How to Plan the Ultimate Urban Sketching Trip


Before the corona-crazy set in, I had a trip planned across eastern Europe, from Hungary up to Estonia, across to Finland, over to Russia and back down again, ending in Germany with a week-long sketching course with Ian Fennelly at the end of August.  However, I don’t think that will be happening now.  

If you are reading this in the future, I am referring to the Year of the Pandemic, 2020, where we are all in lockdown!

That being said, we can still discuss how to go about organising a sketching trip for yourself (or a group if you have some sketchy buddies)!  I work in the travel industry, organising trips for people to fairly uncommon destinations (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, South Sudan and so on and so forth) so putting an itinerary together is something I am familiar with. Creating an itinerary that works is a fine art.

What do I mean when I say an itinerary that works?

Well, a good itinerary gives a trip structure. It should be an efficient plan of action so you can get the most from your trip. It needs to cover all areas of interest of a location that anyone could discover from a guidebook but in my opinion, it also needs to have those sneaky elements of surprise that no one but a local person would know about (more on this later).

An itinerary needs to be paced correctly with exciting “ups” and enough downtime so you do not burn out.  It needs to be efficient with your time, energy and cost.  It needs to have a narrative: a good beginning, middle and end so you don’t get bored or you don’t do all of the interesting things right at the start or right at the end of the trip.

You need to keep someone’s interest.

The trip needs to be designed for the person or people’s goals.  If you are planning a trip for photographers, it may be different to a perfect itinerary for amateur archaeologists.

Obviously, we are here to discuss how to plan the perfect trip for an urban sketcher.  I shall continue to refer to a trip for a solo sketcher, as that’s primarily what I plan for myself but of course everything we discuss here is completely applicable to organising a trip for a group of sketchers.

Where do you want to go?

Will you be staying close to home, going to a different part of the same country you’re in, or travelling overseas? The advice will be slightly different depending on the answer to where you’re going but the general gist is the same.

Aims of the trip

The key to organising a sketching trip is to be clear on what your aims are.  Do not approach the trip as a sightseeing trip, you need far longer at each location than a tourist because you need time to sketch.

This is where tensions can arise if you are travelling with non-sketchers.  This is why I prefer to travel alone on sketching trips – that way I do not feel pressured with my time and I am not inconveniencing other people.  Of course, I have the luxury to travel alone.  Many of you will have partners, families, or groups of friends you will be travelling with and perhaps that’s your one trip of the year so you just have to make things work.

This article is primarily focussed on planning a trip with the sole focus of sketching.  However, if you are travelling with others on a general holiday there are some strategies you can use to maximise your sketching time:

  • Plan locations that have activities nearby for everyone. If you are in an area of a city that has a square with a play park, you can sit on a bench nearby, the kids can play in the park and you can sketch what’s around.  Kids like playing in parks for hours.  You can sketch them, sketch other people and sketch the surrounding architecture without too much interruption (just keep half an eye on the kids)!
  • If you are going to the beach, then again, this is a few hours of time (or all day for some people) where you sit around and do what you want.  The beach is a prime hunting ground for interesting people sketching – its people-watching turned up a few notches…awesome.

Check out Tommy Kane’s beach sketches, they’re pretty fun.

https://www.instagram.com/p/6mnRt_rO-m/
https://www.instagram.com/p/6e-fourO6n/

https://www.instagram.com/p/6cWIJ3LO6h/
https://www.instagram.com/p/6ZwMWNLO8S/
https://www.instagram.com/p/511QS0rO6g/
https://www.instagram.com/p/6Pii9-rOxn/
  • If there is a museum your group wishes to visit, they can walk around while you pick one spot to sketch at, or you could stay outside and sketch the building – a lot of museums are housed in pretty grand buildings which are great to draw.
  • If you are going out on the town for a few drinks, take your sketchbook with you.  Draw while you drink and chat, draw your friends or other people.  It could be a conversation starter with other people in the bar, it slows down your drinking and perhaps your friends get cool drawings of themselves – it’s a win-win-win.

The list goes on but I think you can see that you can squeeze in some sketching whatever the context.  Be honest with your family and friends that you’re really keen to draw as much as possible during the trip, but you will minimise the impact it has on them.  There will be some activities you may not join in on but you’ll be there and sketching.  I think most people will understand this.  Sketching becomes a part of who you are.  The more you draw in the presence of others and in public the more confident you will become.  If you want to read more about overcoming the fear of sketching in public, you can check out my blog post here.

Right – back to the matter of organising your own dream sketch trip!

What are your favourite subjects to sketch?

This links in with the aims of your trip and may even inform your decision of where to travel to.

Do you like sketching people, architecture, animals, whole scenes, cityscapes, rural landscapes, cafe’s, interiors….?

As an example, I love sketching super ornate old buildings, the more decoration the better! As such my decision was to focus most of my sketching efforts in Budapest.  From my internet research, I found that it had the most architecture that I yearned to sketch. If you want to see some of my sketches of a few of London’s ornate buildings (Westminster Abbey, Natural History Museum, St Paul’s Cathedral and Tower Bridge) from start to finish then you can check out my timelapse videos over on the Urban Sketching World Youtube channel.

How Much Time Do You Have?

How much time do you have? A weekend, one week, two weeks, a few months?

This will affect your aims and your budget.  My eastern European epic was intended to span 3 months.  If I had a long weekend or one week I would focus on one place, such as Budapest for example.  If I had two weeks I may be tempted to fit in one other place, but probably a city not far from Budapest.  Although, with the availability of cheap flights in eastern Europe, you could get to another area in a different country quite swiftly.  If you have slightly longer then taking a train between cities across country borders is a wonderful method of travelling (and more environmentally friendly of course)!  In my opinion, it’s better to take your time and visit fewer areas so you don’t feel too rushed and you can enjoy things at a more leisurely pace.

Be realistic with your time, it is SO easy to think you can fit seven things into one day, but when you are on your trip this is very much not the case.  Especially if it’s hot or cold.  This will tire you out quicker than you may anticipate.  Also, consider how much walking between areas you will be doing, as again, this will deplete your energy for sketching more quickly.

I would underestimate what you can achieve in a day but then have one extra thing up your sleeve in case you do have time and energy to do it.  A good plan is to aim for one main activity in the morning and one in the afternoon.  This is much easier to achieve when sketching as you may spend 2-3 hours sitting in one place sketching the surrounds.  This reduces the temptation to try and squeeze too much as you need the precious time to sketch!

Managing Your Budget

I think this is probably one of the most important things to think about upfront, but also throughout.  I know, its boring, but genuinely, keep a spreadsheet.  Even if some of your costs are very approximate, having a running total of rough figures down on the page is better than the fictional amount in your head which is almost always entirely incorrect.  If you underestimate then you may run out of money during your trip, or plan too many things to do.  If you overestimate, this may put you off going on the trip altogether!

Once you have your figures in a spreadsheet you can alter them easily enough, you can see where you could cut down some costs to achieve other more important things, or you can come up with a daily budget for yourself so you know you can get through the trip without running out of money.

The strategies I use to keep costs down revolve around accommodation, transport and food predominantly. 

Transport

If you are travelling to only one location on your trip, then you don’t have to worry so much about transport from one area to another.  Within some cities, you can get a travel pass for one day, 3 days, 7 days etc which allows you to use all forms of public transport for a flat fee and the duration you choose.  Certainly, look out for this as its usually a far more cost-efficient way to get around.  Some cities have pre-paid cards you need to use on trains and metros, such a London’s Oyster card scheme, Hong Kong’s Octopus card or Melbourne’s Myki card.

Accommodation

I tend to stay in hostels to keep my accommodation costs as low as possible – I have no issue with staying in a shared dormitory.  I make sure I do some sold research and find a hostel which has a calm, relaxed vibe – and that’s not clearly a party place. My go-to place for looking at hostels is hostelworld.com, they have an app too.

I realise hostels are not for everyone, however, if you can find a calm-looking hostel (such as a yoga focussed hostel or something similar) most have private rooms which are often significantly cheaper than a hotel room.  Even better, if you find a hostel with a kitchen then you can buy groceries and cook your own meals which can save a significant amount of money (depending on where you are and how long you’re staying).  It depends though, if you are going somewhere for a long weekend think of economies of scale, maybe it’s better to just eat out rather than buying groceries.  Eating out also creates some more interesting sketching opportunities.

Air BnB is, of course, worth checking out.  If there’s a group of you (or even two of you), this is the best and most cost-efficient accommodation type.  Sometimes this is true if you are on your own too.  I found a small one-bedroom city apartment in Budapest for way cheaper than a hotel room, and it had a kitchen so I could make my own food, saving money on eating out.

Air BnB also offers the option of booking a private room in a shared house or apartment.  This can be a good option if you are staying somewhere for a while, you automatically have a local friend who can give you advice on where to go.  If you hit it off you have a new friend for life!  If you are shy or introverted like me, this option could make you feel a bit nervous but sometimes it does pay to put yourself out there!

Booking.com is a good site to find rooms in private accommodation all the way through to expensive hotels.  It’s always best to check here as well before finalising where you will stay.

A trip can be much more affordable than you think if you’re willing to be flexible on accommodation and food.  If its the difference between being able to go on a trip or not, I think I would skimp a little here and there, but I know some people really require a certain level of comfort when they travel – which is absolutely fine. You know who you are and how to take these factors into account, I’m sure.

Finding Sketching Locations

Explore using street view on Google maps

One of the most fun ways to check out a place you want to visit is by using “street view” on Google Maps.  You can virtually wander the streets of anywhere in the world.

Go to googlemaps.com and type in wherever you want to go in the search bar.  In the bottom right-hand corner under the plus and minus symbols (zoom in and zoom out) there is an orange figure.  Click and hold and start to drag it on to the map, some or most of the streets should become highlighted with a blue line, drop the orange figure on whichever street you want, or near whichever landmark you are interested in.  Your view will zoom in and you will be standing on the street, click to move forward and back and click and drag to look around.  This is a great way to virtually immerse yourself in the areas you wish to visit…and it’s fun to armchair travel!

Guide Books

This is the most obvious place to start. I’m a big fan of Lonely Planet guides.  The local library usually has a bunch of these guides, although make sure you get the latest one possible.  A guide form 10 years ago is not going to be quite as accurate as one from last year. If you want to buy the book, the e-book versions are so much cheaper and lighter to carry around.

Lonely Planet guides also have a little section highlighting some unusual or quirky things whenever you’re visiting.  This is how I found out about a Toy Museum in Mexico City.  There’s no way you would stumble across it, it’s out of the city centre and just looks like a warehouse form the outside.  This is why prior research is essential.  Do not just use one guidebook though, browse a few and then check out various corners of the internet too.

Blogs

Travel blogs and articles will usually spell out the “top 10 things to do/see” in the location you wish to visit.  This is also a good way to find out some quirky things to see and do in the place you’re visiting. A lot of travel bloggers offer well-researched and unique advice about a place.  And it’s free!

Trip Advisor

Some people swear by Trip Advisor.  I don’t mind it and I can certainly see it’s a valuable place for businesses to be but again, do not use it as your only source of research.  Some businesses will “bribe” visitors with certain free things in exchange for a good review on TripAdvisor, so sometimes, the reviews there are not the be-all and end-all.  I have met travellers who use TripAdvisor like some kind of bible, never to be questioned.  Diversify your sources of information people, please!

Find Secret Spots

People like to really geek out about travel spots all over the internet, which is fantastic for researching areas to visit.  Recommendations on travel forums will generally not be commercially biased as they are not advertising platforms for businesses. The only bias will be that of the person posting their opinion about where to visit, which is fine!

Forums such as Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree are a fantastic source of information, although again be aware of the date of ceratin posts.  This forum has been around for many years, some of the information you find could be a few years old and potentially no longer accurate.

Reddit is a gold mine of information on every subject you can possibly think of. Redditers (Reddit users) are usually very kind and generous folk so if you have questions, sign up and chat, I’m certain you will gain incredibly useful insider knowledge here.

Couchsurfing.com is a website and app which allows people to connect around the world to offer somewhere for travellers to stay for free, or for travellers to find someone to stay with. You can reach out to people from the area you are travelling to and start chatting.  If you are feeling particularly social and a bit brave you can organise to stay for free with someone you meet on this platform, this could be for a night, a week, or more.

I have spoken with people via the app but not stayed with anyone as yet, although I have plenty of friends who have done so, and safely.  In fact, couchsurfing with local hosts have been some of my friends most fantastic travel experiences.  Whether you stay with someone or not, most people on the platform are travel enthusiasts and will be keen to give you advice about the area they call home.

Plot Your Trip

Once you’ve identified some of the main areas or buildings you’d like to sketch you can plot your actual trip on Google Maps.  Check out the video below for a guide on exactly how to do this.

You can save and download the map and directions you create so that you have access to it without internet access on your phone.

Planning Your Sketching Kit

The key to taking the right sketching kit with you is to firstly identify the absolute essentials.  It’s so tempting to want to pack anything and everything “just in case”.  If you don’t use it in your regular sketching, what makes you think you will need it on your two-week trip?  You won’t.

Think about the essentials you can’t do without…a sketchbook, watercolours (if that’s what you use), brushes, pens, pencils and an eraser and then go from there.  For example, my additions which are not essential are things like a white gel pen, white gouache and my fude-nib fountain pen.  I could certainly do without these things but they don’t add to much bulk or weight to the rest of my kit so there’s no reason not to bring these things.

On one trip I took a full tin of 24 Faber Castell colour pencils!  Firstly, this tin is a fairly large item (although not heavy). Secondly, I was constantly worried about them breaking as I travelled and thirdly I didn’t even use them all that much!  This is why it’s important to think through what you take. Sure, you may be able to fit into your bag but it doesn’t mean you should take it.

When I went to live in Mexico for 6 months I took:

  1. Stillman and Birn Zeta sketchbook + Moleskine Watercolour Album
  2. Winsor and Newton professional watercolour set (some of the pans replaced with Daniel Smith colours)
  3. 3 x Escoda travel brushes – size #2, #6 and #10
  4. Lamy Safari fountain pen + converter
  5. Sailor Fude fountain pen + converter
  6. A bottle of Platinum Carbon black fountain pen ink (permanent + waterproof)
  7. 2 x Mechanical pencils
  8. 1 x eraser
  9. 4 x fineliners: 0.1, 0.2, 0.5 and 0.8
  10. Micron brush pen
  11. White gel pen
  12. Tube of white gouache

Looking at this list above, I think this is everything I would take on any trip to be honest.  I took all of the items in my small backpack as carry-on luggage.  I didn’t want any of it to go in the hold of the plane and risk being lost, broken or stolen.

Most of the items on this list are hardy and do not need too much special consideration to keep them from being broken except the glass bottle of fountain pen ink.  Put this in a ziploc bag!  Somehow my bottle of ink did leak in my bag when travelling from London to Cape Town.  I have no idea how but I ended up getting ink all over the place, even though it was in a plastic bag.  Hence the recommendation to put it in a sealable bag.  

If carrying your art kit as hand luggage, ensure you keep any liquids under 100ml.  Use your common sense and do not carry anything sharp.  If you are used to sharpening your pencils with a knife, consider alternatives for your trip!

During the coronavirus outbreak, I ended up in South Africa and did not get back to my home in the UK, therefore I have limited sketching items with me. I did not have my full kit listed above because I was visiting South Sudan beforehand and I could only carry the most minimal amount of things possible.

I thought I would go home to the UK before travelling onwards to South Africa but of course, things changed quite quickly and I had to make different plans.  As such, I left a few sketching tools behind in the UK. The one thing I miss most?  My Lamy Safari fountain pen.  I adore sketching with it, I miss it!

Important Documents

I always travel with:

  • A photocopy of my passport. Some hotels or hostels may want to keep your passport while you’re staying there, less often these days when they can scan or photocopy the document themselves.  I’m not a big fan of leaving my passport anywhere, so having your own copy to hand over is obviously better.  A photocopy of your passport is also extremely helpful if, god forbid, you lose your actual passport. 
  • A copy of travel insurance.  I don’t often even have travel insurance to be honest, but I would recommend getting some.  Having a physical copy on you may be useful.
  • Spare passport photos.  These can come in handy for a variety of reasons, visa on arrival procedures for example.  I once needed a passport photo when I was in Hong Kong and trying to get a Chinese visa. I had to traipse around the city to find a machine or service, which was more hassle than I needed.
  • “In Case of Emergency” (ICE) contact details. Perhaps write them on the back of your travel insurance documents, if you get knocked down by a bus, there’s some solid information for people to be able to help you.
  • Address of my accommodation and exact directions of how to get there from the airport.
  • Any other information I think I will need that I won’t initially be able to access when I arrive due to no access to the internet on my phone.

What to Wear

Ok, this may sound like an obvious point but I have been on trips and regretted not looking a little closer at the expected weather.  For example, not taking a light rain jacket to a hot country where it is likely to still rain…heavily.  Perhaps you are more sensible than I.  

Another tip is to check on the mosquito situation, you may be visiting a hot country but having lightweight clothes with long sleeves, or long trousers may really help if, like me, you seem to be a magnet for the entire country’s mosquito population.  This will also protect you from the sun a little too.

If you’re going somewhere cold (why? why? why? haha) make sure you have all of your warm layers.  A down jacket is super warm yet easy to wrap up into a tight package to save packing room.  Fingerless gloves are useful to keep your hands warm but allow you to still sketch (and use your phone).

Don’t forget a water bottle (I like a thermal one like this that can keep liquids cold…or hot, like this one on Amazon) and a reusable tea/coffee cup if you can.  Let’s save the planet people!

Another item I cannot travel without (especially if you have an old phone with a battery that does not make it through the day) is an external battery pack.  If you are using your phone more than normal, for GPS for example, than having a battery charger could be invaluable. I use this one I bought from Amazon. It’s great because it has 2 USB inputs, so you can share with someone, or charge two items at a time, however, it is pretty heavy to carry around. If it’s just you travelling and you just need a slight charging bump on your phone to make it last the day, I’d recommend a smaller, lighter battery like this one.

If you cannot or don’t want to get one of these, make sure to carry the plug (and relevant travel adapter if you need one) and charging cable with you.  You’d be surprised at how many free power points you can find and use along your way.

What do you want to achieve?

I feel like we have come back around full circle to the aims of the trip.  Lots of planning is all well and good but don’t lose sight of what you want to get from your trip.

The aim of my trip to Budapest was to capture the magnificent architecture in the city on both sides of the river, Buda and Pest. I was toying with the idea of having a separate sketchbook for each side, or maybe drawings on side of the sketchbook for Buda and then turning the book back to front and drawing scened of Pest “upside down” on the facing page.

Having a plan of action and thinking through each of the sections outlined above will really help to take your sketching trip to the next level.

And hey, if you ever want a sketching buddy for a trip, let me know!! You can email me hello@urbansketchingworld.com (I always reply!) or find me on Instagram @urbansketchingworld

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