In Praise of the Traveler’s Sketchbook

My husband and I are on walkabout in Spain — our first vacation together since our daughter was born 22 years ago. Traveling with my children has been among the most memorable times I have spent with them, and I wonder what it will feel like to travel without them.

As I was preparing for my trip to Spain, I was looking through the travel journals I kept during our trips to Europe when my children were 7 & 9, and four years later when they 11 & 13. The notes and the watercolor sketches tell the story of our travels and my artistic journey as well.

Young children and a novice artist make for a humorous journal

On our first trip we visited provencal France and the limestone mountains of northern Italy, and then spent a few days in Paris.

Our first holiday home, many years before AirBnB made this sort of travel accommodation easy to find.

I carried a small Windsor & Newton watercolor set, waterproof pens and a multi-media sketchbook with us everywhere. At the time I used a hiking backpack, as the water bottle holders on the sides were perfect for the two baguettes we required each day.

Water and snack breaks when hiking allowed me to capture some of the scenery.

Some of my sketches show my inexperience in composition… Although the Dentilles de Montmirail translate as “teeth” I probably should have adjusted this drawing to look a little less phallic.

Sometimes the writing is hilarious to me as well. We have a penchant for traveling to France over their national holidays when all of the stores were closed. “Finally got fresh fruit” is a common entry. I wrote about some of the not so nice parts of travel. One day I wrote: “Tom wanted the quintessential rural French hotel experience — and he got it!” I go on to describe a hotel with only one toilet for all of its guests, but curiously a bidet in each room. Further, I wrote “the beds felt as if they were made of gelatin — where they move in several directions at once.”

Gelato stops in Paris were the perfect opportunity to practice capturing the city.


The view from our hotel window in Paris. I haven’t nailed down shading and perspective yet, but when I see this sketch I remember the fabulous narrow deep European tub that soothed our tired bodies and feet.

The passage of time shows maturity for children and the artist

Four years later, we again ventured to southwestern France, northern Italy and the Mosel area of Germany. My children are now 11 & 13, capable of longer hikes and wanderings, and therefore I have fewer sketches. My writing is often done each evening.

The ruins of a castle in northern Italy that we reached after a walk through terraced olive groves.

The back of this notebook has some phrases that remind me of how my son got lost coming down from this castle. “Mio figlio perduto — my son is lost.”  “Dieci anno — he is ten years old.”  “Giallo camicia — (he is wearing) a yellow shirt.” It is hard to take a photo of someone being lost, but this brings the memory and all the emotions right back.

I brought back leaves from our hike to explore printing with them.

My painting skills are improving. I’m no longer relying on a pen sketch to create the image. I’m also using text and shapes to explore ideas when there wasn’t something special to paint. On this day (below) we visited the Otzi, the man from the Copper Age who was found frozen in a glacier. A fascinating experience, but it did not seem appropriate to paint an ancient dead human.

Sometimes I used the sketchbook for calculations. In this case, we try to figure out just how hot the hot springs were to decide whether we should pay the entry fee. At 95 degrees F, we thought it wasn’t worth it. Plus the guys did not have the requisite Speedos.

It is hard to understand my sketch here, but if you read the text you might be able to decipher that warm water was supposed to be gushing from the rock. As spoiled Americans, we did not think it was warm enough.

It amazes me that trips that I took nine and eleven years ago become vivid once again when I see and read these entries. I remember that I painted this sketch of a hillside hermitage while squatting on a trail. My family had gone exploring, but I had to kindly chat with each hiking party as they passed with only my poor traveller’s French.

A hillside hermitage is a challenging subject for an watercolorist, including me.

Why some journals get filled, and others do not

I did find a journal from our trip two year’s ago to Amsterdam and Berlin. My children were 18 & 20. I only wrote on the first page, perhaps in the airport or on the plane. Our trip this time was punctuated by almost adult children wanting to venture off on their own — developmentally appropriate, but stressful for me. Strange hours, poor sleep and the ambivalent feelings of an older parent meant I spent no time with my journal.

This trip I am determined to sketch and write each day. I have a sketchbook that is small enough to fit into my purse. I will send my photographer husband off to take some photos while I lounge beneath a tree, or on a rock, and try to capture the sense of my surroundings.

Art and writing provide us with a muscle memory that photography alone cannot. Time to flex those muscles…

2 Replies to “In Praise of the Traveler’s Sketchbook”

  1. Oh, Elizabeth, I totally agree with you about writing and sketching providing muscle memory! That is probably because the fingers are using their muscles to interact with vision and brain to describe what we see!
    I do love your journals, Now I appreciate seeing mine from the past. I have been trying out all different kinds of mediums, in addition to a couple of iPad apps.
    I am so glad you had some time to play and gather strength in Spain!
    I will be working on my journal, continuing on the water: clouds series, over this weekend through Wednesday when we bring our puppy home. Then I hope to get some puppy sketches in between the sweet hugs ! Enjoy the sweet last days of summer.

    1. Can’t wait for the puppy sketches! I’m assuming most of them will be when the puppy is sleeping. lol

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