Travel Sketching: A Manifesto

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. Make use of all 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 travel. In addition to running her blog, The Great Affair, Candace saw her first book of travel sketches, Beneath the Lantern’s Glow, published in 2013. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @candacerardon.

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  1. Anuradha Goyal
    Goa, India
    May 3, 2015, 2:36 am

    Though I can’t sketch to save my life, the idea sounds so engrossing. There is no better way to know the place more intimately by re-creating it with your own hands.

    Loved your article. Thanks.

  2. Sunil
    Mumbai, India
    April 25, 2015, 10:25 am

    I was introduced to this article by a mutual friend who knows i paint. Actually in 2004, i started sketching in Thailand , exactly as you described, to absorb the countryside. It was after 40 years that i took up pencil and paper! Now i paint , see my art website and i really appreciate the guidance you have given. I also use the same Canson sketchbook as its hardy and travels well in my backpack. I shall try a travel set for watercolours this time as generally i do a pencil sketch or use colour pens along with pencil work. Thanks for the tips.

  3. Candace
    Costa Brava, Spain
    April 20, 2015, 9:59 pm

    Kristen – that is fantastic to hear! Perhaps just as much as I love them as a medium, what I almost love equally about watercolors is how compact they can be to travel with. In terms of sketchbooks, I’ve grown rather partial to Canson’s Montval watercolor paper, which is 300gsm and has a really beautiful effect when you lay the paint down. I’ve traveled with a couple different sizes from Canson now – a 5.5″x8.5″ sketchbook (which is especially nice if you want to bring several books with you), and also their 7″x10″ hardcover field book, which I’m using right now and really happy with. I typically throw the books right in my backpack, and the paper has always held up well. Best of luck on your upcoming trip!

    Alya – thank you so much! I’m very happy to hear you might pick up a paintbrush again soon.

    Julio – I’m so grateful you took the time to comment and share your fascinating paper. I just started reading it and found myself completely in agreement with your opening paragraphs – I truly do believe that sketching taught (and continues to teach) me how to be present in the here and now, and I consider it wonderfully serendipitous to connect with you here. I’ve downloaded your paper to read more slowly later, and also hope to be in touch via email soon. Thank you!

    Mark – you bring up an interesting point! When I was in Mostar, Bosnia, a couple of years ago, I got to know a Muslim artist and we had quite a few conversations about this. From what my friend told me, he said, “Only God can make the eyes,” and that it is prohibited to draw faces. Other sources I’ve read say it is prohibited to draw living beings in general, only inanimate objects. I’ve sketched people as part of a larger scene in several Muslim countries now, making sure to respectfully leave their faces blank, and the sketches are normally well-received by those I meet there. Thank you for reading!

    Sashi – thank you so much for your kind words, I’m very glad to hear you enjoyed the post!

    Pamela – thank you! Trying to capture the colors of a place is always one of my favorite challenges while sketching, so I’m happy you enjoyed the sketches included here!

    Xavier – while I’ve yet to try out markers myself, I’ve heard great things about Tombow and will have to check them out soon…thank you for the inspiration!

  4. Candace
    Costa Brava, Spain
    April 20, 2015, 9:30 pm

    Andrew – so glad you’ve had a chance to explore Singapore’s beautiful Arab Quarter!

    Regina – thank you! Brazil is very high on my list of places to visit (and sketch :), so I’d love to get there very soon. I can only imagine the colors!

    Ivor – I can’t thank you enough for your comment. I was thrilled to hear you’ve been inspired to pick up a pen and paintbrush again, and I hope you had a fantastic afternoon with your sketchbook yesterday, experiencing the presence and awareness that sketching always seems to help make happen. Thank you again for reading, and happy drawing!

    Linda – thank you so much, and I look forward to checking out your friend’s sketchbook!

    Prerna – it’s wonderful to hear you were sketching at Angkor Wat recently. I also had a chance to visit the temples just about two years ago, and loved bringing them to life in my sketchbook as well. Thank you for asking about the materials I travel with – I primarily use a 7″x10″ watercolor field book by Canson, which features their 300gsm Montval paper; Derwent sketching pencils; Faber-Castell PITT artist drawing pens, size XS; Winsor & Newton’s professional compact watercolor set; and a Mimik synethic squirrel-hair brush, size 6. I hope that helps!

    Doug – although I’ve yet to try digital sketching yet, I’ve enjoyed coming across it a few places online. Thanks so much for sharing your work, I look forward to checking it out!

  5. Cat
    April 20, 2015, 5:36 pm

    With my dear Husband Freddy, we used to travel many continents from Burma to Galapagos and on. Always sketching. He carried a tiny watercolor box & notebooks. Sadly he passed away over a year ago. Looking at his sketch books now and again brings me great confort and continue our travels together through his art. Thanks for putting this delightful art form to all.

  6. Xavier
    SF Bay Area
    April 20, 2015, 1:22 pm

    My designer-sculpter brother has been travel sketching with Tombow markers for about 15 years. They are easy to travel with and fantastic water color and writing pens. He’s inspired my kids to draw all the time too, so he hands down his used markers! I will note that at the beginning, it would take him 30-60 minutes to sketch a scene, and now he’s down to just a few minutes.

  7. Pamela
    Dudley n.s.w. Australia 31 Tumut St
    April 20, 2015, 1:21 am

    I love the colours Candice it puts a wonderful perspective to your travel diary and brings the places you visited back to you vividly Thanks for sharing Pam B

  8. sashi
    April 19, 2015, 11:56 pm

    Such a inspiring traveler,thanks for imagination that u brought into me via your writing. Hope u can continue it forever. Wish to be like u. Best of luck.

  9. Mark Breza
    April 19, 2015, 2:35 pm

    Notice some sketches are in a moslem country;
    are not exact representations of life prohibited by the prophet ?

  10. Julio Bermudez
    Washington, DC
    April 19, 2015, 2:34 pm

    Thank you Candace for the good story, the drawings, and the insights. This is, as you well say, a long tradition and it is good to keep it alive, especially these days where our digital companions make it so easy to remain aloof or detached from what is in front of our very life.

    I would respectfully add that sketching may go one step further: it may become a true act of contemplation that opens deeper/wider vistas than just the sensual or cultural. If interested on this topic, please, check a paper I wrote on this (and a few drawings ):

    again, thank you for bringing this issue to public awareness. It is surely timely.

  11. Alya
    United Arab Emirates
    April 19, 2015, 2:33 pm

    I loved the article and drawings. Reading this made me want to go back to watercoloring and sketching.

  12. Kristen
    Iowa, USA
    April 19, 2015, 11:57 am

    Candace! I was considering bringing watercolors with me on my next trip, and this post sealed the deal.. Despite the space they will take up in my bag, they are coming along. One question for you — do you have a recommendation on a particular sketchbook or type of paper that wears well in a bag and isn’t too large?

  13. doug
    London Canada
    April 19, 2015, 10:16 am

    You can get away with lot of sketching in museums with an iPad, and a few well chosen apps present all the colour tools you aren’t allowed to carry for real. Yes, outside the brightness is a problem, but not inside or in good shade.
    Sketches of Monet while sitting a few feet away.

  14. prerna
    April 19, 2015, 9:33 am

    i absolutely love your sketches! was in Angkor Wat recently and did some quick pencil sketches after a long hiatus. Am inspired by your use of colour…what materials do you carry with you?

  15. Linda
    April 19, 2015, 9:08 am

    Wonderful article! An online friend posted her wonderful sketchbook from a trip to Isreal!

  16. Ivor Minard
    Southampton UK
    April 19, 2015, 9:06 am

    I enjoyed your article in National Geographic which has reawakened my interest in sketching and made me decide to go out and have a go myself later this afternoon. All the you say about the joys of skechting is true. Many thanks for the timely reminder……
    Fun now awaits me.

  17. Regina Celly
    Brasília, DF. Brazil
    April 19, 2015, 8:30 am

    Só beautiful! Very nice! Come here Brazil, paint out colors.

  18. Andrew Wilkinson
    Cambridge, United Kingdom
    April 19, 2015, 8:22 am

    I, too, recognised that sketch of Bussorah Street….

    Wish I could sketch!

  19. Sonia
    London but thinking about Goa
    August 27, 2014, 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.

  20. Katherine Q
    May 30, 2014, 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!

  21. Candace
    May 21, 2014, 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!

  22. TravelMoreRoads
    May 21, 2014, 12:01 pm

    What a great idea! Adding to our existing list ( of unique souvenir ideas, thanks!

  23. Jac
    May 20, 2014, 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!


  24. Angela
    Atlanta, GA
    May 19, 2014, 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 :)

  25. Candace
    May 17, 2014, 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!

  26. Linda ~ Journey Jottings
    May 17, 2014, 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 :)

  27. Ann Markle
    Tennessee, USA
    May 16, 2014, 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!

  28. Jenny Williams
    May 16, 2014, 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!

  29. Gaurav Bhatnagar
    May 16, 2014, 1:32 pm

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

  30. Lily Girma
    Washington DC
    May 16, 2014, 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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    May 16, 2014, 3:17 am

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  32. Allison
    May 16, 2014, 2:38 am

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