Learn how Linda MacAulay paints her watercolour travel journal while following her recent journey to Croatia and France. She shares her tips for packing, planning and painting in your watercolour travel journal along with lots of photos.
Note. There are no affiliate links in this blog. I have purchased all the products used.
Why paint a travel journal ?
I love painting on location because it forces you to be present. Painting helps you strip away the details and focus on capturing the essence of the subject. Recently I travelled to France and Croatia where I painted a watercolour travel journal. In this blog post I will share some of my tips that will help you learn how to paint your own watercolour travel journal.
How long do you need ?
Most of these little sketches take between 15 minutes for an easy scene and up to 40 minutes for a more complicated scene. Often drying time is the thing that slows me down. I usually go out early in the morning. There are less people out and about, particularly in major tourist spots. It is much easier to paint without people watching or trying to talk to you.
Travelling with family always means a bit of give and take. If we were eating we would often choose a café with a view so I could paint during our meal. At times I was itching to paint but there was simply not enough time. There are times when I travel alone to paint but it is not as much fun as having loved ones along.
Painting with others.
I was fortunate to meet up with a group of Urban Sketchers, a world-wide movement supporting people to sketch, on location in Croatia. It was by pure coincidence while I was painting on the dock in Milna. It has been great to connect with other sketchers throughout my travels. Painting a watercolour travel journal with others takes a bit of the pressure off as people tend to be less intrusive with a group.
What do you need to paint a watercolour journal while travelling?
I always pack a week before I leave and this kit fits beautifully into a large pencil case, it’s lightweight and was plenty for the whole 5 week journey.
My watercolour travel journal kit
- Hand book Journal Company Watercolour Journal 300gsm, 8.25 x 8.25 inches (approximately 21 x 21cm). I have used a number of these watercolour sketchbooks and love the paper for the way I paint in watercolour. Previously I had bought the 230gsm, which is also fantastic, but I appreciate the heavier weight paper. I love cold pressed paper as I get way too many cauliflowers when I use hot pressed paper outdoors. This sketch book can handle multiple washes and take a bit of lifting out although the paper did ball up when I scrubbed a bit too hard.
The rest of my kit includes the following items;
- Van Gogh empty watercolour palette from Royal Talens filled with my preferred watercolours.
- A mechanical pencil.
- A mechanical erasure by Staedler.
- A small clear plastic ruler for drawing lines and measuring angles.
- 3 aqua brushes. Use the largest ones as they have a great point which can be used for detail as well as broad washes. I love flat brushes so I have a large flat water brush as well. If you have never used one before they fill with water, they don’t need washing and are great for quick little sketches. They are, however, a bit stiff.
- A squirrel mop brush with a good point. This allows me to paint a little looser than the aqua brushes.
- A collapsible water container.
- Oil based black 0.07 ballpoint pens. These won’t bleed when used on watercolour paper which has a sizing that makes many “waterproof pens” bleed.
- X press IT fine mist sprayer for wetting my palette before I start.
- A packet of tissues for drying off my brush.
- A small nub of candle.
- A white Gel pen for small white details.
- A small tube of white gouache. I forgot it this time and missed it.
How to pack your watercolours for travel
I completely filled the paint wells with my favourite colours prior to leaving and left the lid open until they had thoroughly dried. This makes them like pan paints. This process can take up to a week. I then pack this palette into a snap lock bag. My brushes, which also get wet, go in another snap lock bag and I have yet another bag for my other pencils, pens and rubbers. I place my journal in a separate snap lock bag to protect it.
That’s a lot of snap lock bags but I have found this essential. I have had paint leak from the palette into my journal before so I am very careful now to use the separate snap lock bags. I also pop a few spare snap lock bags in my suitcase just in case one gets a hole in it.
The whole kit then fits into a large pencil case that I can easily carry anywhere.
This trip I added a small lightweight foldable camping chair so I could sit anywhere and paint. I loved it as I am getting a little too old to sit on the ground, and it prevented me from getting dirty sitting on the footpath.
Each night I refilled the aqua brushes and the spray bottle and replenished my tissues. Despite painting every day for 5 weeks, I had more than enough paint to last the entire trip.
Choosing a scene to sketch or paint.
Decide how much time you have?
If you’re rushed for time just go with a simple pen and wash. Draw the subject first in pen and then add in a wash over the top. I have learned to pick a subject I can complete in the available time, like the sketch of the mountains done while waiting to be picked up in France. I knew I only had 15 minutes so I chose the part of the scene I knew I could complete.
Sometimes you get caught out. Like the painting I started of Dali’s house in Spain before our tour. I had just sketched it in my watercolour travel journal when the tour guide came and told out group we could go in early. I snapped a quick photo and completed the sketch back at our accommodation.
Look for the light
I paint the light rather than the scene so if the light is wrong I give the subject a miss. If I am in an area for a few days I will come back when I know the light is in the right spot. If it is overcast I might work on something indoors.
Choose a focal point
Often when your painting small you can’t actually capture the whole scene so it is important to choose something that encapsulates the experience. Rather than painting the whole building you would just paint a small section. If you are struggling to decide, take a photo of the scene on your mobile and use the crop tool to isolate a small area.
Don’t be too ambitious. We all want to paint the whole scene as a panorama but this does not always work when creating a watercolour travel journal.
Don’t wait for the perfect scene. Often we spend too much time looking for the best place to paint and before you know it, you have run out of time to paint. You can paint anything and some of the best sketchbooks I have seen include pictures of food at cafes or random objects. You can make anything interesting.
Choose a subject that tells a story. That bowl of tomatoes takes me back to the heat and flavour of France. The market scene reminds me of how busy Nice was.
Snap a photo if you are having trouble finding the edges of your subject. You can also use your hands to make a viewfinder or take an actual viewfinder with you.
Think it through
Before you paint, give some thought to how you would best achieve the look you’re going for.
- Will your painting be portrait or landscape….square…round or panoramic? Purchase a watercolour travel journal that suits your subject. Australian landscapes lend themselves to a panoramic format. For my European paintings I often chose a portrait shaped rectangle to emphasize the height and narrowness of some of the alleyways. For this reason I chose a different shaped sketchbook rather than my usual landscape one which suits the flat country of Australia.
- Will you add a border around your work? If so what type? Will you draw it or use tape?
- Plan a layout that works… do you want to include text and if so, how much and where do you want to put it? Make sure you leave room for it. I personally like to write the date and the location of the painting along the bottom. Others incorporate text and headings as part of the artwork.
- Think which painting technique would best capture your subject? Pen and wash is ideal for buildings, glazing is great for glow on rocks and wet on wet is fantastic for natural subjects like foliage or sky.
- Where are your lights and darks? This is important as with watercolour your white is created by the white of the paper so you have to plan to paint around it. Narrow down your eyes to enable you to see this clearly.
- Think about the story you are trying to tell and how you would best represent this in paint. Think about colours that signify the mood of the day… is it muted and soft or bright and sharp edged? Are the colours warm or cool? Are the marks you make frantic, energetic or soothing? Do the edges of your picture fade out to signify parts unseen or are they clearly defined like a snapshot? Does your framing emphasise a part of the scene?
If you can’t see that detail with your eyes squinted… don’t put it in. Ask your self does this detail add value to my picture or not… if not eliminate it. An example might be the blue sky… is it adding or subtracting from the subject? If the answer is no, don’t include it.
Narrow down your eyes to see value contrasts and simplify detail. If you are having trouble seeing your subject as blocks of light and dark without detail, convert that photo to black and white on your phone. It will help you see the value contrasts.
The process of painting in your watercolour travel journal.
- Leave the front page for a title… it takes away the anxiety of ruining the virgin sketchbook.
- Before you do anything open your pan palette and moisten the pans. This gives your dried paints and chance to soften while you draw. This is essential to be able to get thicker paint out of your pans for wet on wet techniques. You cannot create strong colours from dried paint. (X-Press 10 ml fine mist sprayer $4.00 is perfect)
- Draw a frame to put your painting in. Leave some blank space around the edges for the sketch to breathe. Your fame can be any shape so don’t feel confined by the shape of the page. I often use portrait rectangles to emphasize the height of a subject… even in a landscape sketchbook.
- Sketch the subject using a mechanical pencil or a waterproof pen. Many pen and wash artists start with a pencil sketch, then go over the sketch in pen and then rub out the pencil. (Mechanical pencils never need sharpening and mechanical erasures stay clean)
- Start laying in washes from lightest to darkest. Take care to leave your whites. Work fast as this will make you a bit looser.
- Use wet on wet to add interest or tonal layering and glazing to add depth.
Adding pen to a watercolour sketch.
Sometimes your completed watercolour sketch just needs a little something extra. I evaluate it later and if needed add some pen work over the top for a bit of oomph.
If I decide to add pen I always add the pen over the top of my dried sketch. I do this for a number of reasons;
- Most waterproof pens are not waterproof on watercolour paper because of the sizing used in the paper.
- When you use lots of wet on wet techniques these can bleed and shift in unexpected ways. If they bleed over the pen lines it looks as if you have made a mistake. If you add the line in at the end… it looks deliberate.
- Pen work can save a picture that does not have the right tonal values by defining the shapes and changing where the eye is directed.
- I can do this away from the location at a later date if time is short.
I like to draw my frame in using a double pen line. It’s all a matter of personal preference.
Practice makes perfect.
Practice makes perfect. Before you go on a trip get as much practice as you can… you can do a quick little sketch anywhere and of any subject. Make sure you test all your products before you go and become familiar with them. Practice drawing standing up… sitting etc. and work out what works for you.
If you make a total mistake you can always paint over that section with Daniel Smith Watercolour Ground and start again… alternatively you could use the Golden Fibre Paste or simply glue something over that page like a ticket, menu or postcard. The Matisse Background Colours also work.
Approach every sketch as an opportunity to practice.
Once I stopped thinking about having a good sketch my anxiety levels dropped and the sketches improved because I was a little looser. Your mindset is the key to creating good work.
Managing your own expectations.
A relaxed approach is the key to creating great watercolour travel Journals.
Go easy on yourself
When you first arrive in a new country it can be a bit overwhelming. Europe is so different to Australia and particularly to the outback. The buildings are different, the colours are different, the light is different and at times you need a whole new visual language to capture your subject. Just because you are good at painting a certain subject does not mean you are good a painting everything. You may find yourself floundering a bit.
You need to be gentle with yourself and ease yourself into it. Take the time to consciously observe your environment. Realistically your first sketches or paintings are going to be explorations. Painting or drawing is a process of observation and you need to take the time to be totally present. That can be very difficult in busy tourist spots or a totally new environment.
Just relax and be in the moment.
The reality is the more you try to create the perfect journal the more anxious you become and the worse the outcome is. Expectations are the biggest hurdle to creating good artwork. If you just focus on using painting as an exercise in observation and view everything as a practice, you remove some of the pressure to create that perfect sketchbook. Ironically you relax a bit, enjoy the process and create better artwork.
I still do paintings I think are awful. That’s just part of it. The key is to evaluate what you did wrong and move on. Don’t beat yourself up. You will find that you will get better as the trip goes on and you will relax and get into the rhythm of painting.
Forget social media.
We all see these perfect sketchbooks on social media and want to be able to create them. The truth is we only post our best efforts on social media. There are a ton of not so great sketches that don’t make it to Instagram. I have sketchbooks full of them. In fact, it took me years of practice before I could even begin to contemplate doing a complete watercolor travel journal.
Not every sketch is a winner but the more you do, the better you become.
Some recommendations for painting a watercolour travel journal from my experience.
Take a photo and some notes before you start.
While I prefer to finish the whole painting plein air it is not always possible. Take a photo of the scene before you start so you capture the light. Do a quick sketch and lay down your initial washes. You can then finish the rest in your accommodation and still retail the spontaneity and freshness of working on location. My notes really capture my first impressions which is what travel journals should be all about.
Focus on observation, learning and let go of the need to be good.
Starting a brand new watercolour travel journal is always filled with anxiety. I never start on the first page and leaving that for a title takes the pressure off. The cover picture was painted sitting in the shade in my friend’s garden in France. I was towards the end of our travels and it had been swelteringly hot. We had bought those delicious tomatoes at the market but I would’nt let anyone eat them until I had finished painting them.
View your mistakes as a learning exercise.
Despite painting a number of sketchbooks before, my first few sketches contained the classic beginner’s mistakes. I tried to paint the big picture rather than just a snapshot. I think it is just way too exciting to be somewhere new.
Don’t compare yourself against others.
Comparison is the thief of joy so just concentrate on improving.
Remember your watercolour travel journal is about your journey… not having an exhibition worthy finished product. Enjoy the process and try to let go of right and wrong or good and bad. It’s about loosening up and going with the flow… an essential skill for any watercolour painter.
I find the act of doing these quick sketches on site has improved my drawing and painting exponentially. It has forced me to experiment with different working methods in response to challenges. Sometimes the outcome is magical and something I would be hard pushed to replicate in the studio. Sometimes the outcome is an epic fail and I have learned a valuable lesson. You learn more from your failures than your successes so learn to value them.
Find out more about Linda MacAulay.
Linda has been a studio painter for most of her life but over the last decade she has been driven to create direct from nature. You can read more about her watercolour journal adventures on her blog post Painting America.
Read her biography on her about page or follow her on her socials.
Linda runs regular workshops so sign up for her newsletter to be the first to know where she will be teaching.