Three and a half years ago, I decided to give this tradition a try. I was studying in London at the time and had booked a solo weekend trip to Porto, Portugal. Despite the fact that I hadn’t had a single art lesson in a decade, I brought a drawing pad with me, along with a set of watercolor pencils. And it was there on the edge of the Douro River, safely ensconced in a glassed-in restaurant, that I completed my first on-location travel sketch.
It was hastily drawn, with rows of capital Ls for windows and messy scribbles for trees, but I immediately noticed two effects the process had on me. As Robert Reid has noted, sketching slows you down, and helps you be present. Sitting in the same spot for hours on end in a new city was almost uncomfortable at first, but I learned such stillness has its rewards.
The second thing I noticed was how sketching makes your whole body pay attention. I grew braver that weekend and began sketching in the open air–from park benches and riverbanks, feeling all of my senses swing into overdrive. With my camera in hand, I seem to run around recording everything while retaining next to nothing. Without a machine to do the remembering, I had to become the camera.
It was up to me to observe how the river changed colors under a setting sun, to listen to the crunch of gravel as a religious procession moved through the park on a Sunday morning, and to note how the lines of washing hung from balcony to balcony resembled strings of Christmas lights. As though my eyes were the aperture and my mind a square of film to be exposed, I was absorbing a place more deeply than I ever had before. I was living in the here and now.
Since that first trip to Porto, I haven’t visited a country without completing at least one sketch, as a means of capturing my impressions of each place.
It was only last May, though, that I discovered my sketchbook’s third gift. I was drawing on assignment in Ho Chi Minh City, and arrived at the Bến Thành night market with plans to draw an overview of the scene. I set up shop on a median, but soon realized that with two chaotic lanes of traffic between the market and me, I would have little chance of meeting anyone as I worked. So I moved across the street and resumed sketching from a plastic stool right on the bustling sidewalk outside the market.
As motorbikes blazed past and vendors grilled bananas, I felt someone looking down at me. “Excuse me,” a voice asked. “You do with watercolors?” I looked up. There stood two local college students, Há and Nhan. Há was majoring in fashion design and asked if I’d like to sketch with him. We met the next morning and ended up spending the day together: feasting on Hanoi-style phở for lunch, sketching at an artsy, out-of-the-way café, and hanging out in 30/4 Park as evening fell, the entire square filled with students playing guitars and singing. My new friends revealed layers of the city I never would have found otherwise.
I realized that sketching does more than help us remember places–it opens doors and creates connections. I could write all day in my journal and no one would stop to watch or ask me what I was doing. It’s different when I have my sketchbook. There’s just something about art that encourages people to approach you, to peer over your shoulder, to look up at the subject you’re sketching and then back at your drawing to compare likenesses.
Sometimes the door is opened even wider. I’ve been invited into family homes in Bosnia, danced with union workers in a Dublin pub, and befriended young monks in Cambodia, simply because I happened to be sketching on location. These serendipitous encounters–and the global connections they engender–are now the reason I travel.
I may set out on each trip alone, but thanks to my sketchbook and watercolors, I’m never on my own for long.
How to start travel sketching:
1. Think of the world as your studio. The beauty of sketching is how portable it is, and how any surface–from a table at an outdoor café to the desk in your hotel room–can become your work space. While all you really need is a sketchbook (look for paper sturdy enough in weight that it won’t buckle; 140lb, or 300 gsm, works well) and a pen, colored pencils or a travel-sized watercolor field kit will help bring your drawings to life.
2. See with your eyes, not with your brain. Begin by framing your sketch and choosing the perspective you’d like to capture. Our brain often jumps to conclusions; for instance, telling us a roofline slants up when it actually angles down. These mental shortcuts are natural, but should be fought against. Take the time to really study a scene, and constantly compare what you’ve drawn on the page with what’s actually in front of you.
3. Use all of your senses. Though drawing is primarily a visual exercise, flexing your other sensory muscles can deepen your engagement. What do you smell? What do you hear and which sounds stand out the most? With each observation, consider noting it on your sketch. “The air swirls with the scents of apple shisha, roasting lamb, and Turkish coffee,” I recorded while sketching in Singapore last spring. These annotations will help you create evocative mementos of the wonderful places you experience in your travels.
Candace Rose Rardon is a writer and sketch artist with a passion for telling stories through words and watercolors. In addition to running her blog The Great Affair, she recently released her first book of travel sketches, Beneath the Lantern’s Glow. Follow Candace on Twitter @candacerardon and on Instagram @candaceroserardon.