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The Joys of Travel Sketching

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Sitting beside a dilapidated monastery, built over a brook, I soaked in the atmosphere. I could feel the rustling of trees, chirping of birds, the fragrance of pine trees, the chatter of trekkers on the return, and the rhythmic music from water-propelled prayer wheels. The slow capturing of this scene on paper with graphite strokes brought everything into sharp focus. Like a movie sequence slipping into slow-motion and elevating a significant moment, travel sketching freezes an experience in time, and on paper.

When I sketch while traveling, people stop by to look at my sketches, sometimes with curiosity, sometimes with wonder and sometimes just plain confusion – and more often than not, it ends up in interesting conversations or memories. Sitting in one spot in a new place, sometimes for hours, gives me a chance to really see life as it is. The intense awareness – of shape, colors, movement – and the stillness of my mind as it gets engrossed in the sketching – is a spiritual, meditative experience.  It is a deep, deep connection with the place that fills me with joy and soothes away the frustrations of life.

A page from my Bhutan sketchbook…

We reached Dochula pass, shrouded in fog and unbelievably cold. There’s a small hill covered with many chortens (memorial shrines of Buddhist monks) which just appears out of nowhere!! The hill in front has a monastery with paintings celebrating the victory of Bhutanese soldiers.

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Behind the chortens, is a smaller hill. I noticed a monk going up the stone path on this hill. Intrigued, I decided to explore it. None of the other tourists bothered with this place. And I had my much-cherished solitude.

The holy hill has several small caves with bright Buddhist paintings, small stone bench, and a lamp. Later, I came to know that these are meditation caves.

Further up, was a clearing with many many prayer flags strung up. And my explorations ended here!

Removing my gloves to do the sketch was sheer torture – for a seasider like me!! However, I was able to withstand the cold to make the sketch of the cave. The dragon, writing, and detailing was done later at night in the comfort of a warm hotel room.

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Getting Started with Travel Sketching

Haven’t drawn since school? No professional training?

No worries!

Travel sketching does not require any training – the best way to learn is to sketch whenever you are traveling. Even if it’s a mundane bus ride to the office, keep a notepad and sketch the views and people … and over time you’ll find your own style and method of capturing your experiences take form.

Tip:

Add in notes about the place, the weather, the fragrances, names of building and people, stories, – anything that you find unique about the place. Maybe add a thought bubble or interesting line that you heard at that moment. These layers add to the art and create a personal story that jumps out of the page.

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Getting the Supplies Together

All you need to sketch while traveling are some blank paper sheets, a few pens and pencils, and lots and lots of patience. As you get comfortable sketching plein air, you will start developing your own style and might want a more fleshed out travel sketch kit. Here’s what I would suggest:

Sketchbook

A bound journal with thick paper, such as a Moleskine Pocket Watercolour Notebook. A copic stitch journal which opens flat is also a good choice. I often sketch on restaurant bills, tickets, maps, paper napkins, and other unconventional writing material I find during my travels, and keep them pinned to my sketchbook.

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Pens and Markers

Start with two black ink or gel pens – a fine tipped one for details (like Micron pens) and a thicker one (like Bistro marker brush pens) for quick strokes. And based on how much you can carry, add in different pens and markers to your sketch kit.

Watercolors

Get yourself a pan of watercolors, with 12 colors, to start with and some watercolor brush pens (that can store water). Also, keep some regular brushes in your kit, for backup.

Tip:

Carry two kits:

  • A very basic one (tiny blank notepad + 1 pencil + 1 eraser + 1 sharpener + 1 black fine tipped pen)
  • A bigger sketch kit, with colors, glues, brushes, multiple pens, and a bigger journal.

The smaller kit is useful while moving around with friends, or going for a trek – basically for sketching within 5 to 15 minutes while on the move.

The larger kit is for longer sketching sessions, like sketching with some more time and leisure at hand, like in a hotel reception lobby or a relaxed café.

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Getting into the Rhythm

Sketching in public is a great means of accepting oneself – and I say this from personal experience. Initially, I used to be very self-conscious while sketching – if a drawing became disproportionate or a finishing touch rendered a perfectly-drawn face odd – I’d feel embarrassed when passers-by glanced at my work.  Often I’d tell myself, I’m not that good an artist – what am I doing here?

Once you understand that the fun is in the process and stop being conscious, it becomes a joyride. Sometimes, it helps to join a local sketching group and do some trial runs. You can also meet local sketch groups while traveling. Browse through Urban Sketchers listings to locate sketch groups.

Does this sound like something you’d like to try? Or, you’ve been sketching and have your own travel sketching experiences? Do comment and share your experiences. I’d love to hear from you.

Happy traveling … and happy sketching!

This article was first published on Travelettes.net

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