Travel sketchbooks are about capturing a sense of a place. In using what's around you, you infuse your sketchbook with the colours, experiences and smells of where you are. Drawing is a holistic experience. You slow down and embrace the look, listen, hear what's going on around you. You engage your creative mind and feel the paper, the pencil, the warmth of the sun (or the rain!). For me, capturing the essence of place is a large part of sketching. So use what is to hand, be that your coffee and strawberries or drawn on a paper bag from the bakery.

You get none of this holistic experience when you work from photographs. That's why being there, being in the street, or a cafe, or on the beach will always give your drawings far more of a sense of place. So be brave, pack your kit and get out there!


Just a quick word on safety. It's so much easier to relax into drawing if you're not worrying about your safety. Put your kit in a back pack, and make sure someone knows where you're going. People will be interested in what you're doing. I have had no negative experiences at all when I've been out is always wonderful to connect to people through art - so be proud of what you show them. 

Covid update - Sadly we are all in lockdown at the moment. How far you can get out will depend on your circumstances and where you live. Don't put yourself or others at risk. Maybe break my rules and take some photos that you can work on at home.

My coffee-stained drawing sequence. Click the arrows to see the progression of the painting and drawing...

I looked for the bigger shapes in the view, the abstract blocks that made up the layers of buildings and the stone walls in the foreground. I worked in an intuitive way with the coffee, using a big brush to put down broad marks. I let the layers dry and then repeated the process so that the colour built up where the layers overlapped. Finally I drew on top with a fine-liner to add the details of outlines and windows.

Learning to draw, like any other skill takes dedication and determination. It takes a willingness to try, fail and try again. Regular practice and application leads to an understanding of the marks you make and how they relate to the world around you and allows you to develop your own style.

I draw in shapes. My style has a naive simplicity. I build up the shapes in layers, looking for the largest component parts, then repeat elements in the scene before working on top with details such as windows or chimneys. 

When I was at school I drew in a much more detailed way, that looked for realism, but the drawings, and the lengthy process didn't excite my inner artist. I enjoyed being in the moment, capturing what was going on around me. I had a pivotal trip to St.Ives in Cornwall when I was at Art College and the planets aligned and I found a way of drawing that suited me!

I think the solution to finding your drawing style is to make the process interesting. It can be difficult and challenging when what is coming out of your fingertips isn't what's in your head! In creating your own sketchbook and working with different media you constantly have different ways to experiment and develop your drawing style.

A word on composition...

Although your sketchbook is a standard A5 format you don't need to restrict your drawings to that size or format. Consider how the composition of a drawing can help tell the story of the place. If I am in a built up area with a patchwork of buildings, I might leave out the sky and fill the picture with that patchwork.


Also consider how composition can make a drawing more dynamic. You can take a slice through a view, leave out some elements or zoom in to create focus. 

Have a look at these photos. The first is an expanded view, the second zooms in so that the roof tops are the main element, the third is zoomed in so close that you can only see a close up of rooftops. If I was deciding what to draw I think the composition in photo 2 would be most interesting and dynamic. I might also crop the image to a square as most of the detail is in the central section.

Similarly, when looking at the view below I would edit so that the image told the story of the long strip of seaside houses and boats. I would edit out the detail at the top. And perhaps change the composition to be a more elongated, letterbox shape.

Just to reiterate I don't advocate drawing from photographs. I wanted to show you this sequence of photos to let you know what goes on in my head as I am deciding what to draw, so that you can make considered drawings that help to express what you are looking at.

Whilst we are here...a note on accuracy. You will notice that the drawing above is not an accurate reproduction of what is in the photo. Between my brain and my hand, things moved, buildings got muddled up...but over all the sense of place is captured. So don't get bogged down in detail, it will give you a headache! And no one is going to compare your drawings to the original place.

Capture the essence of where you are. Stain some pages in your sketchbook with coffee or strawberries - or even the local earth.


Pack your kit and get out there. Spend some time looking - what makes this place unique? Do all the houses have the same architectural details, or all different? When we were in Gozo, the buildings were all bleached sandstone, all with different brightly coloured doors.

Draw what appeals to you. You don't have to start at the beginning of your sketchbook, I rarely work in sequence, and I like to leave pages in between for adding details and collage later on.

Each drawing doesn't have to take long. Aim for 10-15 minutes each. Can you get 3 or 4 done each day?

Covid update - its most likely that this task will have to be thats in your garden, or the view from your window - or if you need to stay in, you can make a still life of tins and kitchen things and draw them - I'll put hints and links in the forum. Its all about training the eye to look and using shape and line. 

Do you have a drawing style? What excites you? What do you want to capture in your sketchbook? Do you enjoy taking a line for a walk? Do you want to record the detail or the bigger shapes? Is it the text and signage that fires your inner artist or the shapes on the horizon where they meet the sky?

When you were out and about today did you begin to get a sense of the place? Is it all about the doors and windows? Is it about the layers of patchwork buildings? Is the sky big and the buildings low or do the buildings reach the sky? Sometimes it helps to jot down in words what inspires you so that you can build on that when you go out drawing tomorrow.

Share your thoughts in the forum today. Take a picture of your initial drawings out and about - share them on the forum too.

Click grid images to see full size images.


Images from my sketchbook. Most drawings are quick and take between 10 and 15 minutes. I often draw front on and look for shape and pattern. When I am travelling I am inspired by the buildings, the shadows and textures and the detailing in the tiles and ironwork and balconies.  


Helen Hallows


Nurturing Creativity since....

© 2009-2020 Helen Hallows

Copyright of all art works remains with the artist Helen Hallows 

Online course content, blog posts and all design and written content remains the intellectual property of Helen Hallows. Please do not reproduce without permission. All rights reserved.


Nottingham, UK

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