artist life

Strategies and ideas for practicing art when travelling by Nur Shojai

Drawing skills are like muscles, they can weaken when you don’t exercise them and grow stronger the more you practice.


When we moved out of Seattle, my husband and I decided to take a period of 4-6 months of travel for work and leisure before choosing where to live permanently. I’m learning how to best maintain my art practice without the comforts of a fixed studio space. The first month consisted of a lot of short trips that were packed with activities involving friends and family, which meant that I had limited time to dedicate to art. The next phase will have prolonged stays of 1-2 months in each location and I will share learnings about this different scenario in a future post. For now, here are a few reflections from over a month of intensive, short-term travel.

1. What to pack: pick a practical medium and keep it simple


When it comes to choosing which materials to pack for your trip, less is more! Unfortunately for me, I came to realize this in hindsight; I packed several sketchbooks and types of paper, a full collection of graphite pencils, conte, charcoal, pens, and a large set of watercolors. I wanted to have a variety of options but I ended up lugging around a large and heavy bag for over a month and it wasn’t worth it. I ended up using only my sketchbook and the graphite pencils, which seemed to be the least messy and fastest to work with—the path of least resistance in situations of limited time and space. Lesson learnt: stick to the sketchbook, at least for short term trips. 

2. Searching for subjects

For those of us who want to practice sketching from life, anything and everything around us can become a subject. Just ask yourself what you want to improve on and start to notice the richness of references around you: is it people, architecture, flowers and foliage, or maybe still objects?

If you’re interested in improving portraiture and figurative drawing you can sketch the people you’re travelling with, or parts of them! One of my favorite features of travel is the human connections that we experience on our journey, whether with old or new friends. I usually ask people if they would be willing to sit for a short portrait sketch, maybe 15- 20 minutes, and most are enthusiastic to participate and happy to share in the artistic experience. The process often results in a deepened bond of friendship between us. It takes courage and vulnerability to ask someone to model for a drawing, I often feel nervous about it but look at is as a challenge and opportunity to step outside of my comfort zone. If it seems daunting, you can start by asking close friends and family members. Another option is to focus on a particular anatomical feature to practice, for example, while sitting on an airplane for many hours, I decided to sketch the hands of my friends sitting next to me. 

3. Drawing from imagination

Another approach is to draw from the imagination as a form of visual journaling and self-reflection. The experiences we are gifted with during travel can spark emotions, meaningful insights, deepened understanding about life-concepts and widening of awareness. Drawing and making art can take on a meditative role, and serve to express our thoughts and feelings and capture meaning. I find this approach works well as a reflection at the end of the day. Perhaps you were inspired by a conversation you had, a quote you read, or place you visited and feel compelled to create an image in response. 

4.  Keep it process and practice focused

Remember that the goal is not to create a masterpiece; it’s to keep your hand and eye well-trained so that you are not losing skill in an extended period of art inactivity. Drawing skills are like muscles, they can weaken when you don’t exercise them and grow stronger the more you practice. While travelling you want to maintain the agility of your hand-eye coordination and keep your imagination active so that you’re ready to create quality work back in the studio.