Travel Sketching 101

I’ve been sketching my way around the world for five years now, and I can safely say the practice has forever changed me as a traveler. I love how my sketchbook slows me down, throws all of my senses wide open, and paves the way to spontaneous encounters with locals and fellow visitors alike.

So, in the hopes of convincing more travelers to embrace the paintbrush and sketch pad as a way to be wholly present while they explore the world—and to record their unique experience of a new place—I’m offering my take on how to get started.

Establishing your sketching style is an evolution—but, as is always the case with travel, the journey can be as much of a delight as the destination. The following steps are ones I’ve found work for me, and to help illustrate each stage of the process, I’ve included step-by-step photos from a sketching session in the Costa Brava region of Spain.

Illustration by Candace Rardon
Photograph by Candace Rardon

1. Choose a subject.

Let your natural interests and curiosity be your compass as you begin sketching in a new place. When it comes to deciding on a subject, think about what you already tend to home in on when you travel. Perhaps you love photographing streetscapes or capturing what you eat for breakfast. Start there.

2. Lay the scene out with pencil.

I begin every sketch in pencil, as I’m developing an overall sense of the scene. This is my chance to ask, What’s going on here? What is it about this scene that’s speaking to me? Sometimes I’ll sketch out what I see and realize I haven’t got the perspective quite right. It’s nice having the option to erase and start over again.

Illustration by Candace Rardon
Photograph by Candace Rardon

3. Fill in the details with pen.

It’s impossible to capture everything you see in a sketch, so I like thinking of each detail as a decision. To include or not to include? That is the question. My style has developed so that my line work is carefully drawn, but you might find that a looser style helps you better express your impressions of a place.

At this stage in the process, I also enjoy writing annotations on the sketch—short notes about what I’m hearing, smelling, or tasting, maybe snippets of a conversation I’ve overheard, or even more personal impressions of how I’m feeling that day.

Illustration by Candace Rardon
Illustration by Candace Rardon

4. Bring it to life with color.

At this point, it’s all about having fun—after concentrating for an hour or two on drawing, my brain always welcomes the chance to change speeds. Whether you’re using markers, colored pencils, or watercolors, each medium offers its own adventure.

Ideally, I’ll complete a sketch while on location. Staying immersed in the process from start to finish helps me tell the story of that scene as it unfolded during my experience.

When that’s not possible—daylight has run out, it started raining, or there’s somewhere else I need to be—I’ll photograph my vantage point and use it to finish the sketch at a later time.

5. Be open to serendipity.

Traveling with a sketchbook has not only influenced how I see the world, but also how I interact and connect with other cultures.

When I’m sketching, I try to be aware of the people moving around me. If I sense someone peering over my shoulder, I’ll often look up, say hello, and try to strike up a conversation with them.

For example, at the end of this particular sketching session in Spain, a man and a woman came came through the red door that I’d included in my drawing. The man asked me what I was painting.

After I showed them my sketch, the couple offered me a seat, introduced themselves as Joan and Nuria, and told me they had owned the one-room casa particular (holiday cottage) hidden behind the red door for the past 25 years. We spoke for more than half an hour, and the insights they shared about the history and culture of Costa Brava added unexpected layers to my understanding of the region.

The encounter was a perfect metaphor for what it is I’ve come to value most about sketching.

When we travel, each new place starts out as a closed door. The goal is to find our own key for unlocking it, whether it’s through sampling the local cuisine, communing with nature, or photographing street art.

My sketchbook has become that key for me—just like the brass key Nuria and Joan used to open their casa particular. I encourage you to tuck a sketchpad in your suitcase when you’re packing for your next trip…and see what doors it might open for you.

Illustration by Candace Rardon
Illustration by Candace Rardon

> Nuts and Bolts: Supplies

When I first started sketching, I brought just three things with me—a sketchbook, drawing pen, and watercolor pencils. After someone gave me a Winsor & Newton watercolor field kit, I began my foray into watercolors. My advice is to start small and simple, and slowly build the number of supplies you carry with you.

Pencils: I start every sketch with a pencil outline, and most frequently use Derwent sketching pencils with a hardness of HB.

Eraser: After I finish tracing my initial outline with pen, I erase the pencil lines to give the sketch a clean look. My favorites: extra soft vinyl erasers.

Drawing pens: I’ve experimented with several brands over the years, from Pigma Micron to Staedtler to Prismacolor, but finally settled on Faber-Castell’s PITT artist pens with an extra fine nib. Look for ink that is waterproof, lightfast, and acid-free.

Watercolors: My first field kit was from Winsor & Newton’s line of affordable Cotman paints, but I’ve since upgraded to the Professional Water Colour Compact Set. Both are light and easy to travel with, hardly bigger in size than a smartphone.

Brushes: I travel with three brushes: two Winsor & Newton Cotman watercolor round brushes (sizes 2 and 4), and my go-to, a synthetic squirrel hair brush by Mimik (round, size 6). I use the Mimik brush most of the time, and the two smaller Cotman brushes for more intricate details or lettering.

Sketchbook: Standard drawing paper has a weight of about 130 grams per square meter (gsm), but applying watercolors can cause the paper to buckle. A good weight for watercolor paper starts at 200-300 gsm, so keep an eye out for this when you’re sketchbook shopping. In terms of brands, the one I’ve come to use regularly is Canson, specifically their line of Montval watercolor pads, which comes in several travel-friendly sizes.

Water container: Though I’ve often used a bottle cap in a pinch (or asked for an extra to-go cup if I happen to be sketching in a café), I now carry a plastic water container with me on the road.

Bag: Lastly, I store everything but my sketchbooks and water container in a small canvas pouch, which is easy to keep in my backpack when I’m traveling and ensures I’m always ready should inspiration strike.

Candace Rose Rardon is a writer and sketch artist with a passion for storytelling. She recently released her first book of travel sketches, Beneath the Lantern’s Glow. Follow Candace on her blog, The Great Affair, on Twitter @candacerardon, and on Instagram @candaceroserardon.

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Comments

  1. KR
    Midwest USA
    May 16, 2016, 6:30 am

    For people who think you have to have special talent to do this, I say you are wrong. Everyone has some art ability. What you need is DESIRE and Perseverance. When I was in art school, I saw several people start out that didn’t seem like they could draw at all but they kept working at it and within a year or two they were doing some awesome work. It made a believer out of me and humbled me at the same time.

    For me, sketching is a pleasant meditation but it didn’t start out that way. At first I got headaches and was antsy. But I persevered. When you sketch regularly, you make new pathways in your brain, and if you keep it up these pathways get to be well developed and grow.

    Also, when you sketch while traveling, you will have much more vivid memories of places when you look back on your sketches. Sketching is well worth the effort.

    For a easier start, you might want to get some simple supplies: a mechanical pencil,a kneaded eraser, a stumpe, some drawing paper (even copy paper attached to a clipboard will do) and a graphite stick. Teach yourself to draw first and learn something about tonal values. Then you can branch out in to color. You don’t want to frustrate yourself with too much going on.

    A good way to practice is to get a library book on Rembrandt’s landscape sketches (or some other famous artist that you admire) and copy them. He was a master of light and also composition. Learn to see holistically from him.

  2. Kate Buike
    Seattle, WA, USA
    January 26, 2016, 4:51 pm

    Excellent article!

    I’ve been sketching on location now for about 4 years. Look up Urban Sketchers http://www.urbansketchers.org They are a world-wide group of people who go out location sketching together. They are very welcoming so check the website under “USk Chapters” to find a group in your travel destination and contact them. My local group will schedule special outings to accommodate visitors and take them to the good sketching locations!

    Patty Edge: Look at Craftsy. http://craftsy.com/ The site has some good travel sketching on-line classes by excellent teachers (some of whom I know and have sketched with!). And they do sales all the time so you can get a multi session class for about $15.

    Everyone can learn to draw…. it’s not a matter of talent…. it’s a matter of a little bit of education and then a lot of practice! :) One doesn’t have to become a Great Artist (that’s where some talent might enter the equation) to do nice travel sketches that form good memories. Most of my drawing education was in high school where, as John Keller wrote, we had to do a daily sketchbook to turn in for part of our grade.

  3. Jeanniemaries
    florida
    January 14, 2016, 5:43 pm

    I have a copy of my grandfathers sketchbook/diary when he was in France during WWI. I treasure it. I do some sketches of my travels but not enough .

  4. RJ
    Riverside, CA
    January 10, 2016, 3:06 pm

    Wonderful advice in the article and great anecdotes in the comments! To Brian and Shanti who say they are not sketchers–I’m not really either, but it’s a fun and interesting activity even at my basic level! I can recommend looking into drawing classes in your area, or even some online coaching such as The Scribbles Institute.

  5. Patty Edge
    Perth Australia
    December 29, 2015, 10:06 pm

    I love this article and am trying to develop my own sketching style. I wanted to be loose but am naturally more precise. I love your sketch on this page and it has made me realise that its ok to be precise.
    Do you run any online sketching courses? I would love one in watercolour pencils as I find them easiest to travel with.

  6. Linda ~ Journey Jottings
    Australia
    October 30, 2015, 9:20 pm

    Drawing is innate in all of us (think back to when you were 5 and wildly wielded anything that would make a mark) but sadly our education system weans us of drawing in favour of communicating with alphanumerics, so we give up using our visual language skills –
    A case of use it or lose it, so I love that you’re reminding and showing us how we all can do it too :)

  7. Cacinda Maloney
    Phoenix, AZ
    October 26, 2015, 11:59 pm

    Candace, I have forever been fascinated by travelers who sketch and watercolor. I have admired your drawings for quite some time, they are gorgeous. On my very first trip as a travel journalist (writer, blogger and now social media influencer), a few years ago, I came across a travel memoir writer from New York named Mary Morris that sketches in her notebooks as well. She was so fascinating, so much so that I ended up writing about her and how fascinated I was with her watercolor sketches. You two should meet!

  8. Emilia
    October 14, 2015, 1:11 pm

    Loved your article! What’s your opinion on brushes that store water in the handle? I love to travel and paint and these are the only brushes I use so I don’t have to carry around water separately, but they aren’t the best for detail…

  9. Candace
    San Francisco, CA
    October 14, 2015, 3:03 am

    Debra – I’m so delighted this post resonated with you. I really appreciate you sharing some of your own sketching experiences with us here, and wish you many more creative journeys in the future!

    Vickie – I couldn’t agree more about how sketching helps you remember things while you’re traveling…it just has this way of cementing certain sensory details in your memory, doesn’t it? Thank you for reading!

    Duncan – I so enjoyed hearing about your love for little kits, and was especially pleased to read that you still take a watercolor kit and moleskine with you on your boat – I imagine it must lead you to all sorts of wonderful sketching opportunities :)

    Hayley – your work is wonderful! Thanks so much for reading, and for sharing about your own sketching process here.

    Shanti – thank you for reading and taking the time to leave a comment…in many ways, I would argue we’re all potential art students :) People often say to me that they wish they could draw, and I always try to encourage them just to pick up a pencil some time, as they might surprise themselves. For me, practice has made all the difference – learning to draw has been a journey I still have a long ways to go on, but it’s been a lot of fun to learn and grow and discover what works for me. I hope you’ll have the chance to try sketching out soon!

  10. Amitabh Dhiman
    Kochi
    October 14, 2015, 2:32 am

    Beautiful sketches

  11. Diane
    October 13, 2015, 8:21 am

    Love your timely post. I have been traveling the past few weeks and yes , I also love travel sketching. It truly makes you slow down and look at your surroundings. I also have the most fun when talking to people about sketching and they leave deciding , yes, I think I am going to give it a try too.

  12. Sumita
    October 13, 2015, 12:18 am

    Loved your article. I used to love painting but had given it up because of various reasons. Now I travel a lot. Thank you for showing me how I can combine my lost passion with my current one.

  13. Brian
    OKC, OK
    October 12, 2015, 11:58 am

    Great idea if you know how to sketch. How does an untalented novice get started?

  14. John Keller
    Arkansas
    October 12, 2015, 10:15 am

    As a university art professor who teaches watercolor and illustration, I can vouch for the good that can come from sketching while on vacation. We strongly encourage, if not require, our students to develop sketchbooks for their classes. However, it’s for the traveler who has some down time. Often when traveling, the time to sit down and sketch is a luxury that one cannot afford. The next best thing is to take photographs. Not just snapshots of that famous monument, building, or landscape, or the selfie, but photos of places and scenes that really grab your aesthetic sensitivity. Then, in the quiet of the evening when you are winding down, or even when you return home, do the sketches, paintings, etc., using the photographs as resource material. For me, if I haven’t photographed it I wasn’t there. Also, because of the near nothing cost of a single digital image, one can take as many photographs as one likes, then wander back through them for years to come, bringing back very vivid memories of your trip.

  15. Sampath Kumar
    India
    October 12, 2015, 9:59 am

    Absolutely a super idea. Long back , I saw a Japanese tourist sitting next to me skectching the buffaloes and the cowherd beyond the airport perimeter, and it was fascinating to watch her bring the scene to life with easy strokes. It will help in assimilating the places one went to and also become more mindful. Thanks.

  16. Shanti
    New Mexico
    October 12, 2015, 9:08 am

    Great idea, but only works for people who CAN draw — who have that talent. Only a small percentage of people could do this —it’s not a practical idea for any but the artist or art student.

  17. Hayley Holliday
    Walthamstow London
    October 12, 2015, 8:44 am

    I have been drawing and painting strangers on the tube as I travel to and from work every day since 2009. I make paintings using my vaste collection of drawings. I am also keen on painting and drawing wherever I go. It allows you to really see and absorb where you are. Looking through my sketch pads I am transported back with strong and detailed memories from the drawings I have made.
    Etsy.com/UK/shop/hayleyholliday

  18. Duncan
    Cambridge, England
    October 12, 2015, 8:28 am

    Beautiful. Not only do I love your watercolour field kit, I love little kits of every description. Trouble is that my camera kit grew to big and my various survival kits got to be too many. So now I have a watercolour kit, a compact pocket sized camera, a moleskine note book and a propelling pencil. I have them all to hand on my narrow boat so I can moor up and make notes. It’s the quickest way to slow down!

  19. VickieZhang
    Chengdu,China
    October 5, 2015, 5:47 am

    I love this idea.It CAN help you remember many things.JUST really great!

  20. Debra | The Saffron Girl
    September 30, 2015, 4:30 pm

    Absolutely love this idea. I always find things I want to draw or sketch when I’m travelling and because I don’t carry anything with me but my cameras, I always say to myself I’m going to do it when I get home. And I never do. On my last trip to Vietnam, I sketched on random pieces of paper something I saw in the marble tiles of the hotel and typical Vietnamese women in the rice fields. And later I never got around to creating artwork with the sketches. Now with this idea, I will be adding another artistic element to my travels. Thank you!