For wandering artists, journal keepers, or creative people who travel, artist Barbara Stecher has an intriguing idea: a travel sketchbook.
A watercolor artist and art instructor, Mrs. Stecher has made a career of coaxing travelers to sketch the story of their journeys.
For those who would rather brave the hazards of helicopter skiing than pick up a crayon, relax. Stecher promises that even the most reluctant artist will delight in the simplicity of "sketchbooking," a term she coined.
"Most people are convinced they can't draw and would be embarrassed if they tried," she says. "But to make a sketch is to be there, to participate in the place.... You make a sketch and it causes you to see better, to see more closely."
All that's needed is a soft pencil, eraser, a 6-inch-by-8-inch sketchbook, black ink pen, a small set of watercolor paints, and you're on your way - literally.
The idea is simple: Sketch on-the-spot pencil drawings of scenes, people, or places. When you return to your hotel in the evening, fine-tune your drawing with black ink and finish it with a splash of watercolor.
Stecher has taught sketchbooking classes for the past eight years at the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, Mass. She also conducts classes on travel tours and has just written her first how-to book called, appropriately, "Sketchbooking with Barbara Stecher," which she expects to be published next year.
Amateur artists who take her class delight in her encouraging, down-to-earth approach.
"I love sketchbooking and it has changed a lot of things in my life," says Margaret Nelson, a retired English professor in Topsfield, Mass., and one of Stecher's former students. "I realized that it didn't have to be 'art,' and once I got that into my head, it was a very freeing experience."
Though drawings need not be perfect, Stecher's own travel sketchbook has definite structure. It is chronological, has a title page, introduction, table of contents, numbered pages, and includes writing.
Whether it's a cruise to the Caribbean or a whirlwind weekend in Paris, begin your sketchbook early, says Stecher. In preparing for your trip, she suggests beginning by drawing your suitcase being packed on the bed at home or perhaps a scene at the airport.
"It gets your book started," she counsels with the confident manner of a seasoned schoolteacher. "You draw a little bit on the plane and it becomes a little chapter I call 'Getting There,' because I consider every inch of travel, travel."
Once you arrive and start touring, you needn't worry about time, she says. For a standard pencil sketch, three minutes is all that is required to rough out a drawing.
For the pencil work, use a light touch, draw the overall idea - a process Stecher calls "finding the sketch" - and finish it up later. Focus on the simple, she says.
"You don't have to draw the whole cathedral. You might draw the entrance or something you like," she says.
She refers to a 1986 trip to India to explain.
One day during a tour of the western part of the country, she didn't try sketching a crowded scene at a local temple.
But at a lunch stop, she noticed some interesting activity around a country swing. That turned out to be her sketch for the day.
Stecher pulls out her journal and turns to a simple sketch of a man lounging on a whimsical outdoor hammock. The swing was simple enough to quickly sketch and, she thought, was a memorable addition to her journal.
Put yourself in the sketch
Besides including the offbeat and unusual, be sure to include yourself in sketches, Stecher suggests. This will make the experience more personal and will remind you of the experience later on, she says.
"One of the first things [Stecher] told us was that every sketch was perfect because it was ours," says David Hill, one of her former students who has traveled to places like East Africa, Tanzania, Turkey, Greece, and Indonesia.
Mr. Hill, who works for the Massachusetts Audubon Society, took the weekend sketchbooking class four years ago. He figures he has created about a dozen sketchbooks since.
The sketchbook also serves as a wonderful communication tool, says Stecher. Local people who would shy away from foreigners are curious when they see you drawing in a sketchbook. Recalling a trip to Jaisalmer, India, Stecher says she made friends with a young girl who followed her around and pleaded to have a sketch made of her.
"People are interested in what you're doing," she says. "They will say, 'Will you sketch me?' It's an avenue of communication."
Stecher dispenses her wisdom with encouraging words of guidance and a strong dose of humor. One of the biggest pitfalls of sketchbooking is the temptation to give up.
"You have to be devoted to the idea, and eventually it will motivate you to continue."
Often, life's ordinary moments can make the most interesting sketches, she says, as she pulls out a sketchbooks of a weekend road trip to Cape Cod. In it she points to a simple scene of people standing in line at a lunch stop, waiting for hamburgers.
"That's the beauty of it. Everything becomes important," she says. "Part of the joy of life is appreciating every minute.
"I had one person starting a sketchbook and in her introduction she said, 'This book will have the record of the great moments of my life.' Well then she didn't have anything to put in it. Then we went back and changed it to say, 'You know, I never made a sketchbook before and I'm just going to try it and see what happens.' That released her and she just drew everything in sight."