I started an illustrated journal in 2012 documenting my everyday activities while studying in Christchurch New Zealand. Since then I have brought journals with me everywhere I travel.
I see these books as complex examinations of my sense of place through sketching and notes. To sketch is to capture a sense of being in a particular place, at a particular moment. It is not a static experience. As a result of complete immersion into an environment long enough to draw it I have developed more distinct and intimate relationships with places that I draw than places that I simply photograph. Sketching is very different from taking a picture. It forces you out of the frame, to deal with live movement, changes in atmosphere, shifts in position. It forces you to deal with the landscape around you.
In the end, my travel journals are not simply collections of drawings; they are collections of specific slices in time. If you go back to that same place, on the same day, at the same time next year and sketch it will not be the same. But here I have a concrete record, and it is something that makes me very proud to produce.
I found an interesting parallel to these ideas in Hepburn’s essay “Questions in Aesthetic Education” surrounding the idea of, through art, being an ingredient in a landscape. This art-nature relation is such that when experiencing an art piece it is static, you are the disengaged observer (typically) but in nature it shrouds you entirely.
“On occasion he may confront natural objects as a static, disengaged observer; but far more typically the objects envelop him on all sides.”
“What a different shape and ‘being’ one becomes lying on the sand with the sea almost above from when standing against the wind on a sheer high cliff with seabirds circling patterns below one.”
Hepburn goes on to say that the spectator is an “ingredient in the landscape and lingering upon the sensations of being thus ingredient.” I really appreciate this idea. In art you take that experience and cover it with yourself, your own intentions, then present it. Nature is this ever changing, beautiful, mysterious, chaotic thing. Without US, without human beings and our high functioning cerebral cortex there would be no appreciation. No aesthetic discussion, perhaps we are an essential ingredient because without us that beauty would remain unrecognized. But nature appreciation is a different thing entirely. Nature appreciation is adding yourself into the landscape as an essential ingredient. You are not the disengaged observer. You are a vital part of the living world. Urban and travel sketching lies in the intersection of these two ideas. You tint a drawing with your intention while also becoming an ingredient in the landscape.
I submitted a research proposal in this area for consideration during my undergraduate studies in the 2013 Wisconsin “Posters on the Hill” session. Although my proposal was not accepted this experience gave me deeper insight into the act of travel sketching.
Here is my official research abstract from that proposal:
“The annotated sketchbook has been a fascination of many over hundreds of years. Even now, illustrated journals continue to be presented by renowned research organizations. However, the value of this type of work is underestimated by today’s design profession, often appearing only in the sidelines. Through research and education I hope to change that perception. The creation of these accounts has historical use, but it also has a profound effect on the individual. This poster presentation will cover my research starting with the question- how extensively does sketching influence our sense of place, and what is the depth of its value for understanding the experiences created by the places we design. This research is important because American culture is steadily becoming one experienced only through the screen of a television or the lens of a camera. Sketching shifts the focus; forcing us outside the frame to confront movement and atmosphere, while allowing us to become an active part of the natural and built environment, instead of remaining a passive observer. The manifesto of sketchers is closely entwined with the idea of savoring senses that has become a talking point in relation to the Slow Food movement. This poster will demonstrate critical components of sketching a place using a case study of my experience creating a travel journal while studying in New Zealand, and will analyze those journal components in relation to their practical design use as well as their aid in understanding/creating a sense of place in the built environment.”
For anyone looking to learn more about travel journal and urban sketching I highly suggest reading The Art of Urban Sketching, by Gabriel Campanario.
The secret is this: whatever your ability, you can be an urban sketcher. Just put the pen on the page, and don’t worry about making mistakes.