Two days in New York: tips for quick travel sketches

Last week I was inspired by reading artist Jean Mackay’s “8 Tips for Travel Sketching“, especially by how economically she pares down her materials to fit into a Ziploc bag. This past weekend I was on a family trip to New York City, travelling with non-sketchers, and thought I’d see what kinds of quick sketches I could get done in two days in the city. Although our sketchbooks look very different, there’s lots of overlap with Jean’s wonderful tips. My tiny sketch kit consisted of one 8″ x 8” sketchbook, one pencil, one permanent brush pen, one water-soluble brush pen, a few travel brushes, a small 8 colour palette from Sennelier, and a small water bottle. All fit into a Cocotte mini messenger bag. Here are my tips for quick travel sketching when you don’t want to disrupt your travelling companions:

Get out of the room first, and be prepared to finish things later. I was travelling with my sister and my nieces. We didn’t realize that when we booked our room in New York that we chose a place that was too small for four adults to move around comfortably. Wide angle lenses create deceptive photos, don’t they? I tried to get out of the room early and sketch while I waited for the others. I drew the orchids in the lobby with a brush pen, but added colour at home. Drawing time: 5 minutes.

Sketch after ordering, and pick a good view if you can. Travelling in groups usually means lots of restaurant meals. By some luck, at breakfast we were seated at the first table next to the counter, which offered me a great spot for sketching. In between the time that we ordered our food, and before it landed on our table, I sketched the elegant gentleman slicing the smoked salmon. While my sketch was drying, I ate that same salmon on a bagel. The water-soluble brush pen was perfect for this type of quick drawing. Drawing time: 15 minutes.

Make choices if you really want to draw. We spent a bit of time at Hudson Yards on Saturday afternoon. If you haven’t seen The Vessel, have a look at this link. Some people find that the tourist attraction is an eyesore, but I saw it as a beautiful drawing challenge. I chose not to climb the 2,500 stairs so I could sketch it. We had already walked about 10k to get there so I was ready for a rest. If you look carefully, you can see my sister, my nieces and my cousin waving to me from Level 3. Drawing time: 45 minutes.

Be prepared to have unfinished work in your sketchbook. I started this street scene before breakfast (again, sneaking out of the crowded room) but never got around to finishing it. That used to bother me, but I have come to terms with the idea that things in my sketchbook CAN be unfinished. It’s a sketchbook, after all. The important thing for me with this one was that I captured a typical bit of a New York corner on a quiet Sunday morning. Drawing time: 20 minutes.

Fill a page with smaller drawings. We spent quite a bit of time on Sunday morning at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, walking through the exhibit titled Auschwitz. Not Long Ago. Not Far Away. Every museum has different rules about drawing, so I checked with the cashier when I picked up my audio guide. Since drawing was permitted in the exhibition spaces, I used a water-soluble brush pen and a water brush to draw with in the show. Due to the sombre subject matter, colour didn’t seem appropriate anyway. Drawing time: 5 minutes per sketch, spread out over 3 hours.

Stay close by, but do your own thing. While my family was shopping, I chose to sketch instead. I was lucky to find a bench close to the store, and sketched the iconic pretzel cart. Since I wasn’t sure how long I would be waiting (or if I had time for colour), I did this direct watercolour with Sennelier Payne’s Grey and my Rosemary Travel rigger brush. Drawing time: 20 minutes.

Be prepared for failure. Not every sketch will be successful. There will be some stinkers in your sketchbook. Resist the urge to glue a clean sheet of paper on top of the sketches you dislike. A sketchbook shows a process and journey, and should include all forms of exploration. I really wanted to sketch Calatrava’s The Oculus, but I guess I was just too tired, and a bit cold, at the end of the day. All I could manage to fit on the page was the entrance and a bit of the base of the building. The sketch does nothing to convey the white bones of the structure within the space, but hey, I did have a few good conversations with people sitting on the bench next to me. And I resisted the urge to get out that clean sheet of paper and some double-sided tape.

41 Comments on “Two days in New York: tips for quick travel sketches”

  1. Anne Bonney says:

    Thanks for sharing your philosophy about sketches that do not work out as well as you would wish – as well as those that do. That is something I need to remind myself about and to keep on drawing. Cheers.


  2. Carol Bly says:

    Hi, Shari

    First, I love, love, love all of your work. In fact, after reading the article about you in ‘Watercolor Artist’ (and marvelling at your art) and (congratulations!), I decided to go to your blog. I happened to click on the link ‘Art Materials,’ and began reading. I came across the ‘Plein Air Brush Set,’ so clicked on the Amazon link, only to discover this:

    😉 Crazy!

    Thank you for your two art classes, your posts on IG, and your good humor.

    Kind Regards,

    From: The Sketchbook
    Reply-To: The Sketchbook
    Date: Wednesday, October 16, 2019 at 12:42 PM
    To: Carol Bly
    Subject: [New post] Two days in New York: tips for quick travel sketches

    Shari Blaukopf posted: ” Last week I was inspired by reading artist Jean Mackay’s “8 Tips for Travel Sketching”, especially by how economically she pares down her materials to fit into a Ziploc bag. This past weekend I was on a family trip to New York City, travelling with non-s”


    • HI Carol, Thanks so much for writing, and of course for reading the blog.
      I think you might have posted an image in here but it doesn’t show up, so I am not sure what you mean about the Amazon link. I check it and it seems fine to me. Please let me know if there is something wrong with it, so I can fix it.
      Thanks! Shari


  3. Judy Sopher says:

    I have to use the word “inspiring” as well.. Learning how you work while traveling with non-sketchers has really helped me to try to do more when I am out. I don’t have even one sketching friend here. My husband is fairly patient however.

    I hope you aren’t saying the last sketch was a failure. I think it is one of the best. and the first made me smile. Happy flowers.

    Really enjoyed this post.


  4. Judy Sopher says:

    My comment didn’t go thru and I will try to repeat it. Hope it doesn’t decide to print twice. I have been having computer problems lately.First, I have to also use the word”inspired.It is so helpful to learn how you manage to sketch while on the go.

    I hope you aren’t saying the last sketch is a failure as I like it the best. However the first of happy flowers made me smile.

    I have not one friend here who sketches. My husband is fairly patient however. But I will try harder to not worry if all I can do is a fast sketch.

    Thanks for this post.


    • HI Judy. Both of these comments came through.
      In answer to your question about the last sketch, which was indeed the failure I was referring to, I guess a lot has to do with expectation.
      Before I start a sketch I always have a picture in my head of what it should be.
      This one just did not live up to expectations! I wanted to get in more of the structure, set against the skyscrapers behind it.


  5. Hi from Chicago. I love reading your blog and especially liked this post. I often travel with family and friends and typically my sketchbook gets a round trip without even opening. I’m going to use your tips to try getting some small sketches in.


  6. Geri Dunne says:

    Wonderful sketches.. especially love how you captured images at Jewish museum.
    Good advice too Thank you


  7. Hi Shari,
    Enjoyed seeing your sketches with the brush pen. I sometimes think it is in our “head” that we cannot sketch with non-sketchers. We stop ourselves without even trying, My husband pulls out the Kindle App on his phone. He is featured in my sketchbooks as “Kindleman”. Your tips are so good. I especially like that an experienced artist still thinks about covering a page. Another thought …sketches look different later on and we can sometimes wonder what the fuss was about. All your sketches look good to me!


    • Thanks Carmel. My husband usually reads or writes while I am sketching, and he is very patient, so that is never a problem. But I am always conscious of making people wait while I finish a sketch, so I am trying to develop new methods for working more quickly.


  8. I guess we need more than 8 tips for travel sketching! Maybe 15…but that starts to sound overwhelming. Glad you had a good trip to NYC– it’s great to see your sketches and your tips.


  9. pamlopez15 says:

    Shari, I continue to love, love love your work!
    Congratulations on the wonderful coverage in the Watercolor Artist Magazine. You are an amazing artist, so this comes as no surprise!
    I am also in awe at the number of sketches you managed to squeeze in during your holiday in NY. I have pored over your sketches for hours trying to figure out how you work through a sketch, bearing in mind that you have always said to go for the big shapes first, and work down to smaller details and thicker consistencies. You are such an inspiration, Shari, and I am so blessed to have ‘found’ you!


  10. Laurie Householder says:

    Thank you for the post!!! I fell like I always take too much stuff and almost all of my travels are with non-sketchers. This was encouraging and helpful to hear your process for each sketch!


  11. jmlandin says:

    Great article in Watercolor Artist! Read it as soon as I got the mail in. Love your work.


  12. zainab tambawalla says:

    This is such an honest post. Most often I struggle to start a sketch because of my idea of perfection. It feels good to read your view on sketches that don’t always work out. Thanks.


  13. Uma Maheswar Nakka says:

    Good Afternoon dear Shari,

    Excellent work indeed, what else I can say, no words.


  14. Starr Mifsud says:

    Great tips for sketching on the move. I just love your sketches and advice about embracing the “ordinary!” ones. Very inspiring. Thanks Shari.


  15. I really like your Bagel shop, as well as the scene with the bikes, and the lamp posts.


  16. toddpop1 says:

    I love how you have been more conversational with your recent posts… they are more informative, and your warm personality really comes through!

    It is always a pleasure to see what you are up to!


  17. suniceboldstrong says:

    Great job..??


  18. joantav says:

    Great tips, Shari!!! Being a New Yorker I think you really captured the feel and the atmosphere of each sketch, especially considering the limited time you had for each. But each one is definitely a NY success! I think sometimes we picture what we want to capture in our mind and then are disappointed when the sketch is different…lovely, but different than what we pictured. Then when time passes a little we can better appreciate the wonderful sketch that we did capture. By that point holds such meaning and memories for us. I love this last one because it is a bit different and not the touristy expectation most people do.

    I rarely sketch when I am with non-sketchers but should. I usually try to arrive early before meeting up with them and do a quick sketch. This weekend I was with extended family at a wedding in Georgia. We were in such a unique small town that I left everyone else sitting and chatting in the hotel breakfast room and went out to the square and did 3 tiny sketches, two in ink and one tiny color one. Everyone was so impressed that I did so much in so little time. I ended up giving them to my nephew and his wife who live in the town after I heard that they would love to have something I sketched. They were thrilled to have sketches of their home town.


  19. Julie Kessler says:

    Love your sketches of my city, and thanks for sharing your sketching tips while out and about with non-sketchers. That’s always been tough, at least for me. BTW, the NYC Urban Sketchers group is large and quite active, so I hope you can come sketching with us the next time you’re here!


    • Hi Julie. Thanks for writing. I have a patient family who understand that I need to sketch but I am still conscious of taking up too much time. Glad it helped. And thanks for the invitation to sketch. I know the NYC urban Sketchers and have even given a workshop with them a few years back.


  20. Ética Hoje says:

    Como sempre ótimo
    Tudo de bom e boas inspirações
    para o Novo Ano
    Um abraço


  21. Roger Ng says:

    All drawings are reflections of New York in my mind for years. I like it

    Liked by 1 person

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