How to Start a Travel Sketchbook


How do you start a watercolour sketchbook or travel journal? I think most of us have wondered what the best way to start a sketchbook is.  You unwrap the book and open the crisp pages and cannot help but feel an overwhelmed that nothing you draw or paint on that first page is going to be good enough and the book is doomed!  You don’t feel that way? Oh. Just me then, I guess.

Here are some ideas about how to start a travel sketchbook:

  • Sketching your art supplies
  • Make a colour mixing chart
  • Drawing a map
  • Stick in tickets stubs or memorabilia from your trip
  • Sketch the mode of transport you are taking to start your trip
  • Record the start and end dates of your book
  • Start and end with a self-portrait

Firstly, let’s deal with that sketchbook-shaped elephant in the room…

First-page Anxiety

The fear of the first blank page of a sketchbook is real. Very real. Especially if your sketchbook is a super fancy expensive watercolour book and you feel every line has to be perfect.  The pressure mounts and you find it impossible to get started.

I think in these modern times we live in there’s a feeling we must share our sketches or even entire sketchbooks (I have shared some of mine over on the Urban Sketching World YouTube channel). 

While I love a sketchbook tour video, the thought of “having” to share our sketchbooks only adds to the anxiety that everything must be perfect and that if we screw up the first page the rest of the sketchbook is doomed. 

I used to feel this way but I have definitely loosened up. I let go of the need to share my sketchbook on social media and only very recently have gone back to film old sketchbooks and publish them as videos.

I am not so precious now.  I also think it can help others to see how my sketching has progressed over the last few years and encourage them to know we do all just get better and better as artists over time. It just takes practice and consistency (in terms of showing up). 

That’s exactly why we must love the process of making and art and not get hung up on the end result. If we are constantly seeking that perfect end result, we will never achieve it in our own eyes and our desire to keep creating will dwindle to nothing and we will never improve.

On that happy note, let’s dive into some of the ideas on how to start a sketchbook a little more closely and I can give you some examples from some of my favourite urban sketchers.

Sketch Your Art Supplies

Many urban sketchers will start their sketchbook by sketching the art supplies they are using at the time, or taking on the trip with them.  This is a great way to conquer the blank page syndrome. It’s also a great exercise to loosen you up and sketch items that may challenge you as you’re not used to drawing them. 

If you want some further ideas of exercises to improve your urban sketching, check out my suggestions here.

Teoh Yi Chie takes this a tiny step further and actually sketches everything he is packing for a trip, so his clothes, camera, sketching stool etc.  I think this is a pretty cool idea. Especially if you take a lot of sketching trips.

Create a Colour Mixing Chart 

Create a colour mixing chart (see this post for detailed instructions on how) this is a great way to get to know your paints better and learn how to seamlessly mix any colours.

Check out my video below to see how I made a watercolour mixing chart from my St Petersburg White Nights watercolour set (you can find a similar set on Amazon):

I struggle to think of how to mix certain colours and shades sometimes.  Creating a mixing chart really helped my knowledge to increase and my colour mixing accuracy improved greatly.  Having such a chart in your sketchbook as an immediate reference is invaluable. I really cannot encourage you enough to do this.

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Sketch a Map

I love to start a sketchbook with a map of the country I’m travelling to, showing the different areas in the country I will visit and including the flag too.  It’s a great way to start a trip full of sketching. Even if it’s partway through a sketchbook I’m working on (and not the first page) – I will start with a sketch of a map when travelling to a new country.  This is a great way to visualise the geography of the country and remember which areas you visited.

I try to not get too caught up in getting the shape of the country exactly correct. I squint a little and just try to get the overall shape right.  It does not have to be precise at all. Do not agonise over it. Just do it and move on. The goal is to get over the fear of the blank first page after all.

This was the map I drew for the first page of my sketchbook when I travelled to South Sudan.

Perhaps you are not taking a real trip but a virtual one and you are sketching from photos from a certain city or country, you can still draw a map of these areas.  This could help you to theme your sketchbook or sections of it. You may draw a few things from one city and then move onto another. That’s what I’m doing at the moment with my timelapse series over on Youtube.  

If you are not travelling to a different country (physically or virtually), sketch a map of your local area, or the route of your walk with little landmarks along the way.  If you are staying around the house, how about drawing a floorplan?

Tickets & Stickers

Reserve the first page for ticket stubs, stickers, or interesting items you want to keep from your trip.  This could be a plane, bus or train tickets; theatre or gig tickets, museum flyers, postcards from art galleries or even stamps or stickers you collect along the way. 

One of my favourite urban sketchers (you can see the whole list here for maximum inspiration), “Captain Tom”, takes an Instamatic camera on his trips, and sticks in a photo on certain sketchbook spreads.  He uses the very tastefully and certainly adds a travel journal flavour to his sketchbook.

Planes, Trains & Automobiles

A great way to kick off a travel sketchbook is to sketch the plane (or train or automobile) from the exterior while you are waiting at the gate. 

The walkway tunnel that connects the gate to the plane can be super fun to capture with its concertinaed pattern. 

And then you can sketch the inside of the plane (or train or car) during your journey.

Start & End Dates

Urban sketcher Danny Hawk (another of my favourite artists, you can see the rest of the list here) reserves his first page so he can sketch two calendar pages, one has the date he started the sketchbook and the second will have the date he finished the sketchbook, which he goes and fills once he has finished the book.

Self Portrait

Self-portraits can be fun.  I find I really don’t know my face very well at all, does anyone else feel that way?  You can either sit in front of a mirror and sketch yourself from life which would be an excellent exercise for urban sketching, as your face will never quite be back in the position you started sketching it from because you will have to keep looking up and down. 

When urban sketching, people are very rarely still, learning to capture the essence of something at speed is an invaluable skill. Or you can take a photo of yourself with your phone and sketch from this, which may be a bit easier but perhaps not quite as dynamic as trying to draw yourself from life.

You could combine a self-portrait as part of a spread and including your art supplies like Susan did below:

It could be an interesting idea to start your sketchbook with a self-portrait, and also end the sketchbook with a self-portrait.  How has you sketching changed over the course of the book…or how have you changed as a person over the course of the sketchbook? This could get a little deep.  But your sketchbook is also a journal of your life, so why not? Get a healthy dose of self-reflection in I say!  

I would love to see some of your first page sketches or hear some of your ideas.  If you feel like sharing then please tag me over on Instagram @urbansketchingworld – I reply to every single comment and DM. Or you can email me hello@urbansketchingworld.com (I always reply!)

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