Monday, October 19, 2009

Traveling Light: Sketchbooking vs. the Whole Shebang

A traveling artist is a work of art unto themselves. Each one individual, unique, imaginative, often unorthodox (you're using that for what?!), and generally overburdened. Efforts to educate students to lighten their load all too often fall on deaf ears as they leave their homes and can't resist bringing along a "few" more colors - just in case.

Last fall I had the opportunity to travel to Juzcar Spain to paint with Maggie Price's workshop. I did a pretty good job reducing my equipment down to a wheeled backpack with the following: a backpack Heilman box with approx. 250 half stick pastels of various manufacture, a photo tripod with quick release clip, two pieces of gatorboard with trimmed sandpaper and glacine sandwiched in-between, my sketchbook and drawing utensils, a Sun-Eden easel and clip-on tray, a bungee cord, and the ubiquitous "extra box of anticipated essential pastels". All fit into the backpack and settled somewhat comfortably on my back when going through the airport, and easily fit into the overhead storage on the airplane.

This combination of equipment was easy to set up and to quickly knockdown if weather turned for the worse. However, I continued to be plagued with the same thoughts that turn us all into packrats - especially when struggling with trying to capture the glowing bounced light on the walls and alleys of one of the regions all white villages. I was convinced that my difficulties had nothing to do with my skills but the lack of proper colors in my travel palette!The highlight of this workshop was the day spent painting at the historic Alhambra complex in Granada. Our hosts at the Hotel Bandolero had gotten us permission to paint on location and we eagerly piled all of our equipment onto the bus and set off. Once on location we were given our passes and set free to paint where we wanted with the only restriction being when to regroup for the trip back to Juzcar. And this is where I would have liked to have done things differently. After guiltily dragging my 30 pound pack over beautifully restored mosaic walkways I set up in what was an artists dream location come true - a real "pinch me, am I really here" location - the Patio de los Arrayanes (Court of the Myrtles). I spent several hours engaged with this historic scene, imagining the centuries of people who had walked along this reflecting pool, until coming up for air I realized I had only seen a fraction of what the Alhambra was all about and I was running out of time.

I kind of panicked, packed up and then proceeded to get lost. Suddenly this thoughtfully prepared backpack of my precious art materials became a 30 lb.rock and chain holding me down. Caught up in the crowds carefully winding their way through meandering hallways and chambers of indescribable beauty I felt time slipping away and was unable to free myself from my burden. Finally I found myself back to our hosts and took precious time to walk all the way (it felt like miles) to the bus to stash my whole shebang.

I grabbed my sketchbook and my favorite slim black Sharpie marker and headed back to the complex. Ah, freedom! With my new setup nestled under my arm and weighing hardly nothing I was able to maneuver the considerable crowds and stop now and then to do a quick sketch, take a snapshot and move on. I was actually able to visit almost the entire exterior network of buildings with the time I had left. I wound up with a treasure trove of little thumbnail drawings. The beauty of this type of observation is that it allows your mind to stop and rest awhile and really see something magnificent, trace it with your pen, feel it's contours and caress it in a manner you can't achieve by stopping and only taking a swift snapshot.

Back at the hotel, as I reviewed my day, I realized I had truly had the best of both worlds. I had a plein air painting of the Patio de los Arrayanes that will always remind me of the uniqueness of that day, and I also was able to freely roam the Alhambra and experience the entirety of this amazing place. I have a frameable painting and a sketchbook page full of impressions still waiting for me to revisit in a more finished painting, or maybe just in my memory.

I wouldn't give up either expression - the more detailed plein air work or the sketchbook, but this experience has given me a new insight into working on location. When given the opportunity to be creating in an exciting venue, one where my attention will wander and I won't be able to fully engage with my subject without being distracted (oh, did I mention the hoards of tourists wanting to take our pictures in the Patio....) I will opt for my sketchbook and the ability to be nimble. If it had been an off season day, or I had chosen a less famous viewpoint I would again bring my plein air gear.

So this brings me back to my initial dilemma. What to pack and how much to bring. My answer is travel lightly but carry a sketchbook, always. And be prepared to change course at a moments notice. Travel lightly, tread lightly, and wield a wicked drawing pencil, my friends!

And I will get another chance to observe and paint the Alhambra. This time I'm bringing my sketchbook out first. I'll leave the backpack in the bus, but it'll be ready to go at a moment's notice. Next Spring 2010 I'll be teaching my own workshop in the same locations in Spain. I'm looking for a handful of artists and their companions to join me. For additional information you can contact me at

May 15 -25, 2010 Paint Spain in the Spring with Liz Haywood-Sullivan

Also Maggie Price will be returning to Spain in 2010 as well - her workshop will be:
October 1-11, 2010 Spain Workshop with Maggie Price (

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