Sometimes the best view is the one you create.
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A group of people reading and talking together in front of the Eiffel Tower
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I'm sitting in Borough Market, in central London, my back against a wall, a Turkish coffee on the table in front of me, and my sketchbook open. This, for me, is the way I truly get to immerse myself in the places I visit. I draw them.

I am no John Singer Sargent, but I have borrowed from his travel style. Like many artists, including Turner and Canaletto, he always traveled with his sketchbook. While he used his quick on-location sketches for paintings he would finish later in the studio, his spontaneous captures of the places and the people he encountered on his journeys are still my favorites — they vibrate with life.

So I travel with my sketchbook as well, and try to capture the places I visit on paper.

Art is my passion. I have found that if I anchor my journeys with that passion, I can connect to the places I visit in a more layered and meaningful way.

Some might have a passion for gardens, architecture, beer, fashion or manga, but there are several ways to travel with more purpose and focus by using your passion as your guide, whether traveling solo or connecting with like minded kindred spirits.

Solo Travel

When I travel solo, I try to schedule some time to just sketch. I will find a place that has appeal. Sometimes it will be a cafe where I can sit quietly or sometimes it will be a park bench or a seat inside one of the museums. It might even be on a bus or a train. I travel with very simple sketching equipment, usually just my micron pen and a good sketchbook. I might spend twenty minutes, if that's all that is practical, or I might spend a whole morning drawing different aspects of a city or a building or patrons in a cafe.

People hardly notice that you are drawing when your equipment is small, but many do like to  look over your shoulder. I found it hard, at first, to get over being shy about my drawings, which can be awful, particularly when I'm just starting a sketch. Eventually, I realized that the encounters I had with people who came to look were some of my best travel memories. Through engaging conversations with locals and other travelers when sketching in public, many of whom expressed a long held desire to paint and were wondering how to start, I met friendly people craving conversation. One elderly gentleman who came up to watch me sketch told me how he had loved to paint when he was in school, but he had been too busy making a living to do anything creative. He was close to retirement, he explained, but dreamed of the day when he would have time to get back to painting. "I was pretty good once," he told me shyly.

Young female artist painting landscape, Buonconvento, Tuscany, Italy
Credit: Ghislain & Marie David de Lossy/Getty Images

Why not just take a picture, you ask? That's a valid question and one I have heard before. When I was sitting on a bench in Putney recently, drawing the Thames and the rowers in the river, a little girl of about eight or nine sat beside me and asked that same question. She lived in Putney, and her sister was in one of the rowing sculls, practicing for a competition. Her mother was arriving any minute but Annabelle was very interested in what I was doing. "You could take a picture with your phone instead," she suggested helpfully.

I asked her how long she had lived in Putney and she said forever. So I had her stand with her back to Putney Bridge, and asked her how many arches the bridge had.

"Four. No, three, no four. Yes, four for sure."

"There are five arches, and you have been looking at them all your life and you haven't really seen them. But if you tried to draw the bridge, you would have to carefully observe, and you would know its details," I responded.

She got it — and we had a good chat until her mother arrived. I smiled when she asked her mom to buy her a sketch book so she could draw the city, too. A convert!

The difference between taking a picture of something and drawing that same thing is intensity of focus. When you look with the intention of capturing what you are observing on paper, you enter a whole different level of seeing.

Frederick Franck,  in The Zen of Seeing said, "I have learned that what I have not drawn, I have never really seen, and that when I start drawing an ordinary thing, I realize how extraordinary it is, sheer miracle."

Today, when everything is on fast forward, we can so easily just 'scan' our surroundings, instead of seeing them. Sketching forces us to slow down and relate to what we see. By drawing, we are able to sidestep left hemisphere thinking, the part that says, "No need to look closely. We know what a bridge looks like."  

Your drawing may not be very good, and it may not ever be finished, but sketching is not really about the finished drawing. It's process over product. I have done some terrible drawings, but I don't think I have done one that was a waste of time. Each one got me closer to the scene I was trying to capture. I can look back on drawings I did years ago and instantly remember what it felt like to be there.  

Join Up With Like-Minded People When Traveling

An important benefit of using your passion as your guide is that it gives you an entry to groups you may never otherwise have discovered. It is an added value that these groups are generally limited in number so you are never crowded into a space with too many people, an important concern in these pandemic days.I used a website called Drawing London on Location to join a sketching group. We met outside the Victoria & Albert Museum to connect with the group leader, Fabiola Retamozo, who, besides having a name that rolls musically off the tongue, is a full time professional artist, committed to building community connections through art. We introduced ourselves. There were six of us, of different ages, from different countries and with totally different styles of sketching. We then split up and found the places inside and outside of the museum that interested us. I was captured by the colour and variety of objects in the Korean display, particularly the full-size models of the traditional Korean dress, the hanbok.

One of the older sketchers sat on a bench across the street from the museum and sketched the architecture. There was a girl who drew some of the paintings in the main galleries.

Most museums do not allow any painting materials inside the galleries, only permitting drawing equipment, but you can always add colour later. I sometimes make little notes about the shades and I always take a reference photo for any details I may have missed. Serious painters who want to perhaps copy a painting, can usually apply for a special permit to use paints inside the building.

We met up at the end of two hours and had coffee and cakes together in the museum cafe, sharing our drawings and getting to know a bit about each other. There was no judgement, no competition, just a really open and friendly hang out.

Retamozo claims that the drawing experience has a way of connecting people, building up a relationship in a very short period of time. When we are all gathered at a table together after a drawing meet-up, no one wants to leave! Drawing London on Location has published a book of collected drawings of Christopher Wren's architecture that resulted from their meetings,Grass, Stone and Wedding Cakes and is planning to do another book of drawings of the pubs they have visited for drawing meetups.

An open painting marketplace for artist on a sunny weekend morning in Piazza Trilussa, Trastevere, Roma
Credit: Alberto Guglielmi/Getty Images

"We get every kind of attendee," Retamozo tells me. "They are mostly over thirty years of age, but we have had much younger people, too. We have art teachers, artists, engineers, architects and, surprisingly, quite a few IT workers who do very talented drawings. They come from all around the world — obviously quite a few from London, but also from Sweden, France, Portugal,  Germany, Canada, China — everywhere." Their upcoming meet up is to sketch in Old Spitalfields Market.

There was no cost for the experience, one that was both safe and rewarding. It was a way of getting under the skin of a place, allowing me to travel small and travel focused.

Another time, I used MeetUp to find a group to draw together in the British Museum. Meetup has many different interest-focused groups that a traveler can arrange to join, in major centers around the world, and sometimes in smaller places, too. You can connect with a group to walk the Brooklyn Bridge, join a Restorative Writing Circle, do an anime and manga tour, or be part of a photoshoot. There is an Improv drop-in  in New York and a group initiative called  'Drink and Draw', also originating in New York, runs meet ups across the world, in places like London, Lisbon, and Los Angeles. You can arrange to play Five a Side football in Paris

There are other useful ways to find a small group that matches your personal interest. Urban Sketchers is one I like to use, too. The organization has sketching groups all over the world, with  groups and meeting schedules on their website. 

Eventbrite is an independent platform for hosting or joining local events. You can search for events to join based on location, topic, or whether you have to pay or not. City Socializer and MeetIn, a now Facebook-only site, are others that facilitate small group, interest-focused experiences.

These days, travellers are looking for more from their journeys. They want to return saying, 'I learned something new, I made connections, I met new people, and I grew in ways I could never have done at home. And, maybe, I got to know the world in a way that is personal and thoughtful.'

That is really what we want from our explorations — safe connections, personal growth, and a sense that we really got to know a small pocket of the world, intimately. For me it is capturing on paper the spirit of the destinations I visit. Whatever your personal hook, there are ways to connect with the world and with others who share the same interests that will add a personal resonance to your journeys.  Your travels will be richer and more meaningful with passion as your roadmap.

We met up at the end of two hours and had coffee and cakes together in the museum cafe, sharing our drawings and getting to know a bit about each other. There was no judgement, no competition, just a really open and friendly hang out.

Retamozo claims that the drawing experience has a way of connecting people, building up a relationship in a very short period of time. "When we are all at the table together after a drawing meet-up, no one wants to leave!" Drawing London on Location has published a book of collected drawings of Christopher Wren's architecture that resulted from their meetings,Grass, Stone and Wedding Cakes and is planning to do another book of drawings of the pubs they have visited for drawing meetups.