Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Adventures in Travel Journaling

It's nearly summer--and time to start thinking of those vacation plans and travel journals, which is I why I recently took a 4-week class on travel sketching.

The class, offered through my local continuing ed. department was, um, let's say, interesting. I learned a lot about the subject, more than I'd ever hoped to know, and I especially learned about everything I don't want to do with my travel journal.

I think the initial problem stemmed from my personal definition of the word "travel," a word that I'm sure has different connotations for different people. I have to admit I never gave this any thought before the class. For me, travel means wearing nice clothes, going to museums and fancy restaurants, and shopping (e.g., my recent New York post). I usually travel with a Moleskine notebook, and I like to fill it with written descriptions of my experiences, illustrated with collage and pencil sketches of things like hotel lobbies, my coffee and croissants, cute shoes, architectural details, beautiful gardens, and if I'm really lucky--a stray cat or two.

But that's me--and I readily admit it's just one viewpoint. "Travel" for you could be a non-stop beach, or spelunking in the Pyrenees. We all have different reasons and desires for choosing travel destinations, and a one-size travel journal does not fit all. Trust me, I learned this the hard way during the last 4 weeks. From struggling to stay awake because the class started far too early in the morning, to spraining my foot whilst hiking through New Mexico's Petroglyph National Monument because I had on the wrong shoes (nobody told me there's weren't paved walkways), I think I've paid my travel journal dues in heaps.

Now that the class is over, I'm almost tempted to say, "Travel journal at your own risk," but I think I'd rather look on the bright side and instead share with you the top 12 things I plan to do the next time I leave home:
  1. Travel light. Even when you think you've pared down to the very minimum of supplies, think again. After the first two weeks I discovered the perfect kit for myself consisted of 1 Holbein Mixed-Drawing sketchbook; 12 watercolor pencils; 1 flat bristle waterbrush; 1 Derwent Outliner pencil; 1 X-acto knife; 1 kneadable eraser, and a black gel pen. I also brought along 2 paper towels, 2 tissues, 1 bottle of drinking water, and my camera that I carry everywhere anyway. I put the art supplies into a plastic Ziploc bag that fit along with everything else inside a very small handbag.
  2. Two journals can be better than one. Despite exhorting minimalism in all things, I do think it's a good idea to have 2 journals on your trip: 1 for drawing and painting, and 1 for writing. The reason for this is that if you paint on too-thin of paper (e.g., Moleskine), you could end up with a paint-soaked, buckled and moldy disaster. On the other hand, if you then restrict yourself to a dedicated watercolor sketchbook, the pages can be too bumpy and rough for comfortably writing long entries of prose or poetry. I like having both.
  3. Although color is a wonderful thing, you can always add it to your sketches later, perhaps during the evening in your hotel or even when you get back home. Waiting for watercolor to dry before you turn the page can be frustrating--and another reason for bringing along a second journal.
  4. Just like finding the perfect time to write at home, sketch at the most comfortable time of day for you and your body rhythms. I am not a morning person. Before 10.00 AM I am growly and frowny and tend to deep silences. I can work okay on my own, but I can't socialize or be part of a group. I would have been much happier sketching in the afternoon. But you might love sketching at 5.00 AM, or midnight--so be sure to arrange your daily travel schedule to fit.
  5. Before you take off, write down your goals for your sketch journal. What do you want from the experience? For instance, the next time I travel with my journal, I want to find new designs for clay work. These could come from local plants, ancient cathedrals, modern door handles, and with any luck from some actual ceramic pieces I see along the way. Other themes could include settings to illustrate your current work-in-progress, plant groupings for your home garden, or people-watching--looking for interesting characters for your novel or portrait painting.
  6. Take photos. Repeat: take photos. When there isn't time to sketch on site, you can always rely on your camera to preserve the memories. (And you can then peruse your pics in the comfort of your own home...).
  7. Collect postcards and tourist brochures as references. The next best thing to taking your own photos. Slipping them into a manila envelope pasted into the back of your sketchbook works a treat.
  8. Bring a sweater. Better yet, check out the weather before setting out. Sitting outside and not doing much more than moving your hand around in vague circles, even in the sun, can be cold. And there's nothing worse than sketching in the cold. Brrr. On one of the class days the weather was so dark and miserable I found myself repeatedly running to my car for refuge. Not only had I lost all the circulation in my hands, thereby dropping my pencil every few seconds, the cold made my hands crack and bleed. When I got home I discovered more blood than paint on my sketch pages. An avant-garde approach, perhaps, but not the effect I was going for.
  9. Don't be self-conscious. Paint, draw, get comfy and let people watch if they want to. You're the artist/writer here--and that means you're the expert and authority! No one is judging your sense (or in my case, the lack of) perspective, or if your pigeons look a bit more like bats than birds. Instead they will actually envy you a little and wish they'd thought to bring their own sketchbooks.
  10. Go for 12. If you're limited for time, rather than writing lengthy entries into your journal, jot down 12 things that impress you about a place or view, and that you want to remember. That will be more than enough to jog your memory for writing later on.
  11. Smell the roses. Don't think you have to sketch the entire mountain range followed by every blade of grass in the foothills. Take some time to just sit and observe the scene around you, and then maybe draw a small section of the vista--the part that truly interests you. Recording the position and color of a few small rocks or wildflowers can often be more evocative, and pleasurable, than spending hours filling your sketchbook with dutiful impressions for posterity.
  12. Relax. We're doing this for fun, right? It's not about making great art or doing your travel homework. The point of keeping a travel journal is to enhance your journey, giving yourself the gift of time and creativity in a new location.
I must say that now that it's all over and my hands and feet have finally healed, I'm ready to grab my sketchbook and hit the road again--maybe going as far as the mall! It's warm, they have great coffee, and lots of interesting people to study. See you in the shoe department.

Tip of the Day: You don't have to travel far to keep a travel journal/sketchbook. In fact, a "stay-cation" can be one of the best times to start, and right in your own backyard. Gather a few simple art supplies from the list above, and set out to see the familiar with new eyes and a fresh approach. Be a tourist in your own town and go to some of the places you've never got around to visiting for one reason or another. Just don't forget your sweater.

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