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Sketching for travellers: reasons to swap your smartphone for a pencil or paint

Tens of thousands of years ago, our ancestors used earthy pigments to draw pictures of their surroundings and daily lives on cave walls. Today, we respond to the selfsame impulse when we reach into our pockets and pull out a smartphone.

The ease and spontaneity of capturing the world around us in photographs and video clips that can instantly be shared is one of the wonders of the modern age and an activity that's become central to our travels at home and abroad.

However, the digital revolution has also left many of us drowning in images delivered daily via Instagram, Facebook, Vine and scores of other social media apps – not to mention struggling with our own ever growing online photographic libraries.

Victorian-era art critic John Ruskin was way ahead of his time when he urged travellers to lay down that newfangled contraption known as a camera in favour of pencils, paint and a sketchpad. Pay no mind to the quality of your art, said Ruskin: drawing really is the way to 'see' a place better.

Sketch of Temple Tree, Langkawi, Malaysia
Temple Tree is my favourite resort on the island of Langkawi – the rooms and suites are based in a collection of antique houses, each different in style and gathered together from across Malaysia. On the grounds is an enormous old banyan tree hung with prayer flags under which is this little Chinese temple – I liked the view through the wooden doors in the low wall that surrounds the tree © Simon Richmond / Lonely Planet

One drawing at a time

Barcelona-born Gabriel Campanario (gcampanario.com) took Ruskin's words to heart when he settled in Seattle in 2006 and turned to his sketchbook as a way of making sense of his new surroundings. Two years later Campanario founded the nonprofit movement Urban Sketchers (urbansketchers.org), which is dedicated to fostering a global community of artists who practise on-location drawing and subscribe to the motto of 'showing the world, one drawing at a time’.

That simple idea has since been embraced by thousands of people around the world, and there are now urban sketching groups from Berlin to Buenos Aires. It has resulted in an inspiring coffee-table book, The Art of Urban Sketching, and an annual symposium, held in a different location each year.  From 27-30 July 2016 it will be the turn of Manchester (urbansketchers.org/p/usk-symposium.html), in what promises to be the largest symposium yet with some 500 sketchers and tutors roaming the Northern Powerhouse and committing their impressions to paper in pencil, ink, paint and charcoal.

Haha-jima, Ogasawara Islands, Japan
Haja-jima, one of the two main islands of the Ogasawara Archipelago, is about as far as you can go from mainland Japan and still be in the country. While waiting for the ferry back to Chichi-jima, the other main island, I sketched this old gentleman as he looked out over the bay – there was a wistfulness about the scene that captured also my own sadness on leaving such a lovely place © Simon Richmond / Lonely Planet

Why urban sketching?

Five years ago, I joined Urban Sketchers Singapore (facebook.com/usksg) for one of their regular end-of-month sketchwalks around the Lion State and began to rediscover a high school skill I'd neglected for over 30 years. I enjoyed the experience so much that ever since, a sketching kit – just a few pens, pencils, pocket sketchpad and watercolour kit – is always in my backpack, accompanying me on my travels and assignments around Japan, Korea, Malaysia, South Africa and Russia and other places I've covered for Lonely Planet.

The practice of taking time out of my research day – usually no more than an hour or so – to sketch has helped me 'see' these places in a different light and with added detail. It has also been immensely relaxing, fun and a brilliant way to connect with locals and dig deeper into places. People are fascinated by and naturally gravitate towards sketchers. They pause to look at what they're doing. A conversation can start which can lead to friendships being made. When can you say that happened the last time you snapped a photo?

Folkestone Old High Street, UK
I moved to Folkestone in 2015 partly because of the way the Kent seaside town is reinventing itself as a base for artists and other creatives. The Old High Street is a great example of this, lined with galleries, studio and interesting little shops – this sketch was done at Christmas when coloured lights strung over the cobbled street adds to its charm © Simon Richmond / Lonely Planet

What is urban sketching?

So what defines this type of sketching? The movement has an eight-point manifesto:

  • We draw on location, indoors or out, capturing what we see from direct observation. If the weather is not that cooperative then sketching indoors is just fine – and a great way to while away rainy days or long journeys. I'd also recommend taking a photo of whatever you draw, too, in case you don't finish in the one sitting or decide to add colour later on, which will really make your sketch pop.
  • Our drawings tell the story of our surroundings, the places we live and where we travel. Among the reasons why we take so many photos when we travel is to be able to share our impressions of a location and to remind ourselves of what we saw there. Sketching serves exactly the same purpose, with each drawing being completely unique and personal.
Parasol Shop, Chaung Tha Beach, Myanmar
When the afternoon monsoon rains set in at the beach resort of Chaung Tha in Myanmar, I took refuge in this shop selling the waxed paper parasols that are a traditional craft of the area – by the time the rains had stopped a few hours later this sketch was finished! © Simon Richmond / Lonely Planet
  • Our drawings are a record of time and place. Sketchbooks make great travel or daily diaries. Just one sketch can be more evocative than scores of photos since you've really taken the time to observe a place and or a particular moment in detail.
  • We are truthful to the scenes we witness. This doesn't necessarily mean drawing every tiny detail – for your sanity, you should avoid this! The best sketches are often done quickly and capture as much the personality of the artist and what they are interested in as the spirit of a place.
Supertrees & Skyway, Gardens By The Bay, Singapore
Singapore is one of my favourite cities to visit – there’s so much variety in the urban landscape here from traditional Chinese temples and shophouses to grand colonial buildings. The futuristic architecture around Marina Bay is stunning – particularly so in the lush Gardens by the Bay, behind which you can see the Marina Bay Sands complex © Simon Richmond / Lonely Planet
  • We use any kind of media and cherish our individual styles. The boom in adult colouring books (Lonely Planet publishes one) has also seen the market flooded with all kinds of drawing materials – experiment to find the ones that suit your drawing style. It's all about making your own unique mark on a piece of paper. Don't be afraid to be creative in applying colour, too.
  • We support each other and draw together. Urban Sketching groups are happy to welcome visitors to join in their sketchcrawls – usually a half-day spent sketching in and around a specific location. After about an hour of sketching everyone comes back together to show what they've done, swap ideas and share techniques. It's a brilliant way to get an alternative perspective on a destination.
Karnak, Luxor, Egypt
I’d wanted to visit the incredible ancient Egyptian temple complex of Karnak, Luxor, since seeing James Bond fight Jaws here in The Spy Who Loved Me. The colossal architecture didn’t disappoint © Simon Richmond / Lonely Planet
  • We share our drawings online. This is where digital photography, the internet and sketching combine in harmony. I've also done some of my sketches on blank postcards that can be shared with family and friends as presents.
  • We show the world, one drawing at a time. Set aside any doubts about your ability – if you can sign your name, you can draw. Start with something as simple as a messy plate of noodles served to you at a hawker stall or a cup of coffee on a cafe table. Trust me: once you get going, you'll never see the world in the same way again.

To see more of Simon Richmond's sketches and work from other Lonely Planet illustrators, visit our illustrated blog.