An old way to see new: How travel sketching can improve your trips

See the world anew through travel sketching


When I used to see people out travel sketching or examples from history, I had two responses:

1) That is so cool! and 2) I could never do that.

I was half right.

Travel sketch

Travel sketching is meaningful because you capture a very personal view of what you saw. More importantly, you actually perceive the world around you in a whole new way.

To my second response, let me paraphrase Chef Auguste Gusteau in the film Ratatouille:

Anyone can draw.

You did it as a kid. You can do it again. But you have to try and you have to practice. The good news is that with travel sketching, you get to practice in some pretty remarkable places.

Travel sketch

You just have to take that first step

Awhile back, I completed a trip to China where I practiced travel sketching each day in a travel journal. What got me over the “I can’t draw” hurdle was seeing my son do it and reading Danny Gregory’s, The Illustrated Journey where he profiles various artists and their travel journals. Major inspiration. Plus, when I first picked up one of Gregory’s books, I thought, “Wait a second. His drawings aren’t perfect. And he doesn’t care.” Nope. And neither should you.

Your goal with travel sketching isn’t to render perfect replications of what you see. Your camera can do that. Your goal is to have more fun and experience your trip in a new way. Here’s how travel sketching can help.

The benefits of travel sketching

Travel sketch
  • You see things better. Much better. You appreciate the details and understand how various elements relate. You discover small visual treasures you’d otherwise miss if you weren’t travel sketching.
Travel illustration
  • You slow down. Travel sketching forces you to stop. And look. And look again. You not only perceive your subject in a new way, you get to know the place better because you experience it over a longer period of time.
  • You meet people easier. They approach you. Everyone loves to see what you’re drawing. No one cares if it doesn’t look exactly like the scene before you. At least you’re trying. They’re not. You both know it. And that can lead to wonderful conversations.
Travel sketch
  • You get to choose what you draw. I am a rank beginner when it comes to drawing or travel sketching. But it doesn’t matter. I journeyed through China with my son who is a graphic designer and artist. He’d be tackling some complex building or—gasp—a person, and I’d settle for drawing the trash can. It didn’t matter. I liked that trash can. And I knew it wouldn’t be as hard as what Leonardo there was sketching. We both walked away satisfied.
  • You redeem the down times. Waiting for a plane, a bus or the laundry used to be the dullest parts of travel. Now they’re some of the best. You can make a sketch of anything or you can refine the sketches you’ve already done (e.g. inking over a penciled version). You always have something fun to work on and unlike writing trip notes, travel sketching uses a different part of the brain. It feels less like work.
    Drawing of wall painting
  • You improve other creative areas. I’m a better photographer because of sketching since now I’m more intentional about what I shoot. Plus, I can draw during the bright mid-day hours when the light isn’t as great for photos. I think I write better too because I notice more details.
Sketch of Ruins
  • You experience a place on a deeper level. I now see things I never would have before,  plus I look for things I never would have previously. Every place is now a visual scavenger hunt. I see a completely new dimension of a place as a result. It’s like the artist’s trick of drawing negative space: to draw the chair, for example, draw the empty spaces between the legs and back slats and you’ll actually draw the chair as a result. You begin to see the “negative spaces” of life that before were invisible. And in that is an entire world of wonder.
Palm Tree
  • You learn there is no wrong way. Stop the self-judging. There are no bad drawings. Everything is a chance to practice and learn. Sure, the kangaroo I drew from a photo in the in-flight magazine looks psychopathic. And yes, that large round flower pot I drew in the Suzhou garden looks like a fallen cake. But so what? As an art professor once told my son, “You’ve got 2,000 bad drawings in you that you need to get out.” 1998 to go…
Travel sketch

Not yet convinced?

Here are some other tips, resources for inspiration, drawing ideas and suggestions for how to get started with your own travel sketching.

  • Christmas tree watercolor

    To get started, just start playing with different media. Here I didn’t even sketch the outline first in pencil. I just started painting. Is it great? No. Was it fun? Yes. And that’s what matters.

    Don’t get overwhelmed. Start small and simple. There are thousands of sites and videos online for how to draw. Be selective. The moment you see one that starts to make you freak out inside, move on. For example, compare these two sites, Creative Bloq and Envato Tuts Plus. Both offer helpful instruction, but when I look at that first example, I think, “No way.” (Or maybe, “One day, but not now.”) I look at the second one and think, “I could do that!” You want to find ones that elicit the second response. This ties to the next point.
  • Find a style you like. Maybe one out of ten books I’ve read on drawing work for me. And I can tell by looking at a few pages. Most are too complex or photo-realistic. Others are too fussy. Still others are too messy. You’ve got to be like Goldilocks and find learning resources — books, online courses, websites or even classes — that work for you. Otherwise, I guarantee you want stick with it or likely, even get started.
  • Watercolor tree

    I saw a pin of this image on Pinterest and re-created it. It would be blatant copying except that I am only using it to practice.

    Do re-creations. Re-creations are my fancy term for copying.  Once your find a style or an artist you like, copy their work. At least initially until you develop your own style. You’re doing this, at the beginning, just for your own sake. So as Austin Kleon’s book puts it, Steal Like an Artist. It makes getting started easier and more rewarding.
  • Find a medium you like. I’ve just started playing with pen and ink and to me, it’s easier to manage than watercolors. But I do love watercolors. I’m just not yet very good with them. So, just as with finding a style, find examples of different media: pencil, pen, charcoal, pastels, watercolor, acrylics, etc. Play with a bunch and see what you like best. Yes, you’ll need to get the basics down of drawing with a pencil (erasable!) or pen (who cares!). But finding other media to use can make your sketching even more enjoyable.
    Watercolor castles

    More recreations, this time from a Matthew Rice book using pencil with watercolor. It’s good to simply enjoy making the sketch and not worry if it is perfect. But it’s also helpful to learn from each one. For example, with the top castle, I really like the building on the right but the one on the left got a little wonky.

  • Practice a little every day. 10-15 minutes every day will help you improve more than four hours once a week. The ONLY way to improve is to practice and the more you do it, the more you’ll enjoy it.
    German church in pencil and ink

    I’ve recently started using ink instead of watercolor since I still can’t make watercolor sketches quite the way I want. Ink reduces the learning to only dealing with shades, not colors

Pen and ink sketch of Wurzburg, Germany

Here’s a very different style using pen and ink instead of pencil and ink. I think I like pencil better, but I still have a lot of practice ahead of me before I figure out my preferred style. So why not try both?

  • Find resources that fit your needs. Just like finding a style you like, finding the right learning resources is a matter of evaluating a lot and choosing a very few. Start online with courses or tutorials. Or go to the library and look through all the options there. But you’ll know you’ve found the right one when it inspires you to want to try. If it doesn’t, keep looking. Here are some that have worked for me:
German town in ink

This is typical of the majority of my travel sketches where I make it quickly in ink alone, not worrying about so-called mistakes. As one artist put it, they aren’t mistakes. They are evidence of your personal style!

    1. Bluprint: I have appreciated the quality and variety of drawing and painting classes available here. Plus, if you like other crafts, you’re in luck. There’s a subscription fee if you like it, but try it for 14 days for free. And please note: There are SO many courses, videos and tutorials out there, it’s just a matter of applying the Goldilocks principle and, to mix fairy tale metaphors, kissing a lot of frogs to find the prince.
      Small people watercolor

      Sketches don’t have to be big to be enjoyable. I re-created these little people from a book on watercolors but now, I can make similar ones from real people because I understand the technique.

    2. Books: Here are a few that I’ve found helpful.
      1. Danny Gregory: As noted above, his simple, welcoming approach will make even the most “I-could-never-do-that” resister think differently. I haven’t read his latest (How to Draw without Talent) but it sounds perfect for getting started. Here are ones I have read:
        1. Art Before Breakfast – While focused on being more creative, the emphasis here is on getting started doing daily drawing by providing drawing ideas and other creative activities you try so you form the habit sketching or doing something creative every day.
        2. The Creative License which teaches you how to be more creative in anything.
        3. The Illustrated Journey, as noted above, one of my faves because of all the different types of sketchbooks he shows from travelers.
          Fall leaves watercolor

          One thing I learned from Danny Gregory is that you’re never without subjects. A trip around the block will reveal all kinds of things to sketch.

      2. Bert Dodson: Two books I love from this accessible author and artist:
        1. Keys to Drawing— It’s over two decades old but still one of the best for providing drawing ideas, getting started and progressing.
        2. Drawing with the Imagination—This is great if you want to learn to draw on your own without a subject before you. I’d start with Keys to Drawing first and then progress to this book. But check this one out just for the inspiration.
      3. Betty Edwards in pencil

        Anything can be a source of a practice drawing, even a photo of Betty Edwards on the back of her book. This is one of the few times I took more time to draw something more detailed in pencil.

        Betty Edwards: The quintessential starter for learning how to draw really does help with drawing ideas and techniques. The key, as with all of these, is to practice and not get overwhelmed.
        1. Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain
      4. Huw Lewis-Jones: These books aren’t how-to’s but highly inspiring examples of the sketchbooks of others that will provide drawing ideas and make you not only want to sketch but to travel:
        1. Explorers’ Sketchbooks 
        2. The Sea Journal: Seafarers’ Sketchbooks 
Baby Yoda and Copenhagen

If you’re making your travel sketchbook just for you, you can fill in blank (or smudged) areas even after a trip with, I don’t know, maybe Baby Yoda? As long as you date each entry, it doesn’t really matter the order of them.

You can see other examples and resources in my article on travel journals.

Stacked rocks

Sometimes you sketch things over and over just to understand what you’re doing. After that, your practice is both more fun and productive.

And in case you’re wondering about the sketches shown above, the older ones up to the “Not yet convinced?” section come either from the Smithsonian’s recent release of over 2.8 million images to the public domain or the New York Public Library’s digital collection which is also in the public domain. Both are great resources for old images. The newer ones are all mine just to show that anyone can do this.

Need more inspiration?

Here are some wonderful examples I’ve come across of different styles and approaches for your inspiration.

Why sketch a city you see when you can just make up your own?

You can draw whatever you love. Especially food.

This will expand your perspective on using the medium of pastel.

Here’s a good overview of some specific sketchbook tips.

Finally, here’s a wealth of various travel sketchbook examples on a few different Pinterest boards. With Pinterest, it helps to search by boards because then you can get a sense of people who have similar taste to you. Or you can just search on pins and see a wider variety. These are four boards I enjoy (click on the image to go to the board), but your taste may differ, so go hunt down some boards that inspire you:

Pinterest screen shotPinterest screenshotPinterest screenshotPinterest screenshot









  • Rick Ro. says:

    Wow! Fascinating read, and actually quite encouraging to those of us who are artistically-challenged to give it a whirl!

    • Steve Brock says:

      Thanks, Rick. I’m glad it is encouraging. I was going to say I expect to see some masterpieces from you. But that would defeat the point of this post. So how about this: I expect to see some great efforts soon.