Travel sketching: how to capture a place with paper and pencil
Tired of snapping hundreds of photos, applying filters, and looking for your next wi-fi connection? You're not alone. Particularly while traveling, the endless cycle of shooting and sharing can be exhausting – not to mention that screen time pulls you out of the moment (and the place).
Luckily, there's another meaningful way to document your adventures. On your next trip, give your phone a break and bring a notebook. Not only will you enjoy any destination more when you're fully present, but you'll find that you have to truly observe a place in order to sketch it – whether you're trying to draw a picture of Machu Picchu or record the details of the unforgettable dinner you had last night in Paris.
The case for going analog
Back in 2008, when I went on my first research trip as a Lonely Planet author (destination: Patagonia), Instagram didn’t even exist. I took photos of whales and glaciers, but they were for my own pleasure and personal record. I wrote everything down in a notebook – not only the information I was collecting for the guidebook, but also the details of what I ate, a funny conversation I overheard on the bus, snippets of interesting information from the indigenous museum in Tierra del Fuego, the ingredients of my favorite Chilean seafood stew.
A few years later, social media was in full swing. Like everyone else, I was snapping and sharing photos right and left; unlike most people, I was a travel writer, and my job took me to dazzlingly photogenic places on a regular basis. My Instagram feed was a colorful showcase of international destinations: waterfalls in Brazil, mysterious pyramids in Mexico, a castle in Spain, a crater lake in Nicaragua. After a while, finding the right angles and perfect lighting made me weary. I was burned out on all of the beautiful images – my own, and everyone else’s, too.
An experiment in Morocco turned it all around. Determined to get back to my writerly roots, I took a notebook and wrote down my observations. I started sketching things that were difficult to describe in words: the silhouette of a minaret, the shape of a doorway, an unusual pattern of zellige tiles. I was thinking again, not just snapping photos. And at the end of the trip, I had a unique and richly layered document of my experience.
My sketching experiment took on a life of its own. Now I make watercolor postcards, maps, and illustrations all the time – the process helps me to slow down, look around, and think. Here are some of my favorite ways to capture a travel experience with paper, pencil, and paint. Other media are optional. So is sharing on social media. The point isn’t to share it: the point is to make it in the first place, and to have it for yourself.
Make a map of the place
Sketching a map of the place you’re visiting – or a larger travel itinerary, if you have one – is a great way to familiarize yourself with a destination before you leave home. From a practical perspective, it’s also an excellent way to put together a travel plan, considering the distances between points A, B, and C, and the stops or detours you could make along the way.
The map could be relatively detailed, like this map of my itinerary on a Lonely Planet assignment that sent me to Grand Canyon National Park and parts of southern Utah, or simpler, like this watercolor map I painted quickly during my recent honeymoon in Spain.
Draw pictures of what you ate and drank
Who wouldn’t want to remember all the delicious dishes you tried on vacation? There’s an appealing bonus built in: if you choose to draw or paint pictures of food and drink, you’ll avoid being that mildly irritating person at a café or restaurant who’s overly focused on photo ops.
During a recent trip to Basque Country, I recorded the dishes we tried with a travel watercolor set. I’m glad I did: I’m sure I would have forgotten some of these details already.
Illustrate something you learned about a culture
Think of this option as an infographic that could serve as a how-to for other travelers. This format is ideal for practical or cultural challenges you managed to figure out – how to navigate the public baths of Budapest, how to behave at a milonga in Buenos Aires, how to order at a coffee bar in Rome.
Sketch an architectural or natural monument
Spend some time really looking at your subject before you get started. You can do this sketch in real time, or take a quick photo and base your drawing on the photo. I like to take a photo of my postcard in front of the monument (as I did here, at the base of the hike to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe), but these work well as standalone sketches, too.
Choose a few details you love about a place
Think of all the little details of your travels – and how many of them are lost to time. This is a perfect way to remember the minutiae. Needless to say, it’s best to make this kind of drawing while you’re still in the place (or as soon as you return), while the specifics are fresh in your mind.
Capture scenes from the street
Another method for capturing subtleties that you might otherwise forget. The quirkier the details, the better. I drew this picture one day after a long walk through Buenos Aires.
Make a postcard series
This works especially well if you’re returning from a long trip with many destinations on your itinerary. You could also use the postcard format to record separate trips you’ve taken over the years.
Bonus for family travel: get kids involved
Either before, during, or after a trip, break out some art supplies and get the whole family involved in travel sketching. I frequently make maps with the kids in my life: in this case, ahead of a trip to Chile, I sketched a map of the country and my niece Isidora filled in details like the ocean and the mountains. We had fun – and we both learned a few things while working on it together.