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Why I'm sketching scenes from my travels instead of taking photos


As the years have gone by and the world has switched from analogue to distinctly digital, I’ve taken more and more photos of my holidays. The impulse to capture and own a thing of beauty is deeply human, and we’ve been doing it since our ancestors depicted their hunting on cave walls. Nowadays I can easily take hundreds of photos in one day, intending to keep and delete the best and worst. I don’t even have to really look at what I’m photographing – take enough shots and one will turn out okay.

And therein lies the issue. When I’m taking photos on my smartphone, I’m not truly looking at the scene in front in me. I’m looking at it through a lens, and for not nearly long enough. Consequently, I’m worried that my long-term memories are being moulded by whether I happened to take photographs of that moment.

“I’m also not taking the time to fully ‘be’ in the moment and appreciate a place as my mind tends to rush ahead.”

It’s an issue that the English art critic John Ruskin was aware of, even in the 19th century when painting was only just being replaced by photography. He worried that photography was blinding us to our surroundings and people weren’t taking the time to sketch anymore:
“Let two persons go out for a walk; the one a good sketcher, the other having no taste of the kind. Let them go down a green lane. There will be a great difference in the scene as perceived by the two individuals. The one will see a lane and trees; he will perceive the trees to be green, though he will think nothing about it; he will see that the sun shines, and that it has a cheerful effect; and that’s all! But what will the sketcher see? His eye is accustomed to search into the cause of beauty, and penetrate the minutest parts of loveliness. He looks up, and observes how the showery and subdivided sunshine comes sprinkled down among the gleaming leaves overhead, till the air is filled with the emerald light. He will see here and there a bough emerging from the veil of leaves, he will see the jewel brightness of the emerald moss...Then come the cavernous trunks and the twisted roots that grasp with their snake-like coils at the steep bank, whose turfy slope is inlaid with flowers of a thousand dyes. Is not this worth seeing? Yet if you are not a sketcher you will pass along the green lane, and when you come home again, have nothing to say or to think about it, but that you went down such and such a lane.”
God knows what Ruskin would make of today’s over-stimulating point-snap-move-on culture.
So, in the spirit of Ruskin and improving my holiday recall skills, I decided that as well as take photos on my next holiday I would sketch scenes on the trip too.
I laid some ground rules. I was to spend only around 5 minutes on each sketch. No faffing. No need for colour. And no rubbing out!

“The aim was to concentrate and imprint a place or an occasion on my memory, not produce impressive artwork.”

With all that in mind and armed with a biro (odd choice of tool, I know) and a sketch book small enough to fit in my handbag, I set off for a week in South Devon, UK.
Sketch 1: The scene from my bedroom, Thurlestone
Sketch 1
Sketch 1

The value of this exercise was in the process of drawing, not admiring the result. Drawing teaches us to see properly, rather than gaze passively. I didn’t simply see a sea stack while I was drawing this. I saw the full scene, past and present and moving through time. Windows glinted in the foreground, man-made hedges and fields stretched through the mid-ground and a timeless coastline of ragged cliffs topped by soft green hills curved around two sea stacks that had been gradually pummelled by a sea so powerful it toppled one into the other.

“Drawing teaches us to see properly, rather than gaze passively.”

What I couldn’t even begin to capture was the rapidly changing weather that swept across the landscape as I sketched; it went from sun to rain to hail and back again as quickly as you can crop a holiday snap on your smartphone – but in more time than it takes to snap a photograph.
Sketch 2: View from the car, Salcombe
Sketch 2
Sketch 2
One thing this picture can’t show is the (utterly ridiculous) argument I’d just had with my husband as we sat in the car, whisper-squabbling so as not to wake our two sleeping children in the back. Afterwards, as he took a walk, I picked up a biro and drew this on the back of a muddy old receipt I found in the car footwell. We had been lucky enough to nab a prime parking spot on the edge of the harbour, looking up the estuary from behind a bench crammed with bundled-up people eating packets of fish and chips. It was a typical English holiday scene, with scenery about as beautiful as it gets, but I only have to look at this sketch to feel the rage of that pointless spat sweep through me again! I imagine sketching when you feel something immensely life-affirming would have the same recalling effect, but in a much more pleasant way…
Sketch 3: Another view from the car, Dartmoor
Sketch 3
Sketch 3

This was again sketched in the front seat of our car. This time we were trapped not by sleeping children but by bands of rains sweeping in (it was February). In retrospect, I wish I’d attempted to sketch the skies, stripped with grey rain and swatches of sunlight. The tor in my drawing looks dull and flat. In truth, it was towering, with people the size of pins walking up it and Dartmoor ponies grazing in the foreground. I couldn’t do this scene justice, given the time (and talent) available to me. BUT, I can recall it perfectly – what is depicted here as much as what is not.

“One unforeseen consequence of drawing scenes from my holiday was that I look at the sketches more.”

Taking hundreds of photos can lead to photo fatigue, where the photos go un-looked at for years, lost in a digital library of thousands of unappreciated pics. The sketches though, belong in a small travel diary that I do occasionally flick through. At the time, I took photos of my sketches and shared them on Instagram too, and I smile when I scroll back to these stark scrawls scattered through my otherwise average gallery – they’re a raw and welcome change to the standard holiday photos that usually fill my feed.
On the other hand, I took A Level Art so forcing myself not to look at my sketches with an artist’s eye was TOUGH. I sat my art exams a long time ago but taking my artistic ego out of the equation has been hard; really, the resulting sketches should have been better! That’s partly why I decided to share them on Instagram – to get over myself – but I also really enjoyed the melding of drawing, photography and caption on social media. Instagram became another creative outlet and way to flex my synapses.
I’ll definitely sketch my travels again, and highly recommend you give it a go too. Just a month after my holiday, I can recall the scenes I sketched more vividly and fondly than the ones I photographed, or didn’t try to capture at all.