Notes from a travel sketcher

In this age of click and move on, Somali Roy shares her experience of capturing moments in a creative way

Two years ago on a trip to Japan, I packed a sketchbook, couple of pens and a watercolour tin in my backpack. The plan was to document my journey slightly differently—the way travellers and world explorers did of their escapades on paper and canvas, before the camera was invented.

In the age of selfie sticks and Go Pro, seeking something that doesn’t offer instant gratification sounded ridiculously archaic to many. “Why bother sketching, when you can click and move on?” they said. I imagined myself sitting for prolonged periods on foreign terrain in inclement weather with people watching [and perhaps judging] me while I scratched lines on paper. What was I getting into?

My debut travel sketch

The voices of detractors and self-doubt were drowned out the moment I cracked open the first page of my travel journal in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Gyoen to sketch the sublime cherry blossom. Few hanami revelers picnicking in the garden came over to watch. I was mixing a fragile baby pink to colour the foliage when they peered over my shoulder and showed gracious thumbs up.

Encouraged by their gesture I sketched the lanterns hanging from the trees when they lit up after sundown, the family of four opening their bento boxes and sake bottles, and a white duck waddling out of the pond. And while I did my line work and carefully painted every scene, I was there, encapsulated in the moment, oblivious of time and space. I was observing and creating. Nothing else mattered.

Unbeknownst to me, I had connected with my environment in a primal sort of way. These sketches seem rudimentary today, my drawing skills having improved and all, but when I browse through them I can smell the wind, hear the leaves rustling and feel the blossoms falling at my feet.

It is such an exercise in mindfulness. And when mindful, every sense in the body is so receptive that you feel awake and aware, as if a mist has been lifted. Ever since I started drawing my journeys, I feel I’ve been to places—lived, breathed in and grown roots in the little time I was there and not just passed through them in a haze.

Unbeknownst to me, I had connected with my environment in a primal sort of way

Toiling labourers etched in time

Once while vacationing in Kolkata, I noticed an empty patch in front of my parent’s house being prepped for construction. From our balcony I watched men, thin as rod, brown as earth, working the plot the entire day and sleeping on the hard ground at night under mosquito nets. What I’d seen has long been replaced with a multi-storied building. What I’m left with is a sketch of those men toiling away and a hasty scribble that reads, “Four labourers towing away mud, bricks and debris in their wicker baskets, cleaning the space for a new construction just in front of our house. A heavy downpour seems to have stopped their work for the time being”.

We are exposed to a million things on our travels and daily lives and we weave through them like maniacs, greedy to experience all, making only a handful of memories, of the most extraordinary events. The rest—the everyday, mundane things—fades away with time. My sketch of those labourers captured an ordinary moment in a day gone by, something I would’ve lost had I not made a visual record.

Apparently on 23rd April 2013 I went on an impromptu date with my husband. We had coffee and dinner at a nice restaurant from where I quickly sketched the windows of the shophouse opposite us. My entry says, “The restaurant was pricey but the evening was priceless. The joy of reliving the ‘ordinary’ is what I find in the pages of my sketchbooks. A Harvard Business School study found that recording the quotidian stuff give us more pleasure in retrospect than our extraordinary events. My travel sketchbooks are a testament to that.

When I’m on the road, drawing is also an absolute novel way to come in contact with locals. While in Penang, I was trying to sketch Armenian Street’s iconic red tuk-tuk, but couldn’t progress much because none of them would stay parked for long. As I was about to give up, a tuk-tuk driver, upon seeing my predicament, not only parked his vehicle in front of me, but also declined every tourist that approached him for a ride till I finished my drawing. I was moved beyond words. While sketching Mumbai’s CST station, the man whose shop front I was occupying brought me a chair to sit and iced water to beat the heat. Kindness from strangers is rampant when I’m armed with a sketchbook and has opened avenues for many heartfelt conversations.

An HBS study found that recording the quotidian stuff give us more pleasure in retrospect than our extraordinary events

Sue, the owner of a makeshift olive shop at Lyttelton Farmer’s Market near Christchurch told me how she lost her store in the massive 2011 earthquake and had to start all over. She had seen me drawing her table of olives and walked over to chat. The garrulous owner of Indian Palace—an eatery in Singapore shared the struggles and successes of her immigrant life, while I drew her shop. I met Nishiguro at Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market, and without speaking a word of each other’s language we understood one another perfectly. Using wild hand gestures he told me he’d sold five tunas at the early morning auction. The best part, however, was when he clapped excitedly after I copied his shop’s name in Japanese into my sketch.

Sketching opened many doors for me…literally

Sketching is not intrusive. I haven’t met anyone who felt threatened or offended because I was sketching his or her house, vehicle or pet. On the contrary, I’ve been granted access to places that I wouldn’t otherwise be allowed to see. The Long Bar in Royal Selangor Club in Kuala Lumpur denies entry to ladies since the British times. When the old waiter saw me drawing the bar from the threshold, he not only let me in, he showed me around the lovely space and plied me with stories. A Chinese opera group gave me access to their elaborate behind-the-stage make-up session only because I came wielding a sketchbook and pen. Earning people’s trust has been my sketchbook’s greatest gift on my travels.

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Recently a friend surprised me with a personal message claiming he likes my travel sketches. I asked him why. After saying, “it’s colourful and fluid in its movements…,” he added something interesting, “…yet leaving space for interpretation.” I love how a drawing can evoke a dialogue between the artist and the viewer. While sketching a destination, I interpret the elements that inspire me and leave the rest. I tell the story of a place a certain way. Another artist drawing the same location may offer a different perspective and the viewer, in turn, may experience something else.

In Hong Kong, the overcrowded cheek by jowl buildings with cables sticking out, washing lines, neon signs and an incredible number of air-conditioning machines fitted on the building facades jumped out at me and my sketchbook is filled with drawings that show this urban chaos. My impressions of Singapore show its rapidly changing streetscape, a potpourri of pre-WW2 shophouses, Art Deco buildings and 21st century high-rises.

British reportage illustrator George Butler said in a TED talk that drawings encapsulate the passage of time. “The 2 – 3 hours on the street observing, watching, witnessing is so important. It’s not just the snap of a shutter and walking away,” he says and I echo his sentiment. Travel sketching, after all, is not an end, but a means to an end. Perhaps this was the gratification I was really after.


What to carry: A basic travel sketching kit should have pencils, ball point/ felt-tipped/ fountain pens with waterproof ink, a portable watercolour box, a water bottle, brushes [Pentel waterbrushes / Escoda’s foldable travel brushes], a watercolour journal and finally a foldable stool.

How to begin: The excitement of cracking open a new sketchbook is undeniable but so is the apprehension of filling out the first page. To break the ice, I draw contents of my sketching bag. It not only relieves pre-trip anxiety but sets the tone for my upcoming sketches. To further get into the groove draw in-flight meals, maps of your destination and so on.

What to sketch: Draw the food you eat, souvenirs you buy, sights you visit and the people you meet. Write down conversations, make notes on what you see, smell, hear, feel. Glue travel ephemera like museum passes, business cards, shopping receipts, a leaf perhaps on the pages of your sketchbook. Above all, tell the story of the place you’re visiting.

This was first published in the July 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing


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