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.

 

Saltworkstudio Art Blog turns six.

 

 

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My shadow on Arizona petroglyphs.

Dear interweb world humans, beings, friends, voyeurs, and artists,

Thanks for following me all these years!  It has been a journey reflective of my inner world, a composition of shadow and light, beauty and imperfection.

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Turquoise Window World, an early painting post from the blog

 

It’s been a while since I’ve posted.  I have to break through an invisible membrane of fear every time. As an introvert, sometimes I don’t even enjoy posting carefully edited versions of my life and paintings.  I’ve constantly struggled to be “authentic” with the innately inauthentic medium of social media and blogging.  At times I have been both over and under-attached to your reactions,  first living for them– the fabled “stats”– and then rejecting them entirely.

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Floating beauties from the Naples Archaeological Museum

 

I think the high point of authenticity for me is, ironically, not the art blog, but the Camino de Santiago pilgrim  posts.  I really perceived the blog, during the time of being on the road, as a tentacle of true connection.  I could feel support reaching through it.  The art, if you can call it that, was completely unrevised– the messy notebook pages.

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Portals of color, locked, Spain
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Pilgrim sketchbook, Camino de Santiago

Looking forward, I find myself increasingly interested in pure abstraction and an authentic gesture.  I want distance from approval and marketing and time to develop on my own without outside pressure, time to grow a new set of metaphors. So I’ve decided to take 2016 as a learning year, not showing year.

I won’t be doing open studios, except for our local events. I am going to paint at the Art and Soul Retreat in Portland this March.  These 5 days in a hotel room, painting and sketching, should be fun and instructive.  I’m excited to finally be studying with Jesse Reno.  I think he is a master of staying with the process until the final image, however eccentric, emerges.  I hope to focus on composition with Jane Davies.  I’m looking forward to cooking on the hotel room iron! (Just kidding. Sort of.)  I will be in the Sheraton Airport Hotel, car-free, and am thinking about how to keep costs  low.  It will be a rather fancy art  garret.  I’m bringing plastic sheeting so I can paint in the room if I want, storing the paintings on the extra bed.Let me know if you have ideas for hotel room survival.

At home, projects include new chicks in March, and planters for the heritage grapevines we got as starts from the UC Davis plant ark. The grapes are no longer grown in France,  having been hybridized, but  they are the ones that appear in many old masterpieces.  An ancient strain has been preserved and will grow on our arbor, or so we hope.  The grapes themselves are perhaps these that Monet painted, pale green with a rosy cast.

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Both chicks and grapes grow fast once they start.  I wish you a surge of new growth as well in the Lunar New Year.

Suzanne

 

 

Foolish Sketching and Big Nature

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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

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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.

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

 

Turner at the Getty Center, Sketching, and Other L.A. Adventures

Suzanne Edminster

Some days are generous, magnanimous in their gifts of beauty.  We spent last Sunday in Los Angeles at the Getty Center for the amazing show of Turners on loan from the Tate,  Painting Set Free.  The sweep, majesty, and freedom of expression in this exhibit was exhilarating. No photos were allowed, but we did do a little portrait by a poster, below.

Suzanne in front of Turner poster

Turner goats
Turner goats

The exhibit was an entire education in painting. I was surprised to find many late Turners with overtly mythical themes. I was more used to seeing Turner as a sort of visual journalist:  the steam train, the fire, the storm, and so on. The allegorical paintings were fantasies constructed from elements of his imagination rather than “real” landscapes, closer to Claude Lorrain’s beautiful, improbable visions, and often were linked to lines of epic poetry he was reading.  Because they weren’t “real,” you could see how he played with  his favorite elements….. the black smudge tree, a centrifugal swirl,  the blue rectangle mountain. The landscape was never literal and the gods very subtle;  the Zeus and Europa painting had no bull and barely a maiden. It’s no news that Turner, when unrestrained, condensed many motifs down to a beautiful abstraction.

We both enjoyed the Sample Studies,watercolors he did as prototypes for larger pieces to be painted for patrons to order.  You’d choose the one you liked best and he’d do it on up for you.

A Turner Sample Study, Watercolor
A Turner Sample Study, Watercolor

 

Any painting could grow and change organically at any point. At times he submitted extremely rough paintings to the Academy and literally finished them on Varnishing Day. I enjoyed details I  had never seen before: his animals, the characteristic smudge of a foreground tree, a focal point exactly at the center of composition. The whole effect of Turner after Turner was breathtaking. We gawked like the flamingos we had seen at the Los Angeles Zoo the day before.
LA zoo flamingo gallery goers

The Getty Center has a Sketching Room where, in the manner of old, one can copy masterpieces. You’re provided with a drawing bench, a board, and materials. I wish they had more variety, but I chose The Allegory of Magnaminity by Giordano. People wandered in. It seems the general museum public is shocked and amazed at the actual making of a sketch in a museum by normal people. There were 10 drawing stations and they were all full. We sketchers became the exhibit!

Giordano Painting I copied
Giordano Painting I copied

I used the conte and charcoal, then watercolor from my travel kit.

Suzanne Edminster, sketch at Getty Center
Suzanne Edminster, sketch at Getty Center

We ended up at the Armand Hammer Museum of UCLA. It’s an often-missed contemporary art museum that was a knockout. Nestled in Westwood, it has an intimate feeling. Both museums were free, another treat. Charles Gaines: Gridwork 1974-1989 was an interesting conceptual show. We were lucky enough to catch the artist in person giving a talk. In my own words, his work is based on playing with and revealing various systems of interpreting visual information. The data that comprised “tree” could be translated by assigning numerical or other values into a grid, a musical notation, or a graph. All of our perceptions are based on a sensory translation of information. He makes his alternate translation visible.

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The cultural wildlife was varied: allegorical lions, Turner goats, grid trees, and real flamingos. Only in L.A.!
LA Getty Suz portrait

Ghost Cafes and Silver UFOs

I can hear the shriek of seagulls outside in the pre-dawn light as I sit writing to you from the ghost cafe in Santiago. It’s a very ephemeral city, forbidding when cold and grey, a huge party town with people from all over the world when sunlit, and everyone, everyone, with strong legs and a look of relief.

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The cafe is actually part of the wonderful Hostal Susa. Hostals in Spain are not youth hostels or albergues, but rather grouped with pensiones or lower-priced hotels. I have a tiny, immaculate room with a bathroom in the middle of the old town of Santiago for 20 euros a night… the lowest price yet. There is a bar-cafe attached to the hostal, but visually blocked and closed off from the street. It is only accessible if you have a room, yet two people work there. Dishes are washed, but there is nothing but coffee and scanty, used-up bottles of liquor on the shelf… if you can get in. There is a menu, but when I picked it up, the barman, with a look of alarm on his face, asked me to put it down, as nothing on the menu was available. And yet, I sit here writing to you, with the magic of Spain tolerating me..

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I realize I am skipping the days before my arrival in Santiago. I’ll share that in another post. I arrived on July 3, but saved my entry into the Cathedral until 7AM the next day, to avoid the crowds. The seagulls were shrieking and it was raining, with the echo of a Galician bagpipe filling the square.
Every pilgrim is supposed to do 4 things, more or less in order. The first is to admire the portal with the Tree of Jesse, designed by the master artist/architect, Master Matteo. There are so many portals to the Cathedral that I had no idea which one that was. Then you enter the vast, new universe of space that is the cathedral. They actually designed it to be a Cathedral of Stars, for Compostella, field of stars. That’s the positive reading. It was really built on an ancient Roman cemetery . Anyway, it is about the transition into other worlds, whether the starry Way or the passages of death.
In the old days you could walk up to the Saint and touch his feet. That is no longer allowed, to preserve the sacred marble. Personally, I think that to touch the place where millions have touched with a full heart is worth a lot more than the sculpture.
It’s an amazing place. So much of the gothic stonework was painted in the old days, but for some reason the paint is never restored. I know from illuminated manuscripts how vivid the pigments were. Yet the original paint is faded and almost gone, increasing the forbidding aspect of the cathedral.
So now I have not been able to do two out of the four things that pilgrims traditionally did. On to number three. This was news to me, but apparently there is actually a chance to touch your forehead to the head of an image of Master Matteo in order to receive divine artistic inspiration! Bring it on, said I. So I set out to search for Master Mateo.
But I couldn’t find him, lost in the echoing dampness of the Cathedral. It’s dark in there on a rainy morning.
Then God intervened. A German woman cathedral docent approached me and asked in German if I needed help. Apparently there is a mass in German in a side chapel at 7:30 and she thought I was looking for that. She spoke no English, but I could use my German to ask for the location of Master Matteo.
One of the towers is under renovation. You can see it here. I had hardly noticed, as any Gothic cathedral has so many towers that having a couple of spares is not a problem.

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So I went under the draped tower and there, barricaded in darkness, was Master Matteo, a delightful, lovingly executed sculpture around 4 feet high, just right for the shorter midieval pilgrim to lean over and get some forehead inspiration. But there were iron barricades and almost total darkness. So I asked myself, what would Matteo do ? He would find a creative solution.
First I used my bendy tripod and a low light program to take a picture of him. But I couldn’t stand being so close to him and not touching him. I reached out my arm, and I swear I was within an inch of touching him, but no dice. Time for another plan. You are talking to a woman who actually managed to take rubbings from Assyrian bas-reliefs under the noses of the guards in the British Museum. This was not going to stop me.
I checked the area and no one was around so I stepped through the first layer of iron bar barricades. I was close enough then to press my hand against his forehead. I left it there for awhile until the cold of the stone seeped in, then pressed my hand to my forehead. I could swear the Master smiled.

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Part of the deal was to draw him as well, so this is my journal page.

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The last of the four items is to visit the silver box full of bones, and say your prayers. So I did.
My timing has been so good… I found out from Severin, the Swiss colossus youth who always knows everything, that every Friday night they have a mass where they swing the giant incense holder. The Botafumerio is an icon of the pilgrimage, and you also saw it in the film The Way. So I went 1 1/2 hours early to get a place in a pew underneath the action, having learned from Christmas in Rome that you don’t fool around with the big masses if you want to get a seat. The timing was good…. the Cathedral filled with around 1200 people. They don’t swing the thing every day.
You have to wait through the whole Mass to get to the good part– the Catholic Church knows how to keep people in their seats. They are firm. “Silencio! Silencio!” But finally the B.F. is lowered. Up there in the vast cathedral space it looks around 2 feet high. Then it is lowered and you see that it is bigger than a man. They pour coals into it and heap on the incense, then raise it and begin a controlled swing over your heads.
What the films can’t show you is that it is on fire, sparkling with red flame from the bottom, and emitting these giant clouds of sweet smelling smoke: copal and frankincense, if I’m not mistaken. It’s just the most joyful thing to be under… you instinctively duck as it goes over your head. Everyone was smiling and laughing… you have never seen anything like it, and never will again. Talk about an unidentified flying object!
I’m always glad to leave the church… I felt like a ginormous golden Baroque angel was glaring at me through one eye. I wish we could skip the Baroque decoration and just take the music. This photo gives an idea of how full the church was.

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I feel full, happy, and yes, blessed by the Cathedral. The seagull shrieks are calling me on to the coast, so I’m hopping a bus to Finisterrae, the end of the ancient world. Many consider it to be the natural, prehistoric end of the Way. The two workers in Ghost Cafe have spent the last hours reading the newspaper, and I, the only customer, am ready to pay up and get on the road. I’ll write you from the Atlantic coast, and I’ll tell you more of the saga of my journey.
Santiago is like a goth girl, full of spikes and jewelry and Celtic signs, very emo, and tattooed with the marks of millions of pilgrims. I leave her now, but will probably return. Buen Camino, Suzanne

Chicken Church

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Writing you from Santo Domingo, where the magnficent Gothic cathedral keeps live chickens inside to commemorate a milagro, a miracle. I’ve been waiting all trip for this because I had a dream about it some months ago
The day started badly but ended well. Every night I take off my glasses and put them in a stuff sack in the bottom of my sleeping bag along with phone, passport and money. When I took them off this morning, an earpiece had broken off. In a foreign country, this can seem to be a really big problem, but I closed my eyes and thought “What would Scott do?” He’s the guy who can fix anything.
Here’s what I might do, before I became a wise Peregrino: panic, don’t change schedule, stick glasses with duct tape, have lousy, sticky and disfunctional glasses for the rest of the trip. Here’s what Scott would do: while away several hours until an optician opened and have them fixed. So I had a coffee, potato and egg tortilla, and an Aquarius (fizzy Gatorade type drink, supposedly with electrolytes). For two hours. And painted a few notebook pages. The nice thing about the illustrated journal is that it always gives you something to do. And I got them fixed.

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By that time it was late in the morning, so I decided to take the bus to Santa Domingo. And I’m so glad I did. It turned into a completely relaxed, pleasant day. I had one of those extended lunches at a cafe facing the cathedral. I went to the small prayer meeting offered by the brothers who ran the albergue. I did laundry and visited the backyard chicken coop that supplies the cathedral chickens, who are not even on ground level but in a ridiculously backlight sort of alter a story high so you can’t even interact with them. Now that was disappointing, but I went back to talk to the patio chickens.
The albergue is lovely. The cathedral is grand and I think I saw Santa Domingo’s skull, but I’m not sure. He was a supercool saint. He came from a poor, lower class family and so the church nixed his becoming a priest. He said, fine, and proceeded to build a pilgrim bridge, a hospital, and improve the roads and highways… and founded a town and a cathedral. The church’s loss was the pilgrim’s gain. Domingo was a do-er and fixer, as is Scott, and like Scott, he can often be found with a few chickens at his feet. It was a day where a possible mishap was transformed into a fine, unexpected travel day.
True confession: I LOVE deciding things on the spur of the moment. What a luxury, what freedom. I’m grateful that everyone has been so kind– the optician fixed the glasses without charge because I’m a pilgrim. It’s the little things. Buen Camino, Suzanne

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From my Travel Sketchbook

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When I get my Pilgrim Passport stamped, I also have them put their stamp somewhere on a blank page of my travel sketchbook. This starts a painted travel collage-sketch of that place. I do one or more most days, another reason why I enjoy shorter hiking days.
This painted sketch of apples in a basket got me a jar of garden flowers and a free glass of wine from a Basque grandma. I am not above making sure that when I bring out my notebook at check in time– my Pilgrim Passport is stored in it– that the person sees the paintings. I’ve gotten some special treatment from it, I think: a slightly better bed and so on. They are really just for me, a sensory-rich artifact of that fleeting time.

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Turtles in an ancient pond in the middle of a walled garden, orchids on the counter of the Kind Albergue Keeper Jose, a gargoyle from an octagonal Templar chapel— all were drawn from life. My little travel kit is always close at hand. People want to watch me sketching and photograph me; I’m an oddball pilgrim. These are no masterpieces, but they are expressive and unify me with the place for a brief moment.

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I am reading The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton on my Kindle app. It’s marvelous. He provides brief meditations on famous travelers, then links them to a travel experience of his own. I live on Humboldt Street, named after the amazing traveler and scientist, Alexander von Humboldt. De Botton tells a story of Humboldt’s travels, then concludes with this remark.
Instead of bringing back 16,000 new plant species, we might return from our journey with a collection of small, unfeted but life-enhancing thoughts.
That’s the travel sketchbook. Buen Camino, Suzanne

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Walled Spanish Garden, with Pilgrim Totem animal

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How far have I walked today? I think I’ll keep that a secret for now and tell you how far I haven’t walked. I haven’t walked 25 km. And I ended up in paradise, the Mirabel Roncal. It has a walled garden from long, long ago with museum like lawn ornaments, beautiful rooms, tables and gardens everywhere, and a great pilgrim totem, a turtle pond.

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I am the turtle, eating a fine lunch in the garden with a beer from a soft drink machine, and olives and olive oil bought from the same snack automat. I added my own spanish seedless pear–Scott, take note!–and cheese, and a garden full of roses. Why would I want to leave?

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I don’t really deserve such beauty, but there it is anyway. It’s a hard life, being a pilgrim.
Re the not-walked kilometers: the standard guide, Brierley, divides the Camino into stages. I will be sure to tell you each day how far in the current guidebook stage I didn’t walk. Remember my icon, the turtle.

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I am saving my complaints, philosophical ideas, spiritual opening, etc. etc. for another blog. Don’t worry… you’re not getting off that easy. But for now the birds and butterflies drowse in the sun, and there may be a basque dinner to eat. The owner liked my sketches of the place, so maybe I can dine out in fine Basque fashion on those. Now back to bliss. Buen Camino, Suzanne

Illustrated Journaling Doodle

Illustrated journaling lets you make connections… salt, the etchings on the cafe wall, appetite. Somehow these disparate things come together in a good way, sort of like doing collage with pieces of your consciousness.

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