Keeping a travel sketchbook is a great way to document your travels and discoveries. Track the places you went, the people you met, the experiences you had. Travelling is one of the most creatively inspiring things you can do, with constant new visual and sensory input.
It can also be a creative outlet for exploring new ideas and techniques. Here are some tips for getting started with your own travel sketchbook.
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Travel sketchbook tips
Here are some tips on how to approach keeping a travel sketchbook and some tips on how to draw and paint when you’re out and about!
Choose the right sketchbook
Look for a sketchbook that is small enough to carry with you everywhere, but large enough to hold all your sketches. Hardcover notebooks are ideal for travel sketching because they offer more protection from the elements. Stillman & Birn sketchbooks are lightweight, yet high quality.
Stock up on supplies
Before you hit the road, make sure you have all the supplies you need to document your trip. Pencils, pens, watercolours, and travel-sized journals are all essential for travel sketching. If you prefer painting to drawing, bring all the necessary supplies to clean up afterwards.
Try using different mediums
Another great medium to travel with is gouache paint. Gouache is a type of watercolour, but is more opaque, so you can build layers of colours and highlights. It’s a versatile medium that is lightweight and easy to clean—perfect for travelling.
Read more about how to travel with different paint mediums in our travel art supplies guide.
When you’re on the road, be on the lookout for interesting places, and things to sketch. Take photos to reference later, or jot down notes about what caught your eye.
Don’t be afraid to experiment
Travel sketching is the perfect opportunity to experiment with new mediums and styles. Don’t be afraid to try something new, you might be surprised at the results.
Take a reference photo
You don’t have to complete a whole painting or drawing on location. Take a photo when the light is right and complete it later. That way, you can capture the essence of the scene with a sketch and spend time on it when you have time.
Vary your subject matter
If you’re used to painting landscapes, why not try painting or drawing a cityscape, or a building in the landscape. You could also diversify the subjects of your artworks by drawing a busy scene, including some of the people you see passing by, to give the artwork a sense of liveliness.
Note the date and location of your sketch
A travel sketchbook is like a book of memories. In it, you can document your interpretation of a scene, including the weather, people, atmosphere and main details you noticed. Even if you come back to paint or draw the same place again, no two drawings will look the same! Therefore it’s important to note the date and specific location of your sketch. Afterall the whole point of keeping a travel sketchbook is keeping a log of where you been and what you’ve seen in each location.
Let go of perfectionism
A sketchbook is a place to record your first response to a scene, to experiment and even to improve upon your plein air painting skills.
Let go of creating a perfectly polished sketchbook and instead focus on representing your sensory responses. The sketchbook page should trigger memories of the location, which you can even choose to make a larger canvas painting out of at a later date.
Store your sketchbook
If you use water based paints in your travel sketches, consider putting your sketchbook in a waterproof bag to protect it. So if you take it backpacking and it gets wet, your drawings and paintings will be preserved.
Travel sketchbook ideas
You might naturally feel inspired to sketch whatever you feel most drawn to on your travels. However, sometimes it’s difficult to know what to focus on! Here are some ideas for your sketchbook, so you can mix it up, make a theme and record as much as possible.
Draw the flora and fauna
If you spend a lot of time hiking or out in nature when you’re on your travels, you’ll know that one of the best things about it is spotting new animals and plants. Dedicate pages in your sketchbook to documenting your sightings, whether that’s birds, flowers or larger animals!
Draw the architecture of a new city
New city, new buildings! Whenever you travel to a new place, one of the first things you’ll probably want to do is explore the streets and take in the architecture. Whether you sit and draw La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, or some random buildings you found off of a main street, architecture is an art form in itself. It’s detailed, complex and tells a story of a city’s history.
Documenting this in your travel sketchbook will give you a fantastic visual record of your trip. You could even write some facts about the buildings you go to see. This can enrich your experience of a city, as you find out more about how it was built.
Paint a crowded scene
One of the hardest things to do when painting or drawing is to show movement. This can be even harder when you’re trying to do it on location! But by taking a few minutes to sketch a busy scene, you can practice depicting moving subjects.
This might sound daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. Focus on one thing at a time, such as the way a person is walking, or the way their clothes are billowing in the wind. By breaking it down into smaller chunks, you can create a sense of movement without getting overwhelmed.
Capturing the people and energy of a bustling city is just as interesting as drawing in nature!
As well as painting or drawing people, try to include some of the background too. This could be buildings, trees or even just the sky. All of these things add to the story of your travel sketchbook and make it more interesting to look back on.
Create a cover for each location
For each new place you visit, you could create a cover page, almost like a new chapter in a book. Add some lettering to the page to show where you are. You could even leave a page blank before your other sketches of the city, then come back to it once you have more inspiration of how to sum up the area you stayed.
Create a sensory piece
What can art do that photos can’t? Drawings and paintings can capture the atmosphere of a scene better, and therefore better elicit memories of your sensory responses at the time.
You could even include some of the local produce to colour your drawings. For example, you could crush up a flower petal into a paste to make pigment and paint it on the paper. Or do the same with the local coffee. If you create art with items you find where you travelled, it can strengthen the connection you have to the place.
Draw or paint a self portrait in each location
This travel sketchbook idea is less about the scene around you, and more about your reaction to it. What did this place make you feel? How has travel changed you?
A self portrait can be a way of representing these emotions. They don’t have to be literal portraits, they could be more abstract or even just a series of colours and shapes that you associate with your travel experience.
Whatever you choose to do, have fun and let your creativity flow!
Visit the national parks
If you’re touring the US, you could stop off in some of the national parks. Each park has its own distinct topography, flora and fauna. Capture the essence of this in your sketchbook.
Every country has their own national parks and areas of natural beauty. If you visit them, make sure to pack your sketchbook.
Paint a night scene
Cities can look totally different at night, it’s when most cities come alive!
Whether you’re painting your own rendition of Starry Night, or Cafe Terrace at Night, or painting something entirely different. Capture the glow of the street lamps over a cobbled, wine bar lined street in Italy, or the moon over the ocean in Hawaii.
Find the perfect viewpoint
This might take some trekking! Find a viewpoint that overlooks the city or area you’re staying it. Take some time to make your sketch, capturing the horizon. Equally, you could go and find the best viewpoint of a famous monument in the city. Find more sketchbook ideas in our guide.
Travel sketchbook kit
Now that you’ve got some ideas and know how to approach your travel sketchbook adventure, you need to make sure you have the right supplies!
The sketchbook you choose will depend upon your size requirements as well as the medium you use. If you like to work with water based media, such as watercolour or gouache, make sure to choose a sketchbook with thick pages.
The Stillman & Birn Gamma Archival sketchbook is a high quality book, with 150gsm thick pages that have a smooth vellum finish. Use this book with mixed media, such as pencil, ink, gouache or watercolour. The pages are stitched together, so you can make double page spreads. Stillman & Birn books come in a variety of paper types and sizes, so you can choose the best one for your needs.
If you want more sketchbook recommendations, check out our guide on the best sketchbooks for artists.
A couple of graphite pencils in different softness levels, an eraser and a sharpener is all you really need to start drawing. However, if you want to add colour to your piece, consider taking a set of gouache paints. You don’t need too many supplies for gouache painting, just a brush, a water cup and the paints.
Another way to add a splash of colour to your travel sketches is with coloured pencils. Watercolour pencils are a great option, as they remain dry until activated with water. So they’re easier to transport and less messy to paint with. You could also take oil pencils or pastel pencils to create coloured drawings.
If you do decide to take some paints with you, you’ll need some brushes too. Get a watercolour travel brush like this da Vinci Casaneo, which is a synthetic yet soft and absorbent brush that can render excellent details and create wonderful washes.
If you want to see our full review of travel art supplies, check the guide!
Painting en plein air
Painting on location, or en plein air as it’s also called is a big part of keeping a travel sketchbook. It’s the best way to capture a sense of place and the feeling of being there.
When you’re painting outdoors, you need to be quick because the light changes constantly. So it’s good to have a plan before you start painting. First, decide what composition you want to paint. Look for interesting shapes, colours and textures. Then, decide what colours you want to use. Once you have your plan, start painting!
If you want to learn more about painting en plein air, check out our guide here.
Have fun with it!
Your travel sketchbook should be a reflection of your own personal style. So have fun with it! Use bright colors, experiment with different mediums, or even add in photographs.
We hope you enjoyed this travel sketchbook guide and that it’s inspired you to get out there and start sketching!
What are you going to include in your travel sketchbook? Let us know in the comments.
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