Travel Sketching

I’m participating in Fun-a-Day, a daily art challenge through the month of January, committed to do a daily post here detailing some Big Art Idea or project that looms somewhere out in my future.

Here’s what I’ve learned: Having a pen and a sketchbook is the best way to get to know the places through which you are traveling. I’ve carried a sketchpad through most of my motorcycle travels in the U.S., all of my Latin American travels, and to Hawaii.


Long ago, I fell in love with the Backroads series of Bay Area books that featured beautiful pen and ink tavel sketches (usually with a gentle ink wash) of barns and fields and old cars and people working in and around the San Francisco Bay Area.

For me, the process itself offers a lot. Sketching simultaneously:

  1. gave me an excuse to hang around without having to buy something or even explain my presence. Everyone immediately understood: He’s drawing stuff. Case closed.
  2. allowed me to meet people, particularly children who are always curious about what I’m drawing.
  3. connected me to the place and helped me notice finer details about these places I was visiting.
  4. gave me something more personal, more intimate, and more evocative than photos to capture a moment in a place.
  5. allowed me to overcome my shyness and nervousness about being an outsider in a place.

I remember traveling in San Jose, Costa Rica. I had discovered the Mercado Central which I found magical. This giant block-sized series of warehouses in which all this stuff was for sale, divided into hundreds of individual shops and stalls. And a few days later, I discovered the mercado de productos which was similar, but much much more so — multiple levels of shops and stalls, restaurants, and loading areas, like an entire underground city loaded with fresh and dried vegetables and fruit and meat and stuff.

In the afternoons, light would stream in through windows high high above the action on the floor, and I would find an out-of-the-way place and draw what I saw. The kids were crazy about my sketches. “Es que yo? ¿Estoy en ello?” they wanted to know.


I drew my way around Portland. I had lots of time and it was a great way to get to know the place. The Red & Black Cafe was so taken when I gave them the sketch they hung it up near the register. Visitors tell me it is still there.


Even in a bar, I can sit and nurse a beer for over an hour while I draw, and no one bats an eye. It is a powerful alternative to feeling nervous and stupid and self-conscious like I usually feel when I’m alone in bars.


I was just thinking about how I miss travel sketching and wondering why I fell off from it. Then I remembered that it’s been a while since I did much travelling. The sketches here are from a Portland trip in 2008, over three years ago.

So I need to hit the road with my sketchbook and my pens. A motorcycle trip, or a train trip, or even — dare I say it? — get on a plane and go somewhere far away.

I think for the first time in a very long time I don’t feel like I am desperate to get the fuck out of Dodge, so maybe it’s a good time to leave without feeling like I am running away.

3 thoughts on “Travel Sketching

  1. RE: “connected me to the place and helped me notice finer details about these places I was visiting.”
    I think this is one of the big benefits for me. After I sit and draw for a while the way i see the subject changes and the fine details become apparent.
    Thanks for the blog.

  2. Mr. Modes

    I wanted to compliment you on the taco truck sketch. This piece immediately captured my eye and reminded me of an annual camping trip that my friends and I take in Royal City, Washington. This year we are making t-shirts and I would like to ask permission to use you sketch on the shirt. There will be seven t-shirts created and we will not be selling them or turning any type of profit. Just want to wear a fun t-shirt that reflects the area.

    Thank you for your consideration!

    Justice Barnes

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