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Turn Your Vacation Into An Art Lesson You Won't Forget!

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by Michelle Morris

As I mentioned in my last piece, the very first time I used a sketchbook for anything other than drawing was on a trip to Italy.

Having painted plein air for several years, I knew that such a complicated setup and that luxury of time was not possible while on a tour of another country. I knew I would be seeing some incredible art and architecture, and I wanted to follow in the footsteps of so many before me and paint what I saw. When in Rome, right?

Packing light was essential!

I pared down supplies to a minimum with a sketchbook small enough to fit in my purse, a small paint box, a travel brush, and pencil and eraser. Bottled water is easy to come by most anywhere, but I also have a small water bottle I can carry with me.

My sketchbook was a 10 x 7 spiral-bound Strathmore Field Watercolor Journal. (I have since moved on to better journals with better paper, but I've used several of these and find them an excellent option and readily available.) In between each watercolor sheet, these journals have regular paper on which I journaled my experiences every day.

That first journal was the beginning of many travel journals to come.

As the years went on and my husband and I were able to take a few trips, I schlepped my ever-evolving "kit" with me.  Since I mostly used watercolor in my early journals (I'll cover other mediums to try in a later article), I found that when I need to pare down even more, the Niji paint brush came in handy since it carries water inside the handle! I've used a larger paint box by Yarka and found a sealed watercolor palette that I use with my tube paints for trips when I know I might have more time.

Below are some sketches from that first journal, made while on the tour bus of the Italian countryside. I sketched when and where I could!

So, how do you use a sketchbook while traveling?

When you find you have a bit of time and want to do a sketch, begin by asking, "How long do I have to do this sketch?" Often, that determines the size. Below are a few I did as we motored down Holter Lake by boat toward the Gates of the Mountains in Montana. Each is about 2x3, which was all I had time for since the scenes passed rapidly. There was no time for drawing with these. I just recorded with paint what I saw.

Other sketches are larger, if time permits. I painted this (below) from our cruise ship as we came into port. Having your supplies with you when the chance to paint presents itself and asking yourself those two questions helps you make the most of the time you have.

Next ask, "What about this scene makes me want to paint it?" The sketch Church at Messina (below) was lit by the orange sunlight of the setting sun, and the dome was orange with reflected light. That was what spoke to me and what I wanted to capture. Because light changes, objects can move, or something might disturb your time, if you've gotten the essence of a scene, then you have a complete sketch. Not all of my sketches are "complete," nor do I feel the need to finish them all. But if I identify what speaks to me and capture it, I've captured that moment in time and in my journal forever.

While it’s not always easy to find the time, one option is to do the drawing off-site. Scribble some color notes or make small color swatches on the side, then paint it back at your hotel in the evening. While I would rather finish on-site, finishing at your leisure can be a less hurried and relaxing end to the day. I will often note colors and impressions, details, and even feelings to evoke memories back at the studio. That way, when I go to paint the scene, it comes to life again. My point is this:  be flexible and find what works best for your situation. The important thing is to just do it!

Lastly, don't get caught up in perfection.

In my experience, sketching is about the act, not necessarily the finished product. My sketches are not going to get a frame. For years no one even saw them. I certainly wouldn't have shared them if I thought they would be the standard of judgment for my body of work! No, these are personal records of my travels. Some make it to larger works in the studio, yet many are so special in their simple sketched form that I consider them small works of great worth on their own!

I've found sketchbooks so valuable not just because they record my travels, but more importantly, because having a visual journal has made such solid, lasting memories. I have thousands of photos, but few bring back memories as clearly as those sketches. The reason is simple:  you are taking a few extra minutes to really experience that place. I may have painted things I could do quickly and was not able to finish the sketch, but I chose things that spoke to me—things I wanted to remember. Taking the time to observe, record, and fully experience the scene leaves a lasting memory—something a photo can rarely do. 

Michelle is an artist/writer living and creating in Columbus Ohio. To see more of her work visit her blog, Living a Creative Life, or visit her website.

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