening knife through TSA (but for that matter, I don’t carry a knife in my bag at home, either).

Tools, materials and altitude: A lot of people seem to worry that their fountain pens will explode with ink from the change in pressure at high altitudes. Early on, heeding advice I heard online, I made sure all the pens were full of ink, not partially empty, because apparently the expanding air inside a pen’s cartridge is what causes potential leaks. As additional precaution, I wrapped them all in paper towels and kept them in a sealed plastic bag. Time after time, I never saw evidence of leakage, so I have stopped taking either of these precautions. I have never experienced a fountain pen leak on a plane, ever, nor a leak from brush pens that use fountain-pen-like cartridges (such as Pentel Pocket Brush Pens, shown below).

Fountain pens and pens like this with cartridges are fine on planes and at high altitudes.

Pens like these at left might cause problems at high altitudes.
The one altitude precaution I would still take is with brush pens that have refillable reservoirs that are squeezed to dispense the ink (such as Pentel Color Brushes and Kuretake Brush Writers, shown at left, which are a favorite at life drawing). Years ago on an early travel experience that included sketching, I had a messy incident with this type of brush pen. After that, whenever I flew or was planning to drive to high altitudes, I wrapped the pens thoroughly in paper towels and then put them into sealed plastic bags. When unwrapped, they always showed evidence of leakage, and usually when the cap was removed the first time, ink blorped out, so the prep was essential. Lately I use this type of brush pen only at life drawing, but if I were to fly with one, I would still take this precaution.

Sketch kit contents: My general recommendation is this: Bring only materials and tools that you are already comfortable with* and reach for regularly when sketching on location at home. Although it may be tempting to bring a lot of new materials to experiment with while you are inspired by new environments, travel almost always involves tighter time constraints than usual (travel companions with other interests; so many other things you want to see) and other unpredictable conditions. Learning to use a new material is something to do in the comfort of your own home or when you have plenty of time at your neighborhood park.

My everyday-carry Rickshaw bag has sketched with me on
four continents.
Sketch kit bag: How to carry it all? I like to use the same everyday-carry bag I use at home. All the contents are in their usual slots, pockets and compartments, so there’s nothing to learn or get used to. And the best way to find out if you are bringing too much is to put that filled bag on your back or shoulder and walk around your neighborhood for at least a few hours. A bag you carry only from your car to your neighborhood park will feel very different after walking all day with it.

Use a bag that is as slim against your body as possible. Walking on the Las Ramblas on my first full day in Barcelona, the Nomadic Wise Walker messenger bag that I had purchased for the trip (and even took out for a dry run in Seattle) was a disaster: People constantly bumped into this bulky bag. I immediately reconfigured my entire sketch kit, made do with a tote bag that drove me crazy, and the Wise Walker stayed in my hotel room the rest of the trip. (See the link above for more info about that debacle.) Even if you are used to walking in busy cities, old European streets tend to be narrow. 

While traveling, I carry only one thin
signature of paper at a time.
Sketchbooks and paper: This sketch kit essential deserves special mention because I have been astounded by the number of sketchbooks some symposium participants bring – and lug around all day! Paper is generally the heaviest, bulkiest part of your sketch kit; it needs to be minimized as much as possible. Make a realistic estimate about how many sketches you are likely to make for the duration of your trip and bring only enough paper to accommodate that estimate. (How do you estimate realistically? More on that later.*)

You may recall that I went through some paper angst shortly before I left for the Netherlands. After committing to Stillman & Birn Zeta paper by stitching several signatures that I had planned to take, I started having doubts. I hemmed and hawed a bit, but I knew that to be less than satisfied with my sketchbook paper wasn’t going to ruin the trip. And it didn’t.

More materials: If you have plans to bring a bunch of supplies but not carry them daily and just keep them in your hotel room “just in case,” you might as well leave them at home. For many trips, I brought along a small pad of watercolor postcards with the intention of making sketches to send to a few friends. But once I arrived, I always left the postcard pad in my hotel room, thinking, “Well, I’ll do it… but not today.” Of course, I never made any postcard sketches. During my recent trip to the Netherlands, I still had the good intention of making those postcard sketches, but this time I carried the pad in my everyday-carry. I happily made three and gave them away! The moral of the story: If you don’t carry it every day, it won’t get used. Leave it at home.

At your destination:

Make small sketches: One of the most useful things I learned in the Netherlands was to make more thumbnail sketches. Maybe “thumbnail” is not an accurate term; I don’t mean preparatory sketches to help me plan compositions (though I did learn about the value of that kind of thumbnail at my symposium workshops). I just mean small sketches (no more than 3 inches). Making small sketches allowed me to cover much more sketching ground in the same length of time. Instead of hoping to find 30 or 60 minutes for a full-page sketch, I could squeeze a 5- to 15-minute sketch into any pocket of time I happened to have – and I had many. And during Amsterdam’s heatwave, I couldn’t stand to be in the heat for much longer than a few minutes at a time, so small sketches were essential.

Small sketches in Amsterdam.
Appease your travel companions: Unless you’re traveling alone, balancing time with your non-sketching companion is always a necessary and important consideration. After a blog reader asked me a few years ago what my spouse is doing while I am sketching on all of our travels, I wrote a whole post on this subject. I’m fortunate that Greg has compatible interests (he’s a photographer), and we are comfortable doing our individual thing even as we travel together. But we each make compromises and find balance so that we both get what we want out of our travels.

I also wrote another post about how I managed to sketch with family members at the Minnesota State Fair three years ago. I won’t rehash all of that here (please read those posts if you’re interested), but the key is speed. And making small sketches is faster than making large sketches.

Finally, here’s my most important suggestion of all: To have the best travel sketching experience possible, sketch on location regularly when you’re not traveling. 

Thoughts about two people come to mind. One was an acquaintance who contacted me several years ago because she knew I was a sketcher. Planning a trip to Italy, she wanted to start making sketches in her travel journal and asked for suggestions. After discussing the basics of tools and materials, I asked if she was sketching already, and she said no. (“Nothing at home inspires me. . . it’s traveling that inspires me!”) I encouraged her to get out as much as possible before her trip and pretend she was in Italy, just to get her feet wet before landing in Rome. I don’t think she heeded my advice; she didn’t do any sketching in Italy.

The second person is a woman I met in a workshop during the Amsterdam symposium. During an exercise, she told me that even though she was surrounded by beautiful buildings and canals that she wanted to sketch, she felt “paralyzed.” Chatting with her further, it became clear to me that she had not done much urban sketching on her own before the symposium; she had hoped that the inspiring surroundings, workshops and the presence of other sketchers would be the impetus she needed to begin.

To be ready to sketch in Varenna . . .
As with my first acquaintance, I think that the time to begin travel sketching is long before one arrives at the destination. Practicing at home, even if you’re not particularly inspired by familiar streets and buildings, is the only way to gain confidence and know enough about your own sketching habits and needs to be ready to sketch while traveling. *To estimate how many sketchbook pages you’re likely to fill on your trip, you have to know how many sketches you typically make in an hour or two at your neighborhood park. *To be able to limit your sketch kit to only materials you’re already familiar with, you have to practice enough to become familiar with them. When you already know how much weight and bulk you can comfortably carry on your local sketch outings, choosing a bag and supplies is a non-issue. The more you sketch on location in familiar territory, the easier it will be to sketch anywhere.

. . . I sketch a lot in Maple Leaf.
Ultimately, travel sketching is no different than any other kind of on-location sketching. But as I’ve learned the past eight years, it takes a lot of sketching in Maple Leaf to be ready to sketch in Rio de Janeiro or Kyoto or Amsterdam. This post summarizes what I’ve learned so far. I look forward to all that I’ll continue learning each time I travel.

Here are other posts about what I learned in Barcelona, Brazil and France.


  1. It is funny that people who never really sketch outdoors will travel to the symposium. You need training before you tackle something like that. And you need to build up your endurance. lol

  2. I've always felt that those who expect their environment to supply 'inspiration' to sketch are doomed to failure. You can be inspired by a scene, of course, but only if you're already champing at the bit to sketch.

    1. Yup -- champing at the bit is the easiest way to sketch anything!


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