10 Tips on how to keep an illustrated travel sketchbook on the road, even if you “can’t draw” (Part 1)

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A basket of apples in Basque country. The stamps are the the same ones used for Camino “passports.”

In 2014, I decided I wanted to walk the Camino de Santiago and keep a travel journal. Only problem was, I disliked sketching.  I knew what a travel journal SHOULD look like…

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Photo altered and text added with apps
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Storks nesting on top of Spanish church. Photo altered and text added with apps.

Never in a million years could I keep an sketchbook like the ones above– the ones full of architectural detail and castles with swans floating on them, with notes in a perfect calligraphy.

I’m an abstract painter.   I like big, sketching is small. I like color, and sketching is black and white.  I like huge ideas, and sketching is detailed.  I don’t even like reality that much, so why would I want to draw it?

I am not an expert sketcher, so please take my advice with more than a few grains of salt. But I was lucky.  I ended up keeping an illustrated travel journal that has brought me and others pleasure over the years.  As I walked the Camino, this scratchy, amateur sketchbook got me free food, wine and rooms, acted as a thank-you note, and bailed me out of trouble a few times. It got worn and dirty occasionally, as I did.  It also let me keep “secrets of the Camino” that eventually became painting and printmaking series, though I didn’t know it at the time.  And I normally didn’t draw from photos, drawing what was in front of me instead. I wasn’t a purist about it, but I wanted to draw my moment, adding memories of the day and figments of my imagination.

Tip #1: Practice before you go

Yes, you non-drawer, you do have to practice a little. Why would you suddenly start doing something on a trip when you don’t ever do  in everyday life? Everyone can draw and paint. You did as a kid.  So get a kid drawing book that shows you how to make firemen and hot wheels and dinosaurs, or get Art Before Breakfast by Danny Gregory, or a book on anime or doodling.  Take a course from a local sketching expert like Susan Cornelis if you can, or find your branch of Urban Sketchers.  Find the size kind of sketchbook you feel comfortable with– but with blank pages. Do not use a fancy sketchbook that makes you feel like you have already screwed it up just by looking at it.  It should feel friendly! Make stick figures or cartoons. Spill ink and paint on it. Don’t get too serious.  Draw your Starbucks.  Don’t show anyone.  Take an online course from Sketchbook Skool. Do this for a few weeks to a few months before you go.

Full disclosure: here are notebook pages done as practice before I left for Spain.

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Snow globe and sticky note. I was teaching Moby Dick and Macbeth at the time

 

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Another in the sticky note series. I should do that series again!

 

Tip #2: Use your words and your little scraps of things. Use what you got.

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A plate of paella with cutout collage scallop shell.

Use your words and the paper travel media which you collect, cut into pieces. Stick on train tickets.  Get places to rubber stamp your notebook, then draw later.  The key to an illustrated travel journal is words plus images done NOW, not later.  You can’t plan what the pages will look like in advance, but you can enter the moment and use everything in front of you.  Don’t be a purist and don’t try to have each page make sense.  That is your perfectionism speaking, and it will stop your daily travel journaling like an anvil dropping on the head of Wile E. Coyote .  I did this page with a plate of paella in front of me, looking at a Roman arch hung with hats.  Even if you did only collage and crayons and words, no drawing at all, it might be more amazing than you could imagine when you started.

Tip #3: Do it daily and do it anywhere.

 

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The Cafe Moderno, established 1912. Fountain lady and urn.

I did this one waiting at a fountain for it to be time to see a movie at night. Please do not wait to do your travel journal page for the day.   It doesn’t have to be a masterpiece.  This page had a healing quality for me, as I was stuck in this town as my foot mended from a minor– but threatening to become major– blister infection.   I did work on the train and in cafes.  I am not a dedicated urban sketcher, braving snow and balancing on stools.  These pages do not capture a “thing,”; they address time, space and emotion.  They are not as good if you wait for the “right” scene or right place to draw or even a better idea.  Do it now, with your crummy view and the mediocre idea in front of you.  “If you’re not with the one you  love, love the one you’re with.”

Part 2 and Part 3 of these ideas will be continued in the next two posts.  You can read my Camino blog here.

Upcoming Events

Sunday, November 4, 2018 10:00 AM,  Lecture/Slideshow for SketchKon Art Convention,Westin Hotel Pasadena, Pasadena, CA . “Inner Reportage:” How a Lousy Sketcher and Lazy Hiker Drew an Illustrated Travel Journal on the Camino de Santiago Pilgrim Way.”

Saturday, November 17, 2018, 5-9:30 PM-  SOFA Winterblast. SOFA Arts District on South A Street, Santa Rosa, CA.  This locally-famous free art and street festival includes a parade with decorated couches.  Follow updates on Facebook.  This year, Saltworkstudio will feature work by Tim Haworth as well as my paintings.

First Friday, December 7, 2018, 5-8 PM, Ring the Bells, an informal holiday event. Backstreet Gallery, SOFA Arts District, South A Street, Santa Rosa. Bring your own chimes and bells to ring as you walk through winter studios to enjoy hot cider and live music. The artist Karina Nishi Marcus will have work on display as my guest.

 

Foolish Sketching and Big Nature

fools gathering

Fools flocked and chattered in Occidental, California on Saturday April 4 for a traditional Fools celebration.  Susan Cornelis, Carole Flaherty and I went out to sketch from life.  The subjects were moving and in crowds, for me the toughest kind of sketchbook challenge.

 

Carole Flaherty sketching
Carole Flaherty sketching

Susan and Carole have been participating in Bay Area Urban Sketchers Sketchcrawls.  Carole had a lovely setup with her self-designed travel watercolor set and everything clipped and attached to a small drawing board.  Susan loaned me her tiny Pocket Palette to try.  I’m terrible at this kind of sketching, so it was good to do it on a Foolish day when everything was allowed.  This sort of sketching from life takes plein air to a new level.  It is meditative and process-oriented. My style tends to be more of an illustrated journal, with writing and collage.  I kept a sketchbook through Spain, and at other times,  but am entirely untutored in the finer points of more realistic rendering, and am hoping to improve.

 

Fears of Sketching

I might as well make a checklist of my sketching fears, and get them out of the way as soon as possible.  On Saturday I accomplished all of them.

  1. Fear of doing a really lousy sketch.  Check.  Around 5 times.
  2. Fear of doing a really lousy sketch while others sketching are doing better ones.  Check.
  3. Fear of just not being up to the task— moving figurative subjects.  Check.
  4. Fear of messing up pages in a bound notebook.  They will always be there as flubs. Check.
  5. Fear that if I share the messy process of learning, I will be seen as less accomplished in my painting.   Check.

I was happy to have some of my sketching doctors give me a critique, over Prosecco and prosciutto at the Underwood in Graton.  Here are some of Susan’s sketches from the day.  My Rx:  mechanical pencil, slower more continuous lines in ink, some media suggestions.  (I’m hearing that a new-to-me brush pen favorite is the Pentel.)  I’m taking an online sketching class from Marc Taro Holmes which is really excellent.  There is a new wave of arts education and it lives online.  What if we all came to art school with many skills and techniques, and the ways and means, spiritual and practical, of living as an artist were taught by generous, seasoned masters?

I want to sketch people in life, not in a figure class.  I think my best sketches recently were done in DMVs.  It took me 3 tries to get a replacement for the license which was lost or stolen.  Learning to sketch is a metaphor for letting a new identity emerge.  And it’s not always comfortable.

Big Old Nature

fools blog redwoods

My artist friend Laura Foster Corben and I went into a grove of coastal old-growth redwoods on a misty, rainy day.  It used to have the worlds tallest tree at around 380 feet.  Now taller trees have been measured, but these seem tall enough to me. I was struck by the primitive nature of these trees.  Inverting the black and white lets me see the almost palm-like form of these titans in Montgomery Woods State Natural Preserve.

A sunburst or natural altar of giant roots.
A sunburst or natural altar of giant roots.

fools standing stone ring

The eerie magic of the giant redwood forest puts those sketching fears in their proper, tiny place.