The idea of documenting a trip through art isn’t a particularly new one. Aboard Captain Cook’s second voyage to the Pacific was oil painter William Hodges; artist Edward Adrian Wilson accompanied Robert Scott as he explored the Antarctic; even 22-year-old Jacqueline Bouvier and her sister Lee completed sketches of their European tour in 1951 (their illustrated journal is now available as One Special Summer).

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.

Candace's sketching supplies (Photograph by Candace Rose Rardon)

Candace’s sketching supplies (Photograph by Candace Rose Rardon)

 

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.

Bến Thành Market in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (Illustration by Candace Rose Rardon)

Bến Thành Market in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (Illustration by Candace Rose Rardon)

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.

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Comments

  1. Sonia
    London but thinking about Goa
    August 27, 9:57 am

    I sketched my way through a Greek holiday when 19 years old and have not really travelled or sketched since. It am starting to travel again now aged 60. I loved your sketches, so maybe I shd include a small book and pencils in my rucksac.

  2. Katherine Q
    May 30, 5:48 pm

    Candace -Thank you for the thoughtful post! I myself enjoy sketching from time to time. I think that sketching a travel scene definitely makes you more aware of your surroundings. Rather than pausing a moment to be behind a camera lens, you are observing everything with a naked eye in the present. Some of my sketches from traveling abroad are more memorable than my photos. Sketches allow us to visualize our surroundings and make them our own. Thanks again!

  3. Candace
    May 21, 4:10 pm

    Ann – I love what you said about how sketching helps you to make a place your own…I couldn’t agree more! I’ve especially found that to be true at big sites such as Angkor Wat, where there are large groups of people all seeking the same shot. Sketching there was a great way to capture my own unique vision of the temples, in a way that no one else could. I hope you’ll bring a sketchbook with you on your next trip!

    Linda – I love the passion we share for sketching and recording places visually! There truly is such a shift we have to make from documenting an experience linearly, as we might in a standard journal entry, but it’s amazing to see what details and stories begin to emerge when we see a place through a more visual perspective. Thank you for reading!

    Angela – thanks so much for sharing about your own experience of seeing a place through the lens of your sketchbook…it’s wonderful to hear you enjoyed it! Have you posted any of your Croatia sketches online? I’d love to see them!

    Jac – I’m so glad you enjoyed the Bussorah Street scene! That will always remain as one of my favorite sketching sessions :) It’s great to hear you’ve done pen sketches in the past – as Linda mentioned in another comment above, sketching really adds such a rich layer to our experience of documenting a new place. Thanks for reading!

  4. TravelMoreRoads
    May 21, 12:01 pm

    What a great idea! Adding to our existing list (http://travelmoreroads.com/betterandmoremeaningfulsouvenirsgreatscot/) of unique souvenir ideas, thanks!

  5. Jac
    Singapore
    May 20, 11:57 pm

    I recognized that sketch of Bussorah Street immediately, which was what got me to click on the article! I love the sketches – I used to do more pen sketches within my travel journal just to liven things up a bit, but never quite as impressive as your watercolours :)

    Great article too, I’m inspired to start drawing again and rely less on digital devices!

    Jac
    theoccasionaltraveller.com

  6. Angela
    Atlanta, GA
    May 19, 4:58 am

    Thank you, thank you for such an amazing article! On a recent visit to a tiny island in Croatia I decided to forgo electronics and walked around with a sketchbook and ink pens. I had the exact feelings you described. Thanks for inspiring others to do the same :)

  7. Candace
    May 17, 8:35 pm

    Allison – thank you so much! I’m really glad you enjoyed the piece :)

    Lily – thanks so much for reading and sharing this! It’s so great knowing we share a love for different cultures, and for the connections we form in them. Can’t wait to see what doors open for you in Martinique soon!

    Gaurav – thank you! To me, sketching offers such a unique way to express what we’re seeing and experiencing in the world. Although I’ll always love taking photos as I travel, there’s just something about being able to document our time in a place in a way that no one else can.

    Jenny – that means the world, thank you! Fingers crossed we’ll get to sketch together one day soon!

  8. Linda ~ Journey Jottings
    Australia
    May 17, 7:36 am

    I love your sketches Candace and your philosophy to recording your travel memories –
    We’ve become so left (language) brained orientated our quiet observational right brain rarely gets a look in unless we make a conscious effort to bring it to the fore –
    And when we do – the experience is so much the richer :)

  9. Ann Markle
    Tennessee, USA
    May 16, 6:22 pm

    I sketched my way through Israel years ago, and it helped me to “own” my experience better than any other travel I’ve done. Thanks for the reminder — for my next trip!

  10. Jenny Williams
    May 16, 1:51 pm

    Gorgeous illustrations + evocative writing = more, please! Would love to see a regular column with Candace’s sketches, paintings, and meditations on travel. This is far more inspiring than any “top ten” list!

  11. Gaurav Bhatnagar
    India
    May 16, 1:32 pm

    Hey Candace, I am very happy to see you express the way you express yourself via your sketches. :)

  12. Lily Girma
    Washington DC
    May 16, 12:38 pm

    I loved this, Candace! And loved reading the part about art opening doors to connections and immersion – I believe it’s true of photography and music as well. Looking forward to your sketches!

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  14. Allison
    May 16, 2:38 am

    Beautifully written and thoughtful, your writing and sketches are both really great:)