Art Tip #1: Top 6 sketching tips for your unique travel sketch journal

When I’m travelling, sometimes words just aren’t enough to accurately capture a moment. Sometimes I stand in awe of a beautiful landscape, or I pick up a seashell that I’m afraid to lose later, or I want to always remember the image of a wild horse I saw in the Namib desert. I mean, words describe them well enough, but isn’t there a way to capture it visually, too? So you can reimagine that moment even more vividly? Well, if you like keeping a travel journal during your adventures like me, and you’re an artist who’d like some more practise time for drawing, here’s a great idea for you: a sketch journal.

I have quite a few sketchbooks I take with me everywhere to draw images from my travels in, and sometimes I even combine it with a written journal. When I was little, I toured through Namibia with my family and also later through Botswana and Zimbabwe. Both times, we were travelling with some friends and they each wanted the copy of the diary I kept about the two trips – especially because I included little illustrations of things I struggled to describe. These are actual drawings from these two travel journals:

Now, remember, the Namibia tour took place when I was nine (see bottom right pic), and I was fifteen in the year of our Botswana/Zimbabwe trip. So, don’t judge my drawing skills at that particular time in my life. Besides, the whole idea of keeping a travel sketch journal is being able to sketch quickly – but to do that, you need to know a few basics of sketching. If you keep these seven tips in mind, you can create illustrations and images that bring back those precious memories:

1. Understand the difference between B and H pencils.

You can buy several pencil kits from most craft shops, but there are actually a variety of pencils to choose from. While B pencils are softer and darker (think of “B for blackness”), an H pencil will be harder and display lighter when you draw. There’s a scale of dark/soft to light/hard: 8B will be very dark and light, HB is in the middle, and 4H will be very light. I’ve found that an H pencil is easier to erase, but B pencils are my personal favourite since their softness lets you do a little more with them and makes a drawing seem richer.

As you can see, I’m a B pencil fan. I didn’t have enough H pencils to show as examples, but you get the idea.

2. Keep the light source in mind.

This means shading the object(s) in your drawing so that the light comes from the same point. When you’re starting out, it helps to draw a little sun or candle in the corner of the page where the light is coming from on the real subject. If you don’t have a consistent light source, it confuses the eye. Take a look at this sketch as an example:

In this sketch of a hand, the light source is undoubtedly in the top left corner, and slightly to the front. Always keep the position of the light source in mind, so that your shading makes sense.

3. Explore different forms of hatching/shading.

There are various hatching styles to choose from: normal hatching, cross-hatching, scribbling, stippling and gradual shading (usually by using your finger or the side of your pencil to blend the marks). You can try all of them at first, and see which ones you like best.

These are the basic hatching methods, but you can even combine them as you develop your own sketching style (see tip number 6).

4. Pay attention to detail.

Sometimes some specific speck of grass or a single bird in the sky is what makes the scene special, so don’t exclude them.

5. BUT don’t get caught up in the details.

You’re travelling. Unless you’re staying the night and have all the nightly hours to draw the baobab tree you’re camping under, you don’t have time to capture every stone, plant or person in a scene. Prioritise – what do you want to remember?

6. Develop your own style.

In the beginning, you’re probably going to draw what you see and the way you think other sketch artists do it. That’s good. Eventually, as you grow more comfortable with the medium, you can make the sketching style your own. It’s easier than it sounds: just go with what feels right. After a long time of practising, you might notice some specific ways your drawing hand seems to move naturally. Don’t fight it: develop a style that’s unique to you. In my case, I use a combination of hatching and scribbling to form lines and detail in my sketches. Take a look at these, for example:

When I have more time, I’m prone to move over to gradual shading (like the horse in the top right corner). This is actually a trap many beginner sketch artists fall into: wanting your drawing to look like the real thing, and getting caught up in that if you have too much time. Keep to your style once you’ve established it. It makes your sketches unique, and identifiable as yours.

These are the things I’ve picked up as a travelling sketch artist who likes to capture some of my experiences visually. Try them, and they might help you make some amazing travel memories!

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