I’ve been sketching my way around the world for five years now, and I can safely say the practice has forever changed me as a traveler. I love how my sketchbook slows me down, throws all of my senses wide open, and paves the way to spontaneous encounters with locals and fellow visitors alike.
So, in the hopes of convincing more travelers to embrace the paintbrush and sketch pad as a way to be wholly present while they explore the world—and to record their unique experience of a new place—I’m offering my take on how to get started.
Establishing your sketching style is an evolution—but, as is always the case with travel, the journey can be as much of a delight as the destination. The following steps are ones I’ve found work for me, and to help illustrate each stage of the process, I’ve included step-by-step photos from a sketching session in the Costa Brava region of Spain.
1. Choose a subject.
Let your natural interests and curiosity be your compass as you begin sketching in a new place. When it comes to deciding on a subject, think about what you already tend to home in on when you travel. Perhaps you love photographing streetscapes or capturing what you eat for breakfast. Start there.
I begin every sketch in pencil, as I’m developing an overall sense of the scene. This is my chance to ask, What’s going on here? What is it about this scene that’s speaking to me? Sometimes I’ll sketch out what I see and realize I haven’t got the perspective quite right. It’s nice having the option to erase and start over again.
3. Fill in the details with pen.
It’s impossible to capture everything you see in a sketch, so I like thinking of each detail as a decision. To include or not to include? That is the question. My style has developed so that my line work is carefully drawn, but you might find that a looser style helps you better express your impressions of a place.
At this stage in the process, I also enjoy writing annotations on the sketch—short notes about what I’m hearing, smelling, or tasting, maybe snippets of a conversation I’ve overheard, or even more personal impressions of how I’m feeling that day.
4. Bring it to life with color.
At this point, it’s all about having fun—after concentrating for an hour or two on drawing, my brain always welcomes the chance to change speeds. Whether you’re using markers, colored pencils, or watercolors, each medium offers its own adventure.
Ideally, I’ll complete a sketch while on location. Staying immersed in the process from start to finish helps me tell the story of that scene as it unfolded during my experience.
When that’s not possible—daylight has run out, it started raining, or there’s somewhere else I need to be—I’ll photograph my vantage point and use it to finish the sketch at a later time.
5. Be open to serendipity.
Traveling with a sketchbook has not only influenced how I see the world, but also how I interact and connect with other cultures.