Why & How You Should Absolutely Keep a Travel Sketchbook


In this post, we will explore what travel sketching is, why it’s awesome and how you can get started documenting your travels too, whether it’s travelling around your local area, your own country or across the world. 

What if you put your fears and concerns aside, get a sketchbook and a pen and start documenting your travels?

Can you imagine having a library of sketchbooks build up for you to look back on? Can you imagine how great your sketching skills will become if you sketch continuously? Can you imagine showing your friends and family sketches of your travels? And how much better than photographs they are…!

By reading this post I hope it will encourage you to either get started with travel sketching and just trying without fixating on the result. Or if you have tried travel sketching before I hope this post encourages you to keep doing it and to share your sketches with the rest of the world too (if you want to).

There’s nothing like showing your sketch to someone and seeing their face light up with recognition and delight at a familiar scene through the medium of your pen, paint and mind. 

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed about taking up an activity such as travel sketching but we all have to start somewhere. I remember the first trip I truly committed to sketching every single day, everywhere I went.

No one ever said anything bad about my sketches or the fact I was sketching, in fact, over 3 months and 6 different countries meeting people from all walks of life I only ever had positive encounters.

I’m not saying no one is judging, we are human beings, everyone judges but its exceptionally rare someone will come and be rude or negative to your face.

Committing to travel sketching and filling my first book with an adventure was a real turning point in my life. It’s where my obsession with sketching, illustration and travel really took hold. Over the following years, I have sketched more and more. Other people began to notice. As such, I have been approached by many people to paint buildings or places close to their heart, I have been asked to illustrate books, fabric patterns and all manner of other things. All from just doing something I really wanted to do and getting over the fact that I was not going to be good at it at first.

I still wonder if I am any good now, I’m not sure any of us really get past that thought. But learning to acknowledge that thought is there and just doing it anyway because its fun and you love it…that’s the key.

What is a Travel Sketchbook?

A travel sketchbook is a place in which to record your adventures through the medium of drawing, painting or both. You can use one sketchbook for each of your trips or have one book for all travels until it’s full and then start another one.

A travel sketchbook is like a photo album (does anyone remember those)?? It used to be so exciting getting your roll of film processed after a trip, receiving the physical glossy photos and then arranging them inside a faux leather album that looks like an old book to put on the shelf and pull out to show people or just to look back on happy memories. Well,  a travel sketchbook is like that but 1000 times more fulfilling to make!

The type of sketchbook you will need depends on what medium you intend to use. If you want to use “dry media” such as pencil, colour pencils, ink etc then a standard sketchbook will be fine. If you want to use “wet media” such as watercolour pencils or watercolour paint, it is best to get a watercolour sketchbook.

I have a post here on my advice as to which watercolour sketchbooks to consider.

My first travel sketchbook was given to me by work colleagues, it was so beautiful I knew I wanted to use it for my trip even though it didn’t have watercolour paper in it and I wanted to use watercolour paint. Luckily, I was only using light washes of watercolour paint and the paper was thick drawing paper, so it worked out well enough. 

If you want to use alcohol markers, such as Copics or Promarkers for example, make sure you get a mixed media sketchbook with thick pages. Even then you will want to test whether the marker bleeds through the page. If so, make sure you have a scrap piece of paper to put between pages and be aware you will only be able to sketch on every other page on both sides of the paper.

If you want to use markers but don’t like the sound of only being able to use every other page or want to avoid the issue of the ink bleeding through the page, check out water-based markers such as the Faber-Castell Pitt pens.

Don Colley uses these pens to amazing effect and he points out that they don’t smell or bleed through the page as alcohol-based markers do.

Why Start a Travel Sketchbook?

Something to do…

I honestly believe travelling solo is one of the most liberating travel experiences you can have and is actually predominantly how I do travel. If I waited for someone else to be in a position to afford or even want to go to the same places as me, I don’t think I would have been many places.

When you do travel solo, there are many times spent alone either exploring, sitting at a cafe or simply just waiting at a bus terminal or airport. As much as I love reading a book there’s nothing like pulling out a sketchbook to draw the things around you, compose a sketchbook layout, write notes around things you want to remember.

Mindfulness 

Following on from the point above, sketching while travelling is a fantastic way of practising mindfulness, i.e. being present. When sketching from life, you are focussing on your surroundings so much more. You are more aware of the small little details that you may otherwise not have noticed. By focussing on the activity of sketching your mind remains in the present and not replaying the past or anxiously fixating on the future.

For more thoughts on sketching and mindfulness, check out my post here.

Journal/record of your travels

Keeping a travel sketchbook is a great way of actually recording your trip: where you went, who you met, what you did.

If you’re anything like me then you cannot remember place names easily, so having them written down next to a little sketch of the place is super useful!

Some people like to keep a written journal while travelling. You can combine this and include written thoughts in your sketchbook too. Remember, it’s your sketchbook and just like a private journal, you are under no obligation to show it to anybody.

Great way to meet people

I found when I was sketching, people were more inclined to come and speak to me. I suppose this is because there was something tangible to start a conversation about. Again, if you are travelling alone, this can be a useful method of making new friends!

I met an architecture student who was also sketching while travelling. After starting up a conversation we ended up travelling together for the next couple of weeks as we were heading along the same route through Mexico. Having a shared interest automatically helps break the ice. 

It is also a great way to make contact with local people living in the area. Even if you don’t speak the same language, seeing a smile cross someone’s face when they see your sketch is universally understood.

Basic Materials Needed For Travel Sketching

Pencil

Mechanical pencils are useful for travelling as they don’t need sharpening. Some people just prefer the feel of a traditional wooden pencil though. Use whatever works for you.

I like these Rotring mechanical pencils which you can pick up affordably on Amazon.

Pen

Just like pencils, you can use any pen you want. You could just use a ballpoint pen, like a Bic. You could use fineliner pens, otherwise known as technical drawing pens. They come in a variety of different line thicknesses. They are great at producing extremely consistent line quality. Many travel sketchers use Microns, UniPins or Faber Castell pens.

The great thing about all of these fineliner pens is they have permanent waterproof ink in them, so if you want to paint over the top in watercolour, the ink won’t smudge.

If you want to get a bit fancier, you could even use a fountain pen.

For more information on sketching with fountain pens, check out my more detailed post here.

You can watch me receive some new fountain pens and show you how to fill them up with permanent waterproof ink in the video below:

Sketchbook

As discussed your choice of sketchbook will depend on what media you want to use in it but if you want an affordable sketchbook that you could use for anything, including light watercolour, then consider using a mixed media sketchbook. You can get a hardback book, a softcover book or a wire-bound book. This is entirely up to your own preference.

I prefer a hardback book as its easier to sketch in on your lap and is a bit hardier for travelling. A softcover book can get damaged more easily in your bag and you will need to find a hard surface to lean on in order to sketch in it. Pages can slip around a lot in a wire-bound book, perhaps even being ripped out by accident. While it can fold in on itself easily to make it a bit more compact, it also removes the option of drawing across the fold of two pages which I am personally a big fan of when creating sketchbook spreads.

Also, consider the format of the book you want to use: landscape, portrait or square.

For more information on which sketchbooks are best for travel sketching, check out my post here.

One of my favourite brands of sketchbook is Stillman & Birn, I have a post here discussing the differences between each series of sketchbook the company makes.

If you are in the UK, I think one of the best and most affordable options are the beautiful handmade sketchbooks by The Pink Pig.

For quick reference, check out these sketchbooks:

Moleskine Watercolor Album

Seawhite of Brighton Travel Sketchbook

Stillman & Birn Alpha Sketchbook 

Hahnemuhle Sketchbook

Colour

If you want to add colour to your sketches you could use a range of materials. The key thing to consider is portability. You do not want to be lugging a huge box of markers around with you, especially if you are on a backpacking trip or trying to travel light. This is one of the primary reasons many travel sketchers use watercolours. You can get a set in a small tin and you only need a few colours in order to mix the rest.

Pair a small box of watercolours such as this St Petersburg White Nights set of 12 with a water brush like this Pentel Aquash water brush and you have a super small portable sketching set up.

For more detailed information on watercolour sets for travel sketching, check out my post here.

Miscellaneous

Washi tape is a great method of taping in ephemera such as tickets, postcards and leaflets. It can also be used to tape off your page to make a nice clean border. They come in a vast variety of super fun designs as well.

Eraser

Pencil sharpener (unless you have a mechanical pencil)

What Do You Put In a Travel Sketchbook?

Sketches

Well, this is obvious but needed to be said. Sketch the places you have been:

  • Architecture: monuments, churches, museums, art galleries, castles, stadiums
  • Nature: animals, plants, gardens, parks, beach, ocean, cliffs, sunrises,  sunsets
  • People: your family, friends, strangers, people you meet, new friends
  • Machines: cars, motorbikes, agricultural machines, vintage trucks, boats, public transport, trains, buses, taxis, trams, bicycles
  • Food: local dishes, recipes, condiments, drinks
  • Doodle: let your imagination run wild

Ephemera

Ephemera are the bits and pieces you collect along the way on your travels. Ever wondered what to do with that random flyer, free sticker, or ticket stub? They can all be added to a relevant sketchbook spread, or all at the front, or at the back in the pocket (which some sketchbooks have) – wherever makes sense to you.

Ephemera includes the following types of things:

  • photos
  • tickets
  • maps
  • postcards
  • stamps
  • stickers
  • flyers
  • drawings or messages from your travel companions or people you meet

Urban sketcher, Captain Tom, has a polaroid-type camera with him on his travels and sticks in his photos as he takes them to add to his sketchbook spreads:

Lettering

Titles and notes about where you have been, quotes that seem fitting, jokes you hear on the road, words or phrases in a different language you want to remember. 

When I was visiting Iran, I asked whoever I could (who spoke English) if they would mind writing the place name of where I sketched in Farsi (the language spoken in Iran). Even though I can’t read it, its lovely have this beneath every place name in my sketchbook. (You can see an example in the picture below, just under where ‘Kashan’ is written).

Kashan, Iran - sketchbook spread

I also asked people I met or travelled with to write a little note, message or joke (whatever they wanted) in my book so I could remember them. It also makes that person more involved in what you are doing, they can be a part of it too.

How to Start a Travel Sketchbook?

Facing a brand new sketchbook with all those blank pages, especially that very first blank page is a daunting prospect.  However, there are many strategies to get rid of that first blank page and overcome the fear of getting started.

I have an entire post on how to start a travel sketchbook here but in summary:

  1. Draw a map of the country or area you are visiting – I did this when I visited Iran and South Sudan.
Map of South Sudan
  1. Sketch your art supplies – a great way to remember what materials you used in your book
  2. Make a colour mixing chart – this is such a great reference tool, especially if you are using a small set of watercolours and need to regularly mix colours to get the shade you need. I have a post here and a video below on how go about making a watercolour mixing chart.
  1. Reserve the first page for ticket stubs, leaflets and other ephemera. I sometimes like to tape in my boarding pass if I’m flying somewhere and on the final page of the trip I will tape in my departing boarding pass (after I have used it of course)! More recently my tickets have all been electronic so I do this less and less.
  2. Sketch the mode of transport you first take to start your trip. A great way to get started travel sketching is when, for example, you are sat in an airport waiting for your flight. I like to get a seat near the window and sketch the plane while the airport staff are preparing it for the journey. If you can’t get a view of the plane, of you are taking a different method of transport which you cannot get a view of, sketch the people around you that are also waiting. Most of them will be looking at their phone, laptop, book or will be asleep so they won’t notice you sketching them, perfect models to practice on!

I have an entire guide on people sketching, you can check it out here.

How to Keep Going

Sometimes you’re not going to be happy with a sketch or a page you’ve done and it will demotivate you from carrying on but persistence is key. You will never get everything perfect, but that’s the beauty of a sketchbook or journal.

Sure, you can be super neat but how about letting go? Make it your own graffiti wall, fill every space, overlap things, write notes all over the place – let go! I personally think these types of pages can be the most beautiful as they are so free.

My First Travel Sketchbook

I remember creating my first travel sketchbook on a solo backpacking trip to Mexico and Central America. I mentioned my intention to a few of my colleagues at the job I was leaving in order to take the 3-month trip. On the day I left I was presented with a leaving gift – a handmade sketchbook with a map of Mexico and Central America on the cover. I was completely overwhelmed at the thought that went into that gift.

It was the book I used for the whole of my trip, sketching in it and sticking tickets and leaflets from everywhere I went. I adore that sketchbook and love leafing through it now and again as a reminder of my trip, the experiences I had and the people I met.

If you would like to see it, I did a flip through of it, it was the very first video on the Urban Sketching World Youtube channel! You can see it here:

My point is, that no matter how bad some of my sketches were, I look back on that book with such fond memories. Just like some of the photos in my photo album are badly exposed or not in focus, not all of your sketches will reach your personal standards. I’m not sure they ever will, as you will always be trying to improve.

I would hate for you to miss out on the opportunity of creating a travel sketchbook just because you’re worried it won’t be perfect. You will not care about that at all in 1, 2, 5 or 10 years time when you look back on it. Let’s just enjoy the process and not concern ourselves with the outcome.

Final Thoughts

I hope this article has encouraged you to keep a travel sketchbook when you embark on your next adventure. 

If you are new to urban sketching then check out my beginners guide with practical advice on how to get started.

If you are wanting to improve your sketching skills I have numerous articles that may be able to help but this post on things you can do to improve immediately may be a good place to start.

Perhaps you want to loosen your sketching up? In that case, try this post.

Or if you would like to focus on a certain subject, I have a post about sketching architecture here, a post about sketching cars here and a whole guide on sketching people here.

To stay in touch with me and get some behind the scenes information on urban sketching projects I’m working on, pop your email in the box below! 

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