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Longform

What I Learned: Travel Sketching

accidental aliens
“Accidental Aliens” by Leon Chan

My heart skipped a beat and my hands got balmy after hearing the words, “Please open your sketchbook and leave it on the table.” Tamara Moan, our art instructor, just asked the class to share their artwork before the conclusion of the first day of class. I looked at my sketches from the day, three out of the four scenes had aliens in them. It wasn’t my intention to draw extraterrestrial figures, the people and statues I drew just happened to look that way. Without a second thought, I picked the sketch that least resembled a sci-fi storyboard and quickly slipped it in with the rest of the drawings.

I stepped back towards the other students and took in everything laid out on the worn wooden desk. I was floored by what I saw; why are these people taking an introductory sketching class? All the artwork displayed (except mine) looked stunning and professionally drawn. I was ashamed of my drawings and tried to get as far away from them as possible; I didn’t want to be associated with those sketches. However, no one said anything negative (to my face) during the impromptu gallery walk and class was over for the day. I was able to stave off death by embarrassment for at least another day. So how did I get myself in this sticky situation?

About six weeks before, on a particularly uneventful Sunday afternoon in April, I was asked to sign up for a travel sketching class with my friend. I was hesitant at first because I wouldn’t call myself artistic. I draw building sections and connections at work but it’s with the aid of a straight edge and computer software. The last time I spent more than fifteen minutes free-hand drawing or painting was in my high school general art class. Since then, I would only occasionally doodle stick figures in my notebooks.

So to my surprise, I said I would accompany my friend to the art class. I didn’t have a desire to become an artist, but I do appreciate traveling. I could use this class as an excuse to pack my bags and jet set around the world in the name of art! I also have a curious mind and love to learn new things. Travel sketching is a completely new skill to me and this class provided an excellent opportunity to learn. With those reasons in mind, I pulled out my credit card, forked over $160, and signed away all my Sunday mornings in June.

The weeks fell off the calendar like the sweat from my brow during the increasingly hot and humid summer days. Before I knew it, I found myself in a second floor classroom at the Honolulu Art Academy. The room was spacious with tall windows throughout and art supplies scattered about. I was one of approximately twenty students sitting in desks arranged in a makeshift rectangle. My friend and I seemed to be the youngest there by about a decade or two; the other people present, mostly older ladies, seem to be nearing or fresh off retirement.

The structure of the lessons was nearly identical from week to week. We started the day with various exercises designed to loosen the hands and brain; it usually consisted of doodling with both hands, sketching without looking at the page, and drawing another student’s face. The last exercise was extremely unnerving because it meant I had to stare at another person’s face for four excoriating minutes. I felt uneasy getting that personal with a relative stranger; we were sitting less than five feet apart with our eyes locked onto each other’s face. After the initial awkwardness, time flew by as I focused on the details of my partner’s face. At the end, you share your drawings with your partner, which always produced laughs and a little embarrassment.

face contour
“Face Contour” by Leon Chan

After the warm ups, Tamara explained the focus of the day and detailed techniques specific to the lesson. Once the main points were taught, we would have the opportunity to practice the new skills by sketching objects, architecture, people, and landscape around campus. Finally, as dreadfully described, class would end with the sharing of sketches.

The only difference in the lessons were the topics covered in class. The subject matter rotated each week, touching on different elements encountered while traveling. For the first class, Tamara had us sketch objects by focusing on contour drawings. She made the class concentrate on different sensations when sketching various objects. I explored touch through feeling an item in a paper bag with one hand while drawing with the other, sound through capturing the harmony of an orchestra with scribbled lines, and sight by matching speed of the pencil with the pace of my eyes. These exercises slowed down how I observed my surroundings and forced me to pay attention to the events happening around me. It was a timely and important reminder of enjoying life beyond the cellphone screen.

During the 2nd week of class, we worked on drawing architecture by practicing one and two point perspectives. These skills were employed to create three dimensional buildings on paper. The following week was dedicated to drawing people; Tamara invited her husband and several friends to be our models. We learned how to capture the essence of people through gesture drawing.

gesture drawing
“Gesture Drawing” by Leon Chan

In the last class, we honed our landscape drawing skills through sketching expansive scenes and the negative spaces in trees. Also, as part of the final lesson, Tamara brought several of her travel sketchbooks to share with the students. The images of Paris, Tokyo, and Hawaii were amazing; there were fantastic sketches with details of museum artifacts, airplane wings, and scenes from within the local buses. One of the students asked her how she was able to masterfully mimic the shadows with her shading. Tamara replied that it wasn’t anything special, she just drew straight diagonal lines. She also added that she practiced it countless times to make it appear uniform and straight. This reminded me that being skillful often comes with dedicated practice, not just innate talent.

So am I a world class travel sketch artist after those four weeks? Not quite, but I gained a handful of drawing techniques and learned a couple of lessons outside of art. I would probably still feel a deathly fear when participating in activities I know I’m not the best at, especially when I have to share the results. It’s why I spend an insane amount of time writing and rewriting my essays. However, since I’m still alive after this experience, I can say that I am more willing to step out of my comfort zone and attempt new ventures despite the awkwardness.