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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. 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.
Let your natural interests and curiosity be your compass as you begin sketching in a new place.
It’s impossible to capture everything you see in a sketch, so I like thinking of each detail as a decision. 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. 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.
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.
Traveling with a sketchbook has not only influenced how I see the world, but also how I interact and connect with other cultures. 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.
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. The encounter was a perfect metaphor for what it is I’ve come to value most about sketching. My sketchbook has become that key for me—just like the brass key Nuria and Joan used to open their casa particular. When I first started sketching, I brought just three things with me—a sketchbook, drawing pen, and watercolor pencils. 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.
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. Sketchbook: Standard drawing paper has a weight of about 130 grams per square meter (gsm), but applying watercolors can cause the paper to buckle.
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 cafe), 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.
As a university art professor who teaches watercolor and illustration, I can vouch for the good that can come from sketching while on vacation.

I have been drawing and painting strangers on the tube as I travel to and from work every day since 2009. Lightning strikes during thunderstorms kill more Americans each year than either tornadoes or hurricanes. USA 101 stitches together a crazy quilt of iconic places, events, fairs, and festivals that celebrates America in all its quirky diversity.Whoever you are, wherever you're going, whatever you like to do, it's here somewhere.
Gary McKechnie's previous book, Great American Motorcycle Tours, won both a Lowell Thomas Silver Award for travel writing and a Gold Award in the Benjamin Franklin competition.
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We all know that Japan is a land filled with amazing wonders that you can’t find anywhere else in the world. 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. 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.
When it comes to deciding on a subject, think about what you already tend to home in on when you travel.
Whether you’re using markers, colored pencils, or watercolors, each medium offers its own adventure.
Staying immersed in the process from start to finish helps me tell the story of that scene as it unfolded during my experience. If I sense someone peering over my shoulder, I’ll often look up, say hello, and try to strike up a conversation with them.
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 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. 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.
I use the Mimik brush most of the time, and the two smaller Cotman brushes for more intricate details or lettering.
A good weight for watercolor paper starts at 200-300 gsm, so keep an eye out for this when you’re sketchbook shopping.

I really appreciate you sharing some of your own sketching experiences with us here, and wish you many more creative journeys in the future! We strongly encourage, if not require, our students to develop sketchbooks for their classes. Long back , I saw a Japanese tourist sitting next to me skectching the buffaloes and the cowherd beyond the airport perimeter, and it was fascinating to watch her bring the scene to life with easy strokes. National Geographic Traveler Editor Keith Bellows sends you and your children globetrotting for life-changing vacations that will expand their horizons and shape their perspectives. A destination in itself, the southern state of Kerala is a land with a diverse culture and history, dramatic lush hills, and sweeping plantations, white-sand beaches and waterlogged backwaters.
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.
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Well seasoned by eclectic sidebars, this guide is a panorama of treasured traditions, favorite pastimes, and beloved national possessions that will surprise, amuse, and inform even the most sophisticated traveler. Sometimes I’ll sketch out what I see and realize I haven’t got the perspective quite right. 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. I also have the most fun when talking to people about sketching and they leave deciding , yes, I think I am going to give it a try too.
So now I have a watercolour kit, a compact pocket sized camera, a moleskine note book and a propelling pencil.
On my last trip to Vietnam, I sketched on random pieces of paper something I saw in the marble tiles of the hotel and typical Vietnamese women in the rice fields. Looking through my sketch pads I am transported back with strong and detailed memories from the drawings I have made.
Not just snapshots of that famous monument, building, or landscape, or the selfie, but photos of places and scenes that really grab your aesthetic sensitivity.
Then, in the quiet of the evening when you are winding down, or even when you return home, do the sketches, paintings, etc., using the photographs as resource material. Also, because of the near nothing cost of a single digital image, one can take as many photographs as one likes, then wander back through them for years to come, bringing back very vivid memories of your trip.

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