How to Start (and Keep) a Travel Art Journal

Brush up with advice from artist adventurers.

I used to draw more often, but these days, I spend more time with my fingers tapping on a keyboard than wrapped around a pencil. Whenever I travel, my drawing spirit rises up again, but it always catches me unprepared. I’ve been known to draw on maps, receipts, even barf bags, but inevitably, these un-precious paper pieces get lost in the shuffle of moving from place to place. This is particularly true when I’m traveling light and outdoors on a backpacking or paddling trip, which is ironic since those are the times I’m most inspired to capture the scene.

Artist Sarah Uhl paints the desert. Photo by Becca Skinner, courtesy of Sarah. 

Photo: Artist Sarah Uhl paints in Castle Valley, Utah. Photo by Becca Skinner.

On my next trip, I want to create something more lasting. Something not on a barf bag. So I reached out to some of the favorite artist adventurers on Instagram, Matt McAdow and Sarah Uhl, for a little advice. Here’s what I learned.

1. Find Inspiration and Follow It

Photo by Allison Salas

Photo: Matt McAdow of Camp Illustrated in the Sierras. Photo by Allison Salas.

Plein air (outdoor) painting isn’t new. Famous artists from Monet to Bierstadt to O’Keefe have taken their brushes outside for inspiration. The same goes for travel. Just think about Gauguin and Matisse. And there are artists alive and well keeping the tradition going. I found two of my favorites on Instagram by following outdoor adventure hashtags (read: proverbial rabbit holes). Of course, the ultimate inspiration comes from the places themselves, so you have to get out there, but in the meantime, it helps to get inspiration from talented and like-minded folks.

Matt McAdow, as Camp Illustrated, draws intricate scenes as he’s in them, and his work has been recognized and commissioned by major outdoor brands and events. I like following along to see where he is and where he’s going, appreciating his sketches of common, but (to me) perfect, scenes, like friends gathering around a camp stove or setting up a tent. Matt gets inspired by other vagabond artists. “There are a bunch of rad folks packing a sketchbook on trips,” Matt says. “Geoff Holstad and Lizzy Dalton are just a few.”

I started following Sarah Uhl after seeing the inspiring short film “Being Here,” in which Sarah makes a cameo alongside her watercolors and an amazing view. (The film won a People’s Choice Award in 2016 at the 5Point Film Festival.) I love Sarah's lively swathes of color that seem to capture the spirit of a place. Sarah, in turn, admires the work of Jeremy Collins. “It’s not only because his artwork is beautiful to look at and incredibly inspiring,” she says. “It’s also because I know Jeremy cares deeply about the stories he tells through his art and the connections it creates for people to one another, a place, or a deeply empathetic question to ponder.”

While outdoor adventure artists inspire me, you’ll need to find the travel art and artists that inspire you. Love cities? The ocean? Cool architecture? Find your own rabbit hole and follow where it leads.

2. Just Go and Get Started

Photo: Sarah with her Peru Art journal, taken in Huaraz, Peru. Photo by Carl Zoch

Anyone who works in a creative discipline knows that you can lose your inspiration if you only create for others. I know this is certainly true for myself, and if your day job takes a lot of your energy, you have to set aside separate time to refill the well. Traveling can be that time. As a commercial artist, Sarah says, “I wanted to make sure I had an outlet for my own creativity to go wild, so I started taking watercolor paints along with me to the mountains so I could paint whenever I wanted, however I wanted.”

A travel art journal is about creating for yourself.

Matt started making art outdoors over time on backpacking and camping trips with friends. But as he began to travel more often, and often alone, his sketching increased. “Sketching became mission critical when I started taking more solo trips, such as a two week camp trip around Colorado, or a four-month trip in the PNW,” he explains. “I had a lot of time to fill and taking the time to sketch and really see a place became a way of mixing my art and outdoor passions.”

As for me, I love to make art and to travel outdoors, but I always seem to let other things get in the way. I’m recommitting to feeding those needs, and combining them seems like the right idea.

3. Spare the Easel

When you’re traveling, whether outdoors or by plane or train, it’s important to pack smart, including art supplies. The consensus: Keep it simple. “I don’t get all worked up about having the exact colors I anticipate I’ll need or even the highest quality paint or paper,” Sarah says. She prefers a Moleskin watercolor journal, a Mason jar for water and “a plastic pallet to mix my paints that probably cost about $1.”

For the backcountry artist in particular, it’s “all about being efficient,” Matt says. He packs a small watercolor set and a few pens, some watercolor paper notecards or maybe a watercolor notebook if he can spare the space and weight. “I probably skimp on other more important stuff, like crushed red pepper.” It’s a tough choice, art or spice, but I think he chose the right one.

4. Take Time for Making Time

Photo: Sarah Uhl in Castle Valley, Utah. Photo by Becca Skinner.

It can be tough to carve out time in the daily grind for making art, so when you’re traveling, don’t pack your schedule so tight that you have the same problem. I love being in the wilderness because it takes me away from the little distractions that add up, like checking email and social accounts, flipping channels, and cleaning house. Outside, away, there’s more time and space to reconnect to the things I love, whether it’s other people or something inside myself. Art is one of the latter, and aside from just being overwhelmingly inspired by the amazing landscapes I’m in, when I’m disconnected in the backcountry for a few days, I become myself again.

Even if the outdoors isn’t your thing, you travel for a reason. Sarah says it best: “I think the best time to make art is when you feel inspired, at ease and relaxed.” For many of us, that’s when we get away, when we travel. So remember to bring along your sketchbook and pencil or whatever your medium may be.

“Make memories worth remembering,” Matt advises, “and if you have the time to capture them with pen and paper, do it! In my experience, flipping through an old sketchbook brings back a lot more about a time and place than several different shots of the same thing on a camera roll.”

And if you have artist's block, Sarah recommends "whiskey, good friends and a view you'll never forget!"

Yes, please.

Be sure to follow Sarah and Matt (Camp Illustrated) on Instagram, and check out more of Sarah's work on her website

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