The first week in Japan

It has been a good week, here are a few sketch so far, some quick, some more refined. The beauty of Travelsketching is that all are good.

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What a fun day

Thanks to the sketchers who joined Tricia and me for a relaxing afternoon of Tricia’s great food, a sip of wine, and of course some sketching. Sketching captures our moments and brings people together – it did today.

Check out a new blog post about why I like to travel on my other blog, Been There Eating This

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3 Times not to travel-sketch

Yes! I always have something with me so I can sketch, always. Yes! Sketching always beats taking selfies. Yes! Sketching makes travel exponentially more rewarding and memorable. Travel-sketching is all about capturing the moment, slowing down enough to actually look and see what you spent all that money and vacation time to be standing in front of. BUT here are three times you should not sketch.

1 – When sketching becomes everything

Thanks to Instagram I am able to learn from and follow the journeys of many other sketchers. Recently there was a post of one sketcher’s efforts from a single day in a town. This sketcher had done at least 15 sketches of buildings that day. That is a lot, and a lot more than I would want to do, it would mean the whole day was spent sketching.

Now, I do understand a few things about this post. The person who posted this is a professional sketcher, they were there with other sketchers at a workshop. So it is understandable that they would do more than they might do if they were on a trip for pleasure. It did make me ponder, that though they saw a lot of buildings in that city, they had such a short time at each that they were not really savoring the moments, which is my goal for sketching while I travel – sketching on assignment would be different.

Since I stopped traveling as a seminar speaker a year ago, which kept me on the road 40-50% of the time, sketching has changed. Now I spend most of my time in the Mukilteo area of Washington, a beautiful place for sure. Often I head out for the purpose of finding something to sketch for my column in The Mukilteo Beacon – sketching is the objective, not simply capturing a time and place. On those trips sketching is everything, and I find it changes the sketching experience. When I traveled heavily each day took me to a new place with new things to sketch, it was fresh, I just sketched what was in front of me.

The message here is that you don’t have to sketch everything. Put the pen and pad down and just enjoy the view, listen to the sounds, watch the people. Sketch the significant things, while allowing some time to just soak it all in.

2- When sketching affects other people

Traveling with other people means being sensitive to what each person wants to do. Sketching takes time, thankfully Tricia is patient with my wanting to stop and do a sketch. Sadly I have not always been as sensitive to realize that me sketching has been a bit selfish. We have found a few ways that work well to balance it all out.

One, she is a photographer, if you don’t already follow her blog you should: Travels Through My Lens. While I do a quick sketch, she wanders off snapping some nice photos for her blog, knowing that I will be right where she left me. If the people you travel with are not photographers they may have other interests they can pursue while you sketch.

Another tool is that I learned to do quick sketches. I can sketch most things in five minutes or less, it may not be the kind of sketch I would do if I had more time, but it works to capture the moment. I did this sketch standing on the trail in less than five minutes at Yosemite Falls, while Tricia walked a bit further down the trail, then I added watercolor back at the hotel.


Sketch when other people are sleeping, I read in Suhite’s blog that she uses the time of day much as I do. Many of the people I travel with, including Tricia, prefer to sleep-in a bit later in the morning. I am an early-to-bed early-to-rise sort of guy. When we were in Robion, France I was always up before everyone else; loved it, I went to the cafe, grabbed a café, and sketched. By the time they joined me I was ready to give them my attention.

3 – When sketching is unsafe or inappropriate

There are cultures where sketching a person is considered intrusive or disrespectful. Enough said. As sketchers we are there to embrace places that are different than our own, not there to impose ourself on others. Some museums and historical locations require permission, some even post no sketching, when in doubt ask, and respect the answer. Take a photo if allowed, and do a sketch later at a cafe with a glass of wine.

There have been many on-line discussions regarding safety while sketching, I get that. Traveling as I have for over 25 years I find that most of the times that people get into trouble it is due to lack of vigilance and caution. Rarely have I ever felt at risk, even in places like Barcelona, Jakarta, or South Africa, all of which have reputations for danger, but I go out of my way to reduce the risk. Avoid standing out, dress like the locals if possible, don’t stand on a street corner with a map looking puzzled, learn a few words of the local language, and be aware of what is going on around you. 

So often I have seen someone leave their bag on a counter, wide open with passport and wallet in plain sight, while they turned away or even walked a few steps away; that is an open invitation. Since I always get aisle seats on airplanes I see this frequently: a woman boarding the plane with her purse over her arm, the bag open wide, passport on top. Grabbing it would be so easy. Use common sense – if you are sketching, keep your bag in front of you, not behind, or loop the strap around your foot.

If you do find yourself in a risky neighborhood, or situation – protests or strikes, places where you are just out of place – don’t sketch, as it draws attention. If you are going to try to capture some of the action on paper, get out of sight and be safe.

There is plenty of risk, the reason we fear it more when we travel is because we are in an unfamiliar place, and we are so easily distracted. So stay focused, on the sketch and on what is going on around you.

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Sketching at the barn

We had a wonderful workshop last Saturday sketching a barn in Mukilteo, at the home of Ana, a generous sketcher and plein air painter. It filled so quickly that I never actually posted it on my site, so for those who would have liked to attend yet did not have the chance I am so sorry.

A 5-minute sketching exercise was a challenge, to work on sketching without overthinking. I try to do quick sketches, in either pencil or ink, every day. These improve your eye-hand coordination, something we all need.

Then we sketched the barn, and talked about mixing watercolors. The weather was great, all around a fun time.


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Lighthouse Workshop

We had a great group of sketchers at the Mukilteo Lighthouse. It is always a pleasure to see the work everyone produces, especially those for whom this is the first time they ever sketched.

Thank you to all who came, hope to see you out sketching soon.

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Three reasons to dig out your viewfinder.

Someone may have given you one as a gift or you picked one up out of curiosity – a viewfinder. Or you were shown the neat trick of using your hands as a viewfinder, reminiscent of movie directors in comedies about movie directors. (The hand thing really is a good tool which should be used more often, better composition would be the result.) Be honest now, how often is your viewfinder in your kit? Even more honest, could you find where it is hiding if you needed it?

So I am here to encourage you to dig it out and reconsider its value. Van Gogh had a special one made, it was quite heavy, yet he lugged it all over, and his art significantly improved when he started using it.


Van Gogh’s viewfinder

DaVinci was a fan as well, along with many others. Here are three uses that might make a pocket viewfinder a regular part of your kit.




Find the focus of your sketch

The first way to improve your sketches is to slow down, just leave the pen or brush on the table for a bit longer and gaze at the scene in front of you. What is it about the place that makes you want to sketch it? Why have you paused to even considering sketching it?

When the scene before us is a grand panorama, or a jumble of buildings, trees, people my experience is that trying to capture it all frequently ends in a bland, frustrating sketch. This happens because of our peripheral vision. When we stand on the edge of a valley and peer into the valley our mind says wow, it takes all of the inputs from our eyes and forms a non-specific perception. Moved by it all we grab a pencil and sketchpad and start sketching.

We need some focus. So ask, “what and why” while looking through a viewfinder. You block out the peripheral vision and start seeing details – maybe a barn stands out in the distance, a river that winds its way, a bridge, an interesting stand of trees. Why is this street scene different from others? is it a doorway, a tower, the people?

Ask, what is it about this scene that I want to capture, that will remind me most about this place when I look at my sketches in six months? What is it that tells a story about the time and place?

If you start your sketch with a clear focus in mind you will do better.

Better composition

One tip, that even casual photographers learn, is to look all the way around the edge of the viewfinder right before they snap the shutter, you catch things that will distract or weaken the photo. The same technique works well for us sketchers.  It also helps define the limits of what we are planning to include in the sketch, and what we want to leave out.

The simplest technique for good composition is the Rule of Thirds – dividing the scene in thirds from top to bottom and side to side. The four intersection points are where the focus object should be placed. Some viewfinders actually have gridlines on them, but even a viewfinder without the lines makes it easier to visualize the intersections. Or you could put marks on the edges of your viewfinder to help.

Version 2

The old boilers at Gasworks Park, in Seattle, WA are the focal point for the sketch

Visualizing the sketch through the viewfinder helps you see how the scene will translate onto the paper or sketchpad. The relationships of spaces and objects start to come together. When you begin to sketch it will come together easier.

Get the shapes and perspective right

We want the buildings to look like buildings, or the rows of vines look like rows of vines. True, we are sketching not doing praise architectural renderings, but if we get too far off in perspective it does not work well. Much has been written about perspective, far more scholarly than I want to delve into, not that I could. 

What I do know is that if you get the shapes you see close to correct, get the lines going in generally the right directions, the perspective will works itself out. Again the viewfinder comes alongside to help.

One reason we struggle with perspective is our overly helpful brains. We see lines, that in two-dimension look like they are totally off, but our brain translates for us. The problem comes when we try to draw what we think we see instead of what is actually there. 


By holding up the viewfinder, then using our pen to match the edge of the building, or row of the vineyard, on the viewfinder, then drawing it the same angle on our paper we get it right. There are many times my brain says, “NO!, that line is too steep,” yet if I overcome that and draw it as measured, it always works. 

Holding it as I am in the photo keeps the viewfinder in the same plane as the sketchpad, and acts as a support for the pen. Then I simply slide the pen down onto the paper maintaining the angle.

This is the secret that Van Gough used.  His perspective was not good in his earlier sketches and paintings, they tended to be flat. When he implemented his viewfinder, they immediately improved. If it is good enough for some of the most famous artists, its smart for me to use.

Give it a go, let me know how it works, or any other tricks you discover.

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What is your sketching style?

If you follow sketching posts on the web you find that travel and urban sketchers are all over the place as far as technique, style, and content. Most artist in any medium will develop a style that is distinctly theirs over time; art curators can verify authenticity of paintings by studying the  technique, style, and content of a newly discovered piece of art. Not exactly a fingerprint but not far from it.

Look at the work of some of the popular sketchers out there (their links are attached) and you find quite a diversity. These folks have each been an inspiration to me, I have learned from all of them. In the process I have also failed at times because I tried to sketch like them. That is the point of the blog, learn from others, but be yourself. That is the message of my workshops, I can show you an idea, maybe a trick or two, but you in the end have to be you.

Suhita has a style that is quite loose, using many earth tones, people are prominent in most of her sketches, lots of darks to contrast with the lights. Suhita is known for people sketches, and I tried so hard to sketch them like she does, it was disaster. Then I stepped back and looked at what it was about how she sketched that I liked. I learned that my sketches of people in cafes did not have to be detailed portraits, that the rhythm and the shapes of the person and place is what mattered most, and that color was optional, sometimes just shades of gray worked.

Liz Steel uses much lighter washes, tends to sketch in pen first I believe, and does a lot with buildings. Liz Steel made me look at allowing more variations in the watercolor washes I use, it made the sketch more interesting.

Marc Holmes, who is doing more studio painting these days, sketches mostly with just watercolor, he is an advocate of direct watercolor, no sketching first, and many earth tones. His overall tone is lighter than Suhita, but darker than Liz Steel. Marc taught me a bit about layering, and limiting passes, but our styles are so far apart that it has been harder for me to try and match his style.

Maria Coryell-Martin of Expiditionary Art does amazing studio work, yet is known for her scientific expedition sketching. She tends to use light washes with ink for detail and highlights. Maria is an inspiration for me because I like to think our styles have a few similarities. There is not a desire on my part to emulate, however I do learn from her when I see how she captures a scene.

Erin Hill sketches with a loose pen and vivid colors, not attempting to mach the scene’s colors in front of her, but to express the colors that the scene evokes in her mind. Erin Hill’s sketches constantly remind me that a loose pen is ok, though my favorite style does have more precision than her’s. Except when I just grab my Confucius Fude and capture a quick moment that is quite loose. Yet when I tried to do coloring closer to her style it frustrated me, thousands of course love it, we are all right.

All of these folks, and many more I could list, have advocates and followers, so the question is which one should I try to emulate? Answer: none of them. And I am pretty sure they would agree. Learn from them, but don’t try to be someone else. 

To find a direction for your style the first piece of advice is not to look for one, let it develop over time as you consider technique, style, and content.


Technique includes medium. What is your favorite, most comfortable. What matches your lifestyle. Pen and watercolor is my go-to because as theTravelsketcher I am often packing light and fast. Plein air acrylic painting is something I love, yet it takes a lot more paraphernalia. I have a watercolor palette from Maria’s Expeditionary Art that fits in my shirt pocket.

Technique also include how you enjoy sketching. In general I prefer to do ink first, then wash with watercolors. Though I do other styles, it is my preferred, I tend to get the results I like best. It is good to try other techniques to test and push your skills, but most will settle on a core of techniques that works the best for them.


Style in this context refers to how loose vs. detailed you sketch. Some sketchers come at it with an architectural background thus they often work a lot more precise detail than I could ever be comfortable with. Graphic artists may look for composition and the overall visual impact. Me, I just want to capture the moment, my mood at the moment influences my style. There are times I want it free of detail, and others with a lot more detail; both are my style. Here are examples of each.


Travelsketchers and urban sketchers will, in the course of things, sketch a bit of everything just because they strive to capture the world around them. Having said that, we all gravitate toward a few favorites. 

Maria sketches landscapes and nature more than anything. Suhita does sketch buildings etc, but you see a lot of people, cafes, and public spaces. Marc does a lot of building dominant landscapes. Liz is known for her morning teacup and landscapes with buildings.

Me, I like to sketch in cafes and bars, thus I sketch food and drink. Landscapes with buildings are common, with a few people thrown in. And I love flowers and nature.

The key to finding your style is to sketch a lot, sketch what moves you, interests you, and is fun. That is what you will be best at and enjoy most. So keep on sketching.

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