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Why You Should Bring a Travel Sketchbook on Your Next Trip

Illustrator Tiffany Jan shares how travel sketchbooks help her stay creative while on holiday.

Travel is really exciting! Being in new places, seeing new things, trying new food, meeting new people—I feel like all of this heightens my awareness of the details that inform my point of view.

It is nice to take a minute to observe and record, to be able to appreciate a specific moment in time. When I’m drawing, I’m forced to slow down and understand a particular detail that might have been missed otherwise. For example, once, I was waiting at a bus stop in Nice, and started sketching the building across the street, and all of the intricate mouldings of the windows, the number of window panes, the surprising lack of symmetry were suddenly apparent. These details would have gone right by me, but I was able to appreciate it in the moment, and these are the kinds of details that stay with me today.

I always keep a sketchbook, but sometimes I get caught up in the pressure to make something beautiful. In a way, keeping a book dedicated to observational drawing during travel helped free up a lot of my anxiety. I felt less pressure to make something creative, and instead focused on visual note taking, trying to capture the details or feeling of a certain place. I’ve found that in doing so, it opened up new ways of thinking and looking at things.

In my final term at ArtCenter College of Design, I was a part of a two week study away trip to London with a bunch of illustrators, so really it was kind of weird if you weren’t drawing. I started with my group in London, and traveled to Nice and Paris afterwards. I did a lot of sketching in cafes, restaurants, museums and cathedrals. I was lucky because I was with a group of people who didn’t care if I’d zone into a drawing in the middle of a meal.

It took some time for me to feel comfortable sketching openly, but I definitely enjoy drawing in the moment. it feels like a really nice break from the craziness of traveling, and a way to steep in all the newness. Also, I tend to default to the computer when I’m working on a new project these days, so it’s nice to work on paper and experiment with tools.

When I’m traveling, I really like checking out art supply stores. In Berlin I found these giant, cheap 11 x 17" sketchbooks, and I found that drawing bigger made my drawings different, and made me think differently about my mark-making. Another time, I bought a pen that seemed like a normal ink pen, until weeks later I realized it was erasable. There was something interesting about an erased line that has still indented the page. I get way too excited about these things—I love how a change in tool can make you work in different ways.

To start your own travel journal, try experimenting to find out with what works best for you. Find a good sized sketchbook. I like the hardback Art Plus Moleskines because they can fit in my jacket pocket, but are still big enough to not feel cramped. And the paper is thicker so ink doesn’t show through. I like to pack a small pouch with a limited bunch of Prismacolor pencils and a small sharpener. I typically use a lot of color in my work, but it has been nice keeping it down to a single pen when I’m on the move.

Finally, I would say try not to be afraid of making something ugly! And for nervous sketchers, it can be nice to go to places where lots of other people are sketching as well— places like the V&A in London and the Rodin Gardens in Paris.

All illustrations by Tiffany Jan, an illustrator currently based in Los Angeles. Find more of her artwork at her website.

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