Ivan Chow, author of
Ivan Chow, author of "Travel Sketching: Drawing Insights from Instanbul"

We all hope to be back to traveling safely and without worry in the coming months. That said, it’s not too soon to start planning your travel art journal, or even start using one for your local areas. In this excerpt from Ivan Chow’s  “Travel Sketching: Drawing Insights from Istanbul,” the artist shares his approach to a practice that is both satisfying and memorable.


While not necessarily a new genre or form of expression, the travel art journal has become for me a fresh approach to sharing experiences in an otherwise digitally saturated world. A travel art journal has the potential to transform travel sketching into a unique mode of expression, combining drawing with handwriting and composition to create a new “voice.”

My forays into developing art journal sequences have been thoroughly rewarding, as I can combine my drawing skills with an interest in writing to communicate much more than either discipline can on its own. That’s probably why comic books and graphic novels have such appeal and why skillful cartooning can be so influential.

A scene from Chow's travel art journal
A scene from Chow’s travel art journal

Formatting Your Travel Art Journal

A travel art journal can be formatted in as many ways as there are personalities. My favorite format is an A5 size journal (about 5.5” x 8.5”), either in landscape or portrait mode, with sufficiently thick paper to stand up to waterproof ink lines and light washes (80 lb. minimum, 140 lb. preferred).

As with sketchbooks, an elastic closure strap and inside back cover pocket can be helpful.

In addition to the usual array of tools I might have on hand for travel sketching, I would add a few choice writing instruments, such as a chisel-nib calligraphy pen or fountain pen.

As the name implies, a journal is a regular log of activities and events that occur roughly in chronological order. A travel journal might memorialize the daily travel schedule, places visited, people met, cuisine enjoyed, and souvenirs acquired. A travel art journal adds the element of artwork in the form of sketches, doodles, graphic illustrations, even glued-on collages using torn excerpts from brochures, tickets, receipts, and labels. I have found this last exercise quite a satisfying way of closing out a busy day of touring.

A scene from Chow's travel art journal

On Composition

Travel art journal entries are unique compositional challenges. In its simplest form, each page might contain a few sketch vignettes describing the activities of the day. Arranging the sketches on the page may require some foresight, consideration of the size, scope, and subject of each vignette and how they might tell the story of the day. Each entry becomes a graphic design exercise involving the layout of sketches, diagrams, titles, and text.

Urban sketching journal

Urban sketching journal

On Writing and Writing Utensils

The addition of handwritten text to a composition of sketches is both an enriching enhancement and a potentially stressful endeavor. It is enriching because it adds information, flavor, and specificity to a sketch. It is potentially stressful because, unlike the editability afforded by computer software programs, each phrase or caption needs to be somewhat thought through and composed before being physically written within the space available.

I love to write by hand and am constantly experimenting with different writing instruments with different tips, nibs, and inks. It’s almost an obsession with me, and I am easily disappointed when my writing falters. Having said that, I highly enjoy narrow, flat-nosed calligraphy pens for travel art journaling, especially used in a generally cursive lettering style.

However, most fountain pen type writing instruments with reservoirs have no tolerance for waterproof ink, which tends to clog the fins and feed tubes. This often leaves me with little choice but to use the waterproof ink felt-tipped pens I used to sketch with for lettering as well. A real calligraphic treat is to use Speedball dip nibs with bottled India ink, although both have proven not to travel well.

There are so many interesting ways to express yourself once in the groove of travel art journaling. The inclusion of people with speech and thought bubbles is a great way of adding interest and conveying sentiment. Self-portraits can show how you feel, sometimes better than words can describe. Self-portraits with thought bubbles offer an even better way to communicate your feelings. Often, I find my sketch vignettes growing and expanding on to the adjacent page, sometimes even falling off the page. Entries are frequently mood-driven, sometimes showing frustration or impatience by the haphazardness of the ink work or sloppiness of coloring. Other times, the lettering is deliberate, and the sketches are precise, reflecting pensiveness or thoughtfulness.

Travel journaling pages Travel journaling pages

Do you keep a travel art journal? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Ivan Chow is an architect, author and award-winning artist. He was born in England, grew up in Southeast Asia, and has worked in the United States and around the world as an architect, educator and artist for almost four decades. He has practiced in design firms of various sizes; managed a private real estate company; worked in academia as a department chair and dean; and served as artist-in-residence at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. He has degrees in architecture from Harvard and Berkeley and a degree in theological studies from Gordon Conwell.

Facebook: @ivanchowsketches
Instagram @qkkdraw

Related Article > Travel Sketching: Tips for Keeping an Art Journal

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  1. Thanks, Linda! Even though these experiences occurred three years ago, they are as fresh to me as if I was back in Turkey last week. So good.


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