“Sketching creates an intimate connection with your subject even if you’re not a skilled artist. Practice with permission to be imperfect. Do quick sketches when you travel and you will notice the quality of your experience will deepen.” – Jill Badonsky, The Awe-Manac
When you travel, IF you travel, do you keep a journal? I keep all sorts of journals, but travel journals are one of my favorites to play with because they practically write themselves. I write them because I love to write. I can’t NOT write. It’s how I make sense of my world and work out problems and keep track of joyful events. Another motivating factor behind my travel journals is that my son is an only child, he won’t have a sibling to go back and compare notes with about his childhood events. This way, once I’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, he will have a record that he can go back to that will help him remember. I write these journals for an audience of two (me and The Hobbit), but if others read them and enjoy them along the way, so much the better.
A secondary aspect to my travel journals are sketches. I am not a brilliant artist. I have rudimentary skills and my pictures are probably right up there with your average middle schooler. But I like it, and it stretches me. I firmly believe that if you are capable of learning to write, as in picking up a pen or pencil and putting marks on a paper, that you can acquire the skill needed to draw. Even the most talented artist needed to build their skills and knowledge, so don’t allow yourself the excuse of “Oh, I’m not an artist.” or “I don’t have any talent.” It’s not talent, it’s skill, and a skill can be learned. I promise. You may do it badly, but pleasurable acts done badly are still pleasurable.
One of my grandfathers had a series of strokes that left him without his voice. He had to relearn so many things, which had to have been terribly frustrating at the best of times, but from what I’m told he was three buses, a long walk, and a taxi ride away from the county next door to Patient before the strokes. After, it must have been horrible. I didn’t know him before the strokes, and I have only the pieced together memories of a child of him after. But one of my fond memories of him were his sketch books. He would practice writing and would also draw. So if an impatient, recovering stroke victim could learn to draw, I’m pretty sure fully-functioning, able-bodied people can, too.
I have a quirk about when and how I draw, though. I am one of these good students that school teachers love because I have mastered sitting still at a desk and staying on task. I learned that lesson a little too well, because I cannot manage legible handwriting or discernable pictures unless I’m siting at a desk. As a result, I don’t do sketches in real time. Instead, I rely heavily on my digital camera. I photograph anything and everything that might be of interest: textures, patterns, signs, benches, doors, people, tourist attractions, menus, and occasionally I manage to get in pictures of my family as well. Then I go back with the benefit of a giant computer screen and look over those pictures, reliving the experience and sketching from photos. I’m not so good at “being present in the here and now” or “trusting the process” when it comes to sketching, I need to be anchored to a desk and have a constant reference.
But there are people who are good at that kind of thing, and I absolutely love reading their books and blogs and zines. Two of my favorites, with two VERY different styles are Danny Gregory and Dan Price.
Dan has written and illustrated a self-published magazine titled Moonlight Chronicles for over 20 years. He lives an alternative lifestyle that is both inspiring and intimidating. He’s lived in a series of small abodes that he’s designed and built. No running water, a sawdust toilet, no proper bathroom. He loves bicycles and surfing and spends half the year in Hawaii while the other half of the year he’s in Joseph, Oregon, living off grid. He’s an interesting guy, but he takes the time to be in the moment, to draw and record his life in journals and books.
Danny Gregory started drawing when tragedy struck and his wife Patty was run over by a subway train. Their son was less than a year old at the time of his mother’s accident and Danny’s world was turned upside down. (You can read the tale in his words here.) He started drawing as a way to make sense of this new life of his and to calm his fears and redirect energy that was driving everyone around him crazy. There’s a reason why Art Therapy programs are so important, they can quite literally save lives, and that’s what drawing did for Danny. His books are marvelous and his outlook amazing.
So the next time you’re planning a trip, I challenge you to pick up a composition book and spend some time each day writing about what you did. Or get a cheap sketchbook and draw the places you visit. I like to use the wirebound sketchbooks from Barnes & Noble. They’re inexpensive, come in a variety of sizes and have plenty of paper to go around. To take the pressure off, approach it like a kid would, with Crayola products: crayons, markers, colored pencils, newsprint drawing paper or watercolor paints. There’s no need to run out and invest in Copic markers and an easel. It’s supposed to be fun, not serious. Who knows? You might surprise yourself along the way and end up creating something you’re proud to share with others. Don’t do it for them, though, do it for you, and know that it will enrich your experiences and give yourself an opportunity to stretch and grow.