“In order to work and to become an artist one needs love. At least, one who wants sentiment in his work must in the first place feel it himself, and live with his heart.”
— Vincent van Gogh
My friends, yesterday marked a rather special anniversary for me — six years ago, I created my first on-location travel sketch.
On January 29th, 2011, I woke up in Porto, Portugal, on a solo weekend trip from London, where I was studying at the time towards a Masters in Travel Writing. And for the first time ever, I had brought a sketchbook and set of 12 watercolor pencils with me. After a long bike ride along the coast that morning, to see where the city’s Duoro River meets the Atlantic Ocean, I sat down in a glass-walled restaurant for lunch, feasted on a delicious francesinha sandwich, and at last, began drawing the scene in front of me:
That first moment with my sketchbook in Porto has slowly grown in meaning throughout the years, becoming something of an “origin myth” for my love of travel sketching — I’ve written about it on my About page, in my sketching manifesto for National Geographic’s Intelligent Travel site, and in the Travel Sketching 101 ebook I just shared with you all last week.
Today, I want to start at that first sketch from Porto and work my way forward through time, sharing 60 sketches that mark my evolution as a sketch artist since 2011. While the most difficult part of putting this post together was choosing just which sketches to include, I forced myself to stick to one guiding principle — every set of sketches included here represents a turning point or transformative moment for me as an artist.
So often in life, change or growth happens intangibly; as artists, I love that we’re blessed to have such a visual record of our evolution. Here’s a look at mine over the past six years:
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2011 — The year I discovered a sketching hobby
A seed was planted during that fateful January weekend in Portugal, but only on a serendipitous, three-month journey to India later that year did the seed of my love for sketching take root and begin growing into something real.
I now find it no accident that my first trip to India and South Asia took place during my first year of travel sketching. India can be incredibly overwhelming — it’s crowded and chaotic, and it often moves fast enough to render you dizzy. Every time I took my sketchbook out in India, sketching was my way of slowing the chaos down; I could enter the eye of the storm, and suddenly look on at the scene around me with clear eyes and renewed perspective.
There’s one moment in particular I remember from that trip — I was sitting on a rooftop café in Kathmandu, Nepal, with a glass of fresh lime soda, my sketchbook, and a panoramic view of Durbar Square before me. But for the first time, I wasn’t going to sketch with watercolor pencils; I had a small kit of watercolor paints with me, that had been a birthday gift from two dear friends. My last watercolor lesson had taken place more than a decade earlier, when I was 13 years old — did I even remember how to use them?
Slowly, I dipped the kit’s little brush in a little bit of water, swirled it against a little bit of red paint, and began filling in the scene with color — and thereby took my first shaky step in rediscovering a love for watercolors.
That was 2011’s lesson for me: Sometimes, it’s okay to not know what you’re doing.
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2012 — The year I shared my first sketches with the world
At the beginning, sketching was just a hobby for me — and more importantly, it was personal. I only shared my sketchbook with a few close friends (and my lovely mother, of course).
But one day in the summer of 2012, I had an epiphany in the shower — that place where epiphanies so often like to arrive: that I would make sketching my niche in the world of travel writing. I had heard the phrase, “Find your niche,” at nearly every writing conference and workshop I’d ever been to, but I had always struggled to define myself. That morning, though, I immediately set up a new page on my blog called “Travel Sketches,” uploaded several sketches to it, and a few days later, flew to San Francisco for the Book Passage Travel Writers & Photographers Conference.
One of the conference’s founders was renowned travel writer and editor Don George, whom I had long considered a personal hero; to say that I was nervous about meeting him in person would be a serious understatement. And yet the first thing Don said to me after we met was, “I think I just looked at your website last night — you have the page of travel sketches on it, right?”
“Why, yes I do,” I all but stammered to him in reply.
“Your sketches are beautiful,” he said. “You should do more with them.”
Isn’t it amazing how only a few words from a person we admire can have a lasting effect on us? Directly after the conference, I returned to India and spent another nine months in Asia. And everywhere I went that fall — from India to Indonesia to a village of Moken sea gypsies on Thailand’s Surin Islands — I carried my sketchbook with me. Because after two years, sketching was no longer just a hobby; it was becoming one of my passions.
That was 2012’s lesson: If you love doing something, keep doing more of it.
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2013 — The year sketching became the reason I travel
“What if I sketched my way around Southeast Asia?”
That question was the inspiration for a six-week journey I started planning in the spring of 2013, to close out that particular chapter of living in Asia. For the first time, sketching wouldn’t just be something I did while traveling — it would be the very reason for the trip. I loved waking up each day — whether it was in Singapore, Malaysia, or Laos — and striking out with my sketchbook and watercolors, my only mission to draw the world around me:
I returned to the U.S. in the summer of 2013, and published my first book, Beneath the Lantern’s Glow: Sketches and Stories from Southeast Asia and Japan. Later that summer, I had the opportunity to meet with a publishing company that specializes in illustrated books, specifically with the company’s president and one of its editors.
The editor and I chatted for a while, as the president sat quietly beside us, reading through a copy I’d given him of Beneath the Lantern’s Glow. After he finished, the president leaned forward, made some kind observations about my sketches, and then said:
“But you might want to consider varying your angles — many of your sketches are all done from the same angle, with a directly front-on perspective to your subject. You know how in a movie, there’s different shot angles? There’s shots from above, from below, zoomed in, zoomed out… Try to think cinematically when you’re choosing your subject.”
That was the second conversation I had about sketching that left an indelible mark on me. As it just so happened, I had another sketching trip lined up — this time to Eastern Europe and Turkey — and I was determined to put the president’s insights and advice into practice. As a travel writer, I had learned the value of zooming in and out in a story, balancing broad descriptions of a place with a closer focus on its details; it was time to start thinking the same way as a sketch artist.
That was 2013’s lesson: Be open to change, and to people who can help you grow.
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2014 — The year I started sketching for National Geographic
In August of 2014, I set out on my third big sketching trip — this time to the northern half of South America. I was slowing down more and more as a sketch artist, and learning to take my time in a new place; on this trip, I would visit only three countries and spend at least a week in each destination, specifically to sketch it from as many angles as possible.
On my first stop — the beautiful colonial city of Cartagena, Colombia — I was even more focused. All week, I hardly ventured beyond the historic walled part of the city known as La Ciudad Amurallada. And even then, I focused my time in the old town on a single plaza, where my sketchbook helped me draw countless rich connections: I got to know colorfully dressed fruit vendors, street sweepers and security guards, and a roving coffee seller named Wilmet, his wooden case of thermoses always in tow.
I hadn’t seen so much color in one place since India; so in a way, trying to capture Cartagena’s vivid spectrum in my sketchbook felt like a homecoming.
But there was one more impetus for my trip to South America:
I was there to sketch on assignment for National Geographic’s Intelligent Travel site.
It had all happened rather serendipitously — forever my favorite way for things to unfold in life. Earlier that year, a guest post of my sketches from India that I wrote for another travel blog just happened to get mentioned in one of Intelligent Travel’s weekly roundups, which led me to reach out to Intelligent Travel’s editor and introduce myself, which then led to my first post for the site, called “Travel Sketching: A Manifesto.”
As my relationship with the editor grew, she asked me where I was headed next. I told her I was thinking about South America; perfectly enough, she said they were always looking for more content from that part of the world. We then agreed on stories for me to research and sketch during my trip — a 5-day trek to Colombia’s La Ciudad Perdida; a homestay experience in rural Ecuador; and finally, the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu.
When I read over my first contract with National Geographic, which said I was to provide “3-6 illustrations to publish online to complement each piece,” I could hardly believe the assignment. Miraculously, and entirely by chance, I’d found my niche.
That was 2014’s lesson: Your passions can become your profession.
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2015 — The year I returned to my sketching roots
After South America, I flew to Greece to sketch a live mural during a travel blogging conference, where I happened to meet the destination marketing team from the Costa Brava region of Catalonia, Spain. We developed a fun rapport over the weekend, so much so that by the end of the conference, I had the courage to pitch them an idea:
“What if I came to the Costa Brava as a sketch artist-in-residence?”
Amazingly the team said yes, so in March of 2015, I arrived in Girona, Spain, and spent the next six weeks doing exactly what I’d loved doing most in Cartagena:
Slowing down, drawing as much as possible, and creating deeper connections through my sketchbook.
There was only one thing: Throughout the residency, I used sketchbooks made with my favorite type of watercolor paper, Canson Montval, which was also the same paper I used for my professional art commissions. And because there would be an exhibit of my framed sketches in the region afterwards, I created larger sketches than normal, measuring 7” x 10”.
The result was that I spent upwards of 6-7 hours on each sketch — and at some point, it felt like I crossed the line from creating impromptu sketches to polished paintings.
“I feel like I’ve strayed from my sketching roots,” I shared with one of my best friends and fellow sketch artists, Cara Kozik.
I told Cara that part of the problem was the sketchbook I was using — that not only was it too big, but the paper was actually too nice. I could keep working the paint for as long as I needed to. Cara encouraged me to “downsize,” so before leaving for Central America that summer, I bought a Moleskine pocket watercolor notebook, each page measuring only 3.5” x 5”.
In Guatemala, I was amazed by how fast the paint dried on the page, and that I couldn’t keep working over it. This meant I spent way less time on each sketch — and more importantly, it meant that I was sketching more “in the moment” again, and catching those smaller, fleeting memories that make a journey. In some ways, it felt like I was starting all over again as a sketch artist — but at the same time, I was starting over on a foundation that took me five years to build.
That was 2015’s lesson: There can always come a time to “begin again.”
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2016 — The year I settled into myself as an artist
Since I started sketching, 2016 was the first year that didn’t hold either a breakthrough conversation or a major change to my style or supplies — instead, it felt like I’d finally settled into myself, both as an artist and as a person.
On a trip to Paris last June, I even had the chance to visit Giverny — the village in northern France where Claude Monet’s beautiful pink home and gardens are located. I’d grown up loving a book called Linnea in Monet’s Garden, and was especially enchanted by images of his iconic Japanese bridge. As I sat directly on the garden’s sidewalk that day and began drawing the bridge for myself, I felt the same heady rush that had coursed through me when sketching Machu Picchu for National Geographic — that rush of experiencing gratitude, wonder, and disbelief all at once.
But at the same time, I love that I wasn’t able to finish painting my sketch of Giverny on-location. It started raining that afternoon, but before running for cover, I pulled my raincoat over my head, fashioned a kind of makeshift tarp above my sketchbook, and sat there only long enough to color in the bridge — and here’s the thing:
I’m not sure I’ll ever fill in the rest.
One of the things I believe most about sketching is that it isn’t intended to be finished, polished artwork. Every sketch is perfectly imperfect and completely incomplete — and as artists, so too are we ourselves always perfectly imperfect. For me, my un-finished sketch from Giverny is a fitting representation of this belief.
That was 2016’s lesson: No matter where we’re at on our journey, we are enough.
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Which brings us to 2017 — the year I start sharing what I’ve learned
As I sifted through hundreds of sketches for this post, it was funny to see what has and hasn’t changed over the years. Many of my mediums and methods have evolved — for instance, I no longer leave white space in a sketch, and I’ve learned a lot about creating a sense of depth through light and shadows. Most noticeably of all, the notes and annotations I’ve written into my sketches from the beginning have grown larger and more legible as I’ve shared them more online.
But in other ways, not much has changed at all — apparently I’ve always been drawn to sketch markets, especially piles of bright, colorful fruit; I’ve always loved streetscapes and buildings, especially those with religious significance; and cafés and restaurants continue to be my favorite place to sketch from, since that very first sketching session in Portugal.
Having now settled into myself and my style as an artist, I feel charged to begin sharing what I’ve learned with you all. I loved launching the Travel Sketching 101 ebook last week; I’ve been humbled to watch our Moment Catchers sketching challenge and global community grow; and every week, I look forward to reading your follow-up comments and emails, especially from those of you at the beginning of your own creative journey.
For that was my true motivation in putting this post together — not only to celebrate these past six years of growing as a sketch artist, but to say to each of you:
I have so been there on the starting line, with no idea what I was doing.
I have learned the power of seeking out advice and asking “what if?”
And I have realized just how vital regular practice is to our evolution:
Practice may not make perfect, but I love how it makes us stronger artists, ever more capable of catching our singular vision of the world in our sketchbooks.
One very happy sketch artist, after our first Moment Catchers challenge in January.
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