Souvenirs aren’t usually my thing: Tchotchkes stuffed into my suitcase always feel more like objects than memories. That changed this year when I discovered travel sketching.
Travel sketching is what it sounds like: any drawing, painting or art you make based on your travels, either on location or re-created from photos. The hobby is fun and can make you appreciate your travels even more.
I brought my first travel sketchbook to Victoria, B.C., in late spring. My favorite sketch captures the straight-on view of the Legislative Assembly building from my room at the Magnolia Hotel & Spa. I spent several mornings sipping tea, trying to capture the different ways light hit the buildings. Looking at the sketches, I remember exactly what it felt like sitting cross-legged on the floor as morning commuters ambled the edges of Victoria Harbour.
For a trip to Helsinki and a recent visit to Ireland with my dad, I packed my travel sketching supplies again. More than a pastime, I found travel sketching extended my appreciation of a trip. On my flight home from Finland, I sketched my favorite photos. Months later, I keep going back to the sketches, not the pictures.
An art background isn’t necessary to start drawing your travels. Here are four lessons I’ve learned as a novice travel sketcher, with extra advice from other Seattle-based travel sketchers.
1. You don’t have to be an “artist”
I didn’t go to art school. I had, until this year, demonstrated very little skill at capturing the shape of anything. But you don’t need to know anything about perspective, value or color theory to start sketching. It’s completely OK to only have stick figure skills.
Sunil Shinde, the 50-year-old Redmond author of “From Cairo to Beirut: In the Footsteps of an 1839 Expedition through the Holy Land,” an illustrated memoir of his travels, says “sketching is a skill that can be built through practice and not a talent that one has to be born with.”
“Just 15 minutes every day of sketching everyday objects and scenes around you goes a very long way,” Shinde said.
Think of it like handwriting — your first attempts were pretty wobbly, but over time, your brain and hand start communicating better together to express what you see.
Regardless of whether a sketch turns out well, looking itself is a reward. Dave Baab, of Seattle, sees sketching as a practice of gratitude.
“You’re trying to enjoy the moment, and sketching is a way to do that,” Baab, 76, said. “The moment matters, not the product.”
That said, if you want to develop your art abilities beyond your current skill level, there are countless incredible, free resources in books at Seattle Public Library branches and in YouTube videos covering urban sketching, travel sketching and nature journaling. If you want to do research to go beyond learning by sketching, there are a wealth of resources at your disposal.
2. Carry a (tiny) sketchbook everywhere
Carrying sketching supplies on your person makes it easier to capture unexpected moments of free time while traveling, like waiting for public transit or quiet time at breakfast. I carry a sketchbook in my purse or travel backpack along with a pen, a waterbrush and a super-tiny watercolor palette.
An added benefit: Smaller sketches take less time than big sketches, says 63-year-old Tina Koyama, of Maple Leaf, one of the administrators for Urban Sketchers Seattle.
“This is especially important if you will be traveling with nonsketching companions. They will be much more likely to tolerate your five- or 10-minute thumbnails than a two-hour painting,” Koyama said. “I also find that I can cover much more ground by making lots of small, fast sketches than just one larger, time-consuming one.”
Several brands make sketchbooks that are 3 1/2-by-5 1/2-inches in size, or even smaller. Find one at your neighborhood art store, stationery outpost or bookstore. I love small sketchbooks because they’re easier to fill on a single trip, so they become stand-alone albums of a time and place.
3. Sketches help create lasting memories
Have you ever scrolled through your travel pics and thought, “Huh, I don’t remember that …”? I know I have.
Sketching, on the other hand, feels a bit like time travel.
Ballardite William Scales, 45, says “sketching forces you to linger in a moment, and in doing so, you really absorb the light, weather, sounds and smells of the place. Looking back at those sketches triggers all those little memories.”
Tracy Tran, 29, also of Maple Leaf, says that “when I sketch, I’m completely present.”
“I’m engaged with my surroundings in a way that I don’t find through taking photos or silent observation,” she said.
The art of sketching can even transform less-than-ideal travel experiences, says 39-year-old Mike Saroca, of Kent. “Some of the typically unpleasant aspects of travel, such as airport delays, become a welcome time for creativity and reflection when one has a sketchbook to pass the time,” he said.
Flipping to a tree I drew in Vancouver, I can be transported to the patio outside our vacation rental, remembering how warm the day was and the feeling of waiting for my husband to wake up from a nap. And it’s not even a well-drawn tree!
4. It helps to practice at home
Regularly sketching at home will make it a lot easier to take up travel sketching.
“Traveling is often stressful and challenging, and it’s not optimal for creating beautiful works, even for experienced artists,” Koyama said, let alone beginners. “The most important thing they can do to prepare for travel sketching is to start sketching now, at home, as much as possible.”
Before my trip to Ireland, I practiced quick paintings of the Cliffs of Moher based on photos so I understood their basic shape. I also tried sketching clouds, landscapes and people, since I knew my dad would be a recurring subject. (I wish I’d practiced more castle ruins.)
Mostly, I just sketched regularly, on a near-daily basis. My inspiration: snacks I enjoyed, friends, a lovely view. By the time I got to Ireland, I was comfortable with the materials I used and the process of sketching itself (even though my drawings didn’t all turn out great).
It might also help to lower your expectations. You’re not trying to make a masterpiece, but a kind of visual journal.
“I think of my travel sketchbook as basically a travel diary,” Koyama said. “It’s a visual record of what I saw, what I felt, what I experienced.”
Maybe my favorite thing about travel sketching is that you don’t have to fly internationally to get the benefits. Any sketch can bring you back to time, place and gratitude — even when it’s the view out your kitchen window. Grab some supplies and give sketching a try.