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.
2. Lay the scene out with pencil.
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.
When I’m sketching, I try to be aware of the people moving around me. If I sense someone peering over my shoulder, I’ll often look up, say hello, and try to strike up a conversation with them.
For example, at the end of this particular sketching session in Spain, a man and a woman came came through the red door that I’d included in my drawing. The man asked me what I was painting.
After I showed them my sketch, the couple offered me a seat, introduced themselves as Joan and Nuria, and told me they had owned the one-room casa particular (holiday cottage) hidden behind the red door for the past 25 years. We spoke for more than half an hour, and the insights they shared about the history and culture of Costa Brava added unexpected layers to my understanding of the region.
The encounter was a perfect metaphor for what it is I’ve come to value most about sketching.
When we travel, each new place starts out as a closed door. The goal is to find our own key for unlocking it, whether it’s through sampling the local cuisine, communing with nature, or photographing street art.
My sketchbook has become that key for me—just like the brass key Nuria and Joan used to open their casa particular. I encourage you to tuck a sketchpad in your suitcase when you’re packing for your next trip…and see what doors it might open for you.
Nuts and Bolts: Supplies
When I first started sketching, I brought just three things with me—a sketchbook, drawing pen, and watercolor pencils. After someone gave me a Winsor & Newton watercolor field kit, I began my foray into watercolors. My advice is to start small and simple, and slowly build the number of supplies you carry with you.
Pencils: I start every sketch with a pencil outline, and most frequently use Derwent sketching pencils with a hardness of HB.
Eraser: After I finish tracing my initial outline with pen, I erase the pencil lines to give the sketch a clean look. My favorites: extra soft vinyl erasers.
Drawing pens: I’ve experimented with several brands over the years, from Pigma Micron to Staedtler to Prismacolor, but finally settled on Faber-Castell’s PITT artist pens with an extra fine nib. Look for ink that is waterproof, lightfast, and acid-free.
Watercolors: My first field kit was from Winsor & Newton’s line of affordable Cotman paints, but I’ve since upgraded to the Professional Water Colour Compact Set. Both are light and easy to travel with, hardly bigger in size than a smartphone.
Brushes: I travel with three brushes: two Winsor & Newton Cotman watercolor round brushes (sizes 2 and 4), and my go-to, a synthetic squirrel hair brush by Mimik (round, size 6). I use the Mimik brush most of the time, and the two smaller Cotman brushes for more intricate details or lettering.
Sketchbook: Standard drawing paper has a weight of about 130 grams per square meter (gsm), but applying watercolors can cause the paper to buckle. A good weight for watercolor paper starts at 200-300 gsm, so keep an eye out for this when you’re sketchbook shopping. In terms of brands, the one I’ve come to use regularly is Canson, specifically their line of Montval watercolor pads, which comes in several travel-friendly sizes.
Water container: Though I’ve often used a bottle cap in a pinch (or asked for an extra to-go cup if I happen to be sketching in a café), I now carry a plastic water container with me on the road.
Bag: Lastly, I store everything but my sketchbooks and water container in a small canvas pouch, which is easy to keep in my backpack when I’m traveling and ensures I’m always ready should inspiration strike.