My 5 top frustrations with making art while traveling (and what I do about them)

I love watching YouTubers who go to interesting places and create art. I think it would be really awesome to travel in a van and do nothing but spend my days drawing and painting on location…
But then I think about the times when I actually do go to some pretty cool places and I take my sketchbook and…it doesn’t get used.

Has this ever happened to you?

You get to your travel destination and realize you’ve packed your suitcase with far too many art supplies. It was with good intentions, but before you know it, the trip is over and they weren’t even used once.

It’s happened to me. And then, when I’m back home, I wonder why I didn’t find the time to make even one small little drawing while I was traveling.

It’s frustrating. What stops me from creating while I’m on a trip?

I think it starts with negative self-talk. If I want to be more creative on trips, I should understand where this negativity comes from and try to give myself positive solutions for handling it.

So here are my top 5 frustrations about art-making while traveling and what I do about them. I hope you find something relatable here that helps you, too!

1. I tell myself I’m being selfish because I want to spend time alone on art when I’m with companions.

This is probably the biggest reason I don’t pull out my art supplies on a trip. Drawing and painting are activities that aren’t conducive to group participation (unless your group happens to also be full of artists).

I feel terribly selfish when I want to spend limited vacation time doing something that no one else wants to do.
Certainly there are times when it would be selfish (or downright inappropriate) to whip out a sketchbook on vacation, especially if one of the reasons I’m on the trip is to spend some quality time with my family or companions.

But I’ve realized that, on most trips, there are times (especially family trips) when we’re having too much togetherness. Let’s face it, sometimes we need a break from kids, parents, or siblings. That’s not selfish, it’s self-care, wanting some quiet time, alone, to restore one’s mental health before the next group activity.

Therefore, it seems that the way to relieve this particular guilt is to consider the purpose of the trip as I’m packing the suitcase. If the point of my vacation is to spend time with my family, a small sketchbook and a couple of pencils are enough for any short self-care sessions.

Letting go of the expectation that I’ll have the time available for extended art making relieves the frustration associated with packing a ton of art supplies.

Now, this doesn’t mean that I have to stop being creative on a family trip. I just have to find other ways to express it. For example, I love taking pictures whilst on a trip, and a vacation is the perfect opportunity to explore photography creatively.

I can focus on getting good compositions, for example. Or, if I see something that I know I’ll want to make into art when I get home, I can take lots of photos for getting details. The short amount of time it takes to get extra photos doesn’t usually inconvenience anyone.

Being a creative means that everything we experience offers opportunities to try new things. So instead of feeling guilty about not drawing or painting, I can turn this frustration into excitement about exploring new creative skills.

Problem #1

I feel selfish for wanting to make art on a group vacation
Solution: Find alternative ways to express my creativity and reserve art-making for the occasional moments of necessary self-care

2. I think I’ll probably never visit this place again and I really want to have the experience of making art while there. But the itinerary doesn’t include extra time for this!

This is another thought that makes me fill my suitcase with half of my studio rather than half of my closet. I think about how this trip is my golden opportunity to sketch that iconic landmark in a famous location. Then I think I’ll never have this opportunity again…I can’t possibly waste it!

But is it realistic to expect to have enough vacation time available to spend hours on a single drawing session? Did we schedule for that when planning the trip?

Unfortunately, most of my trips aren’t planned around art-making. In fact, many times (now that we’re retired), we book excursions through websites such as Viator so that we can maximize our time spent exploring a new location. Which means additional tourists join us for these outings and we have a strict time limit for visiting landmarks.

I think the best thing to do in this case is to be completely honest with my traveling companions, in advance, about my desire to spend time doing art on the trip. Discussing this with them will give them time to plan on doing something else during my art-making time.

This may mean that I have to “sacrifice” other activities, such as a visit to a museum or a prepaid excursion. I can’t expect my traveling companions to sit around and do nothing or read a book while I’m scribbling with my pens.

And I should expect to work within agreed-upon time limits in cases like this and plan accordingly. I can always take photos to use for reference when I’m back home.

Being considerate of my companions’ expectations will make my vacation painting time planned instead of ad hoc, and I can pack my supplies confidently and guilt free.

Problem #2

I won’t have enough time on my trip for once-in-a-lifetime art opportunities
Solution: Consult my traveling companions during the planning stages of the trip so that mutually agreeable arrangements can be made

3. If I whip out a sketchbook at a crowded landmark, I’ll draw attention to myself. People will want to see what I’m doing, and I’ll be embarrassed if they think it’s no good.

I have to caveat this one, because as the number of times I’ve sketched in public has increased, the number of times I’ve been concerned about what others think about it has substantially decreased.

I can think of only two times when someone has actually taken an interest in what I was drawing while I was on a trip. In one case, I was in Charleston at a public wharf not far from an art school. I’d bet anything that art students are a common sight there, and people are honestly interested in what they’re drawing. The couple that stopped to look at what I was drawing simply said “it’s nice” and moved on. I felt no pressure to say anything other than “thank you”.

In the other case, I was on a crowded beach in the Bahamas. A lady approached me and asked if she could see what I was drawing. In this case, she was also an artist and she had never seen watercolor pencils before. We had a nice conversation on the versatility of the medium, she thanked me for my time and I went back to sketching. I didn’t take more than a few minutes.

But…that isn’t to say that painful interruptions won’t happen. So I have some tips that work well when sketching in public, especially if you’re inclined to be introverted and feel uncomfortable talking to strangers (like me).

  • Try to find a place to draw where you can have your back against a wall or barrier. Then people won’t come up from behind you, or stand behind you while you’re drawing. One time, I was standing, watching a concert, and when I turned around a man was so close we were almost touching. I actually bumped into him as I turned. It surprised me, and was a little scary. I felt lucky he wasn’t a thief or worse…but then, most people aren’t, and he was probably just trying to see around me. But if drawing in an open space means I have to divide my attention between what’s in front of me and what might be behind me, I’d rather find a wall to sit at and take away that frustration.
  • Take a hardbacked reading book and tuck your paper inside. Then, when you’re out in public, pull out the book and use it as your surface for drawing. Anyone merely glancing at you will see the book and think you’re reading. Of course, you won’t want to bring a lot of art supplies with you if you’re doing this. It would negate the whole effect. And you’ll probably want to be sitting down. Does anyone read standing up?
  • Wear sunglasses and headphones while sketching. Personally, I haven’t tried wearing sunglasses because my eyes aren’t that great any more and I need all the light I can get. But the headphones work pretty good, even if I’m not really listening to anything. I don’t think anyone has ever approached me while I was wearing them. But it has to be pretty obvious. Not many people will notice ear buds.

Problem #3

I’m afraid I’ll draw attention to myself while I’m sketching or painting
Solution: Make myself inconspicuous by taking minimal supplies, putting my back up against a wall, and wearing sunglasses and/or headphones.

4. This is a work trip, and I’ll be too busy to do any creative work.

In the case of work trips, I became accustomed to thinking I’d never have an opportunity to draw. But you’d be surprised at what you can do with a few minutes on a lunch break.

If you’re in a crowded place, it’s a good opportunity to practice gesture drawing. This is when you capture the basic lines of a movement or shape. It requires quick observation and quicker line making, so you can fit quite a lot of gesture drawing practice into fifteen or twenty minutes.

Another thing I’ve tried is doing quick tonal sketches. These are more like thumbnails, really, where I’ve created several squares on a page, then blocked in a basic composition and experimented with three values to see what works best.

In any case, I didn’t expect to be creating beautiful works of art on work trips. Knowing that in advance kept me from being disappointed when I returned home. And I need only pack a small sketchbook and a pencil.

Problem #4

I feel like, because it’s a work trip, I can’t be creative
Solution: Carry a minimal kit and use available downtime (such as lunch) for quick practice techniques

5. I have no idea what supplies I’ll want to use when I’m at my destination. I should bring everything, just in case.

I can say with 100% certainty that I’ve never been on a trip, ready to make art, and suddenly realized I should’ve brought different supplies.

We’re creatives, which means it’s not the supplies that produce the artwork, it’s our hands, head and heart!

Believe me, if you want to draw something, you’ll use whatever is available to do it. Coffee and a toothpick, a napkin and a hotel pen….you never know what you’ll come up with when you’re traveling. And those artworks might even be more valuable to you because of that additional creativity. (They certainly make interesting souvenirs!)

I’ve found that it’s better to take a minimal kit than to drag everything from the cupboard when I’m traveling. The secret is to let go of the expectation that you’re going to make “great art” on vacation. Unless the purpose of your trip is to make art, your sketching and painting will be activities to do at times when you aren’t doing other things.

Do you really think you’ll drag a heavy pochade box across the countryside in the hope of finding the perfect opportunity to create a masterpiece?

I know this sounds obvious, but we creatives can sometimes get so caught up in just the thought of creating that common sense flies out the window.

Problem #5

I don’t know what art supplies to take on a trip
Solution: I can’t go wrong with a minimal kit. If I really do find that perfect opportunity while on my trip, I give myself permission to stop at the local art supply store and get what I need. More souvenirs to take home!

So there you have it! My solutions for my top 5 frustrations with making art while traveling.

Do you have any frustrations that I didn’t list? What do you do about them? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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